Ah, movie critics, what do they know?
Take the early reviews of Director George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The reviews were distinctly “meh.” Nobody hated the film, but few critics loved it. But audiences did. It was the number one box-office hit for 1969, the year of its release. In fact, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the number 34 box-office hit movie of all time, and came in at number 73 on the American Film Institute’s list for the 100 best movies of film-making’s first 100 years. In retrospect, a classic.
Still, it’s interesting to compare how Butch fared at the Academy Awards and their British equivalent. The film won four Oscars, for cinematography, its music score and the best song – God help us – “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” and for William Goldman’s original screenplay. But at the BAFTAs, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won not just best screenplay and best cinematography, but best film, best direction, best actor and best actress. Yes, Katharine Ross – best actress of the year! Oh well… The best actor wasn’t Newman, by the way. The British critics gave their votes to Redford.
The Oscar and BAFTA winner, screenwriter William Goldman said, for him, the key to the Butch and Sundance story was this – the concept of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
But, Goldman wrote in his memoir, “They ran to South America and lived there for eight years, and that was what thrilled me: they had a second act.” But when Goldman tried to sell his script, the reaction was, take out the flight to South America. Goldman protested, that’s what happened, to which the head of one studio responded, “I don’t give a shit. All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.”
Goldman found a way to change his script, keep his Bolivian ending, and sell it. The rest is Hollywood history.
But there’s also real history, with a real Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, and a real Harry Longabaugh, aka The Sundance Kid, and in a lot of ways the movie is true to life. The movie actors actually look a lot like the people they portray. It’s in the background, past the spotlight, when the movie purports to show how people lived in the second half of the 19th Century in America’s Intermountain West that it isn’t true to life at all.
Charles Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times. His books include Butch Cassidy: the True Story of an American Outlaw;Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty; Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America; and Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500. He is a winner of the SABR Baseball Research Award. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian.