“Showdown: Levin vs. Goldman” (by Kevin Mims)

This week we have another essay by short-story writer and popular-fiction fan Kevin Mims. In it he deals with two giants of our genre (and several other genres!) and sets up an interesting comparison.—Janet Hutchings

Back in the early 1990s, Budweiser’s advertising team produced an attention-getting TV commercial that featured a group of twenty-somethings (i.e., members of Generation X) making up a bunch of binary competitions between various pop-cultural icons of their youth and then voting on a winner. “Ginger or Mary Ann?” one Gen Xer says to his friends, presumably asking them to pick which one of these characters from the TV show Gilligan’s Island they like best. They debate briefly and decide on Mary Ann. The next question is, “Mary Ann or Jeannie?” Presumably the questioner wants to know which of these two TV characters is the most desirable. When I first saw the ad, my only reaction was to ask this rhetorical question: “Who the hell would pick a shipwrecked Kansas farm girl over a blonde bombshell who literally has the power to make all your dreams come true with the blink of an eye?” But something about these imaginary showdowns lodged itself in my brain, and so, to while away the time while I sit in the dentist’s waiting room or travel long distances in my car, I have been creating similar showdowns for myself for the last thirty years or so. Except, being fonder of pop fiction than I am of television, my imaginary showdowns generally involve two writers who, for whatever reason, I view as being in direct competition with each other: Helen MacInnes vs. Evelyn Anthony, Scott Turow vs. John Grisham, and so forth. Today, I am going to let you witness this process in action, as I compare and contrast two of my favorite pop-fiction writers of the 1960s and 70s, Ira Levin and William Goldman. 

WHY THEY DESERVE TO BE PAIRED WITH EACH OTHER:

For one thing, they were generational compatriots, Levin having been born in August of 1929 and Goldman in August of 1931. Both men showed a lot of early promise but didn’t acquire huge fame until the mid to late 1960s, during which time they rose to prominence largely due to a famous Hollywood film to which they were intimately connected. Both men wrote best-selling popular fiction and were generally ignored by the serious literary community. Goldman was a hugely successful Hollywood screenwriter who tried but largely failed as a Broadway playwright. Levin was a hugely successful Broadway playwright who tried but mostly failed as a Hollywood screenwriter. Both men specialized in the writing of suspense novels/thrillers. Both men wrote dreadful sequels to their best novels (Brothers, a sequel to Marathon Man, is abysmal; Levin’s Son of Rosemary is ten times worse). Both men saw their novels turned into hugely successful mainstream films. Each man won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, Levin for the novel A Kiss Before Dying and the play Deathtrap; Goldman for the screenplays to Harper and Magic. Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Stepford Wives, a film based on Levin’s novel of the same name. Both men have close ties to Stephen King. King has called Levin “the Swiss watchmaker” of suspense novelists. King, like many others, dates the origin of the contemporary American appetite for horror novels to the success of Levin’s 1967 bestseller Rosemary’s Baby. Goldman worked on the screenplays for four films made from Stephen King stories: Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher.

If any two pop-fiction writers of the late twentieth century deserve to be compared and contrasted, it is these two men.

INFLUENCE ON POPULAR CULTURE:

Both men had an immense impact on the American popular culture of their time, an impact that continues to this day. As mentioned above, Rosemary’s Baby is widely credited with giving birth (no pun intended) to the craze for horror fiction that blossomed in the 1970s with the popularity of such novels as The Exorcist, The Other, Carrie, etc. and positively exploded in the 1980s as writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz rode the wave to bestsellerdom. The term “Rosemary’s Baby” itself has become a sort of universal shorthand for any creation with a demonic genesis, just as “Frankenstein” is now a universally acknowledged reference to any creation that turns against its creator. And the expression “Stepford wife,” is now a widely used term employed to describe a certain sort of vacuous, upper-middle-class housewife. In fact, “Stepford” is now used as a stand-alone adjective to describe all sorts of vacuous or superficial types of people and things. You’ll occasionally even find attractive but empty-headed politicians referred to as Stepford candidates. Plenty of great writers have failed to add so much as a single new word or expression to the English language. Levin added at least two, and arguably more. “The Boys From Brazil” is sometimes used to refer to any sort of copies of an evil original. And the novel The Boys From Brazil helped move the word “clone” from the world of elite scientific exploration to the public domain. 

Goldman, too, added memorable words and phrases to the popular lexicon. His screenplay for the film All the President’s Men used a phrase (“Follow the money”) which can be found nowhere in the book on which the film is based. “Follow the money” has become a widely used expression in all sorts of contexts, but usually in reference to figuring out who is behind a particular crime, or political movement, or commercial trend. His screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made cultural icons of those two bandits and also added several popular catchphrases to the American lexicon. But it was his screenplay for The Princess Bride (based on his own novel) that really altered the way pop-culturally savvy Americans speak: “Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.” —to give a few examples. Few screenplays in history have produced as many iconic lines as Goldman’s script for The Princess Bride

In this category, however, I am going to give the edge to Levin. This may have something to do with the fact that I am a book snob who prefers pop fiction to pop cinema (although I love both). The very titles of Levin’s two most popular novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have entered the American idiom. Most of Goldman’s contributions entered the idiom via the medium of cinema. Point: Levin.

PROSE:

To be honest, neither man was a brilliant stylist. They were both capable of writing dazzling dialogue, Goldman more so than Levin, probably because of all his screen work. But Levin was no slouch at dialogue, as evidenced by his play Deathtrap, which still holds the record for the longest-running comedic thriller in Broadway history. Goldman was rather modest about his own writing skills. In the book William Goldman: The Reluctant Storyteller, Goldman tells author Sean Egan that he doesn’t much care for his own writing. He adds, “I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride, and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation.”

Goldman had an unfortunate habit of bragging about how quickly he wrote and how little he edited. He told one interviewer that he wrote his second novel, Your Turn to Curtsey—My Turn to Bow, in ten days. At the end of his 400-page 1984 novel The Color of Light, he appends a note explaining that the book was written between February 21 and May 31, 1983, practically begging anyone who reviewed the book to comment on its slapdash character. 

Despite the speed with which it was written, The Color of Light remains, along with Marathon Man, one of my two favorite William Goldman novels. I’m a sucker for novels about novelists and the world of the New York publishing establishment, especially when they contain various juicy pop-fictional tropes such as murder, plagiarism, and adultery.

If Goldman was often guilty of writing too much and too fast, Levin was sometimes guilty of the opposite literary sin. Some of his lesser concoctions—Sliver, Son of Rosemary—and even the more famous The Stepford Wives read more like movie treatments at times than novels. Many of the sentences in Sliver are mere fragments, set off by ellipses that don’t seem to be eliding anything but rather breaking the descriptions into individual film shots. Here’s Levin describing attractive young Kay Norris taking a bath in her luxurious new apartment (she is being secretly watched by the building’s supervisor via hidden cameras):

Lifted her leg from the water, watching the tiny leg, foam sliding from her heel . . . Arched her foot . . . watching . . .

Touched her toe to the tip of the chrome Art Deco spout . . .

Slid low in the water, foam islands breaking . . .

And so forth. This type of prose-as-camera-direction style makes some sense, given that much of the novel consists of a psychopath watching people via hidden cameras. But it still gives the book an undernourished quality. Nonetheless, when he really applied himself to it, as he seems to have done with Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s prose could be both spare and evocative, simple and straightforward but also capable of capturing every important detail.

When it came to writing prose, neither man was in the same league as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor, but Goldman’s lapses were mostly sins of commission (he put too much in) and Levin’s were sins of omission. Truman Capote, who was one of the finest prose writers of the generation that produced both Levin and Goldman, was a huge admirer of Rosemary’s Baby and even provided a blurb for the novel: “A darkly brilliant tale of modern deviltry that, like James’ TURN OF THE SCREW, induces the reader to believe the unbelievable. I believed it and was altogether enthralled.” Who am I to disagree with Truman Capote? Point: Levin.

PLOTTING:

Both Levin and Goldman were excellent at producing plot twists. The end of Rosemary’s Baby produced one of the most memorable plot twists in all of American popular fiction. Stephen King has noted that Levin’s first novel, the mystery A Kiss Before Dying, contains one of the greatest plot twists of all time, not at the end of the book but smack dab in the middle, a disclosure that makes the reader feel as if the solid ground she thought she was standing on has turned to quicksand.The Boys From Brazil and The Stepford Wives deliver knockout plot twists as well. And Deathtrap has so many unexpected reversals that it practically serves as a meta-commentary on the art of the plot twist. This category would appear to be a clear win for Levin. But don’t count Goldman out too soon.

Marathon Man delivers a powerful plot twist about a quarter of the way in. The book goes on to deliver more clever twists and turns. Goldman’s novel Magic has a doozy of a plot twist at the heart of its devious storyline. The Color of Light, Control, Heat—all of these novels deliver their share of gut punches to the reader. Goldman’s screenplays are also filled with daring twists and turns. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the few commercial Hollywood films in which (spoiler alert) both heroes are killed in the final scene. And of course, The Princess Bride, both the novel and screenplay, are filled with lively reversals and twists of fate.

Conventional wisdom has it that Levin was, along with Richard Matheson, one of the twentieth century’s greatest masters of the clever pop-fiction plot twist. But I’m going to go against that wisdom—sort of. I’m declaring a tie in this category.

PRODUCTIVITY:

This category has a clear winner. Goldman wrote or contributed to thirty-three produced screenplays. Wikipedia credits him with at least eighteen more unproduced screenplays, as well as a handful of stage plays, both produced and unproduced. He also wrote sixteen novels, several memoirs, and assorted nonfiction books. 

Levin wrote seven novels and ten stage plays. Only two of his stage plays were hugely successful, Deathtrap and No Time For Sergeants. Few if any serious critics would rank Levin among the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century, but plenty of critics would probably rank Goldman among the greatest screenwriters of the twentieth century.

Mere fecundity isn’t necessarily commendable in a writer. What’s impressive about Goldman’s career is how many of his projects have become iconic–Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Marathon Man, Mercy, All the President’s Men—these are some of the best known intellectual properties of their era. Point: Goldman.

ORIGINALITY:

Of course, many of Goldman’s most iconic works are adaptations of the work of other writers, including a novel by Ira Levin. His filmography also includes adaptations of works by such estimable writers such as Aaron Sorkin, Stephen King, Ross Macdonald, Donald Westlake, John Grisham, and David Baldacci.

Levin’s fame rests almost entirely upon the products of his own devious imagination, although Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’sBaby has helped contribute to that particular property’s continuing popularity. Levin’s work is original in two senses. It is original in the legalistic sense, meaning that he wrote it all himself. But it is also original in the literal sense, meaning that nothing quite like it existed until he got around to creating it. Rosemary’s Baby was like no American pop fiction that preceded it. Cloning might have been dealt with in earlier books, but The Boys From Brazil was the novel that put it on the pop-fiction map. Cyborgs, automatons, robots, and so forth were around long before The Stepford Wives, but Levin’s cunning combination of high-tech animatronic humanoids with ordinary suburban American living inspired not only later science fiction products such as Michael Crichton’s Westworld and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but was also a brilliant critique of American consumer culture. Of course, Levin wasn’t immune to the influence of other writers either. Plenty of critics have pointed out that his hit 1978 play Deathtrap bears more than a slight resemblance to Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play Sleuth. Still, Levin was one of the most singular plot-spinners of his generation. Point: Levin.

RANGE:

Both writers had impressive range. Levin wrote straightforward crime fiction (A Kiss Before Dying), horror (Rosemary’s Baby), science fiction (The Boys From BrazilThis Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives), suspense thrillers (Sliver), and comedy whodunnits (Deathtrap). He even wrote the book and lyrics for a stage musical called Drat! The Cat!

Goldman wrote science fiction (Control), fantasy (The Princess Bride), thrillers (Marathon Man, Heat), horror (Magic), a novel about the movie business (Tinsel), a novel about the book business (The Color of Light), and a variety of character studies and coming-of-age tales (The Temple of Gold, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, Your Turn to Curtsey–My Turn to Bow). His screenplays were even more heterogeneous than his novels. He wrote Westerns (Butch Cassidy, Maverick), mystery (Harper), political drama (All the President’s Men), horror (Magic, the various King adaptations), historical dramas (The Great Waldo Pepper, A Bridge Too Far), fantasy (The Princess Bride, The Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and more.

Point: Goldman.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

There are several ways of determining this. If the genie played by Barbara Eden in Dream of Jeannie came to me and offered to let me go back in time and enjoy the career of either Levin or Goldman, I’d probably choose Goldman. I’d do this because, for one thing, he lived nearly a decade longer than Levin did. Also, though I prioritize popular fiction over popular cinema, it would be nice to excel at writing both, something Goldman did but Levin didn’t. I’ve seen only one play on Broadway in my life, thus I don’t know enough about the medium to envy Levin his success there very much. Of course, this is a superficial way of determining the worth of a writer. Fitzgerald was fairly miserable for much of his life. I have no desire to go back and relive his life, and yet his worth as a writer probably exceeds all but a handful of the writers of his era.

A better way of deciding this matter is to simply look at the works of the two writers and then determine who made the most lasting contributions to American culture. Goldman’s contributions to American pop culture were huge. But for my money the best thing either of these men ever produced was the novel Rosemary’s Baby. Truman Capote was right when he ranked it alongside The Turn of the Screw as one of the best American chillers of all time. If Levin had produced nothing else, his name would live on. If I could go back in time and take credit for just one of the imaginative products of either Goldman or Levin, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Rosemary’s Baby. It is the only novel in either man’s oeuvre that is a genuine masterpiece.

Game, set, and match: Ira Levin.

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