William Goldman? Will Rogers? Kevin Smith? Gus Van Sant? Robert Towne? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the box office success of a forthcoming movie is apparently impossible. It is also difficult to anticipate the critical response. These challenges are encapsulated in a Hollywood adage of exasperation:
Nobody knows anything.
Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?
Quote Investigator: William Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Princess Bride (1987) and other significant films. In 1983 he published “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” which included the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The “go” decision is the ultimate importance of the studio executive. They are responsible for what gets up there on the silver screen. Compounding their problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry:
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.
Interestingly, the famous humorist Will Rogers who suffered financial setbacks in the film world made a similar observation in a 1928 essay that was reprinted in his autobiography: 2
I can’t write about the movies for I don’t know anything about them, and I don’t think anybody else knows anything about them.
It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman, Chapter One: The Powers That Be, Quote Page 39, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1949, Autobiography of Will Rogers, Selected and Edited by Donald Day, Chapter 13: It’ll Take Two Generations to Sweep Up the Dirt, (The passage appeared between entries dated September 2 and September 6, 1928), Quote Page 184, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩