by Risa Nye
The Princess Bride screens at midnight on July 3 and 4 at the Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore, San Francisco.
Cary Elwes (aka Westley the Farm Boy, aka The Dread Pirate Roberts, aka The Man in Black)—still as dashing as he was when the film version of The Princess Bride debuted twenty-seven years ago—made a brief appearance in San Francisco recently to promote his new book, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride .
As soon as I learned Elwes would be coming to Book Passage, I made sure the date was marked on my calendar. There’s no way I would miss a chance to hear behind-the-scenes stories about the making of one of my all-time favorite movies, as told by its swashbuckling star. The question loomed: would his pen be mightier than his sword, considering he had a principal role in the Greatest Sword Fight in Modern Times?
The standing-room only crowd could (and often did) supply their favorite lines from the classic film. Elwes did not hesitate when asked about his favorite line, as spoken by André the Giant: “Anybody want a peanut?” (Which, in the film, follows Wally Shawn’s admonition: “No more rhyming now—I mean it!”) We would hear many stories about the beloved giant André, who loomed large in the legend of The Princess Bride . One anecdote in particular I will only refer to as “A Mighty Wind.” (It’s in the book, in hilarious detail.)
When the film was released in 1987, Elwes says, it “opened to mostly positive, if occasionally befuddled, critical response.” The title was a problem. The concept was a problem. What was it? “A comedy, a romance, an adventure story, a fantasy, or a fairy tale?” It didn’t fit neatly into any one genre, and, Elwes adds, “Hollywood abhors that which cannot be categorized.” For several years, the film was mostly dead. Things began to change about ten years later, when the VHS version came out. (A show of hands revealed that several people in the audience still owned their original copies on video.) As he reveals in his book, today The Princess Bride is “ranked among the 100 Greatest Film Love Stories by the American Film Institute, is on Bravo’s list of the 100 Funniest Movies, and William Goldman’s script is ranked by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays ever produced.” As they may have thought in 1987: Inconceivable!
Highlights from Elwes’ conversation with Kelly Anneken, local comedian and writer/editor:
- Anneken confessed straight out that Cary Elwes was her middle school crush. She was not alone.
- Elwes is a charming and gifted storyteller—and also a spot-on mimic: we heard his impressions of André the Giant, Rob Reiner, Mandy Patinkin, Wally Shawn, and Billy Crystal as Mad Max.
- Elwes shares producer/director Rob Reiner’s love for William Goldman’s book, having read The Princess Bride when he was 13 years old. Both his father and his stepfather were huge Goldman fans.
- Elwes is also modest about his performance as Westley, his first major role in a film. During the Q and A, he was asked if he could take back any day of filming and do it over, what would it be? His first answer: “Just take them all back!” But then he went on to tell about the day when his “hubris exceeded his aptitude,” which entailed breaking a toe on the first day of filming while taking an ill-advised ride on André’s ATV. He pointed out that he can be seen limping through the scene in the fire swamp.
- Since Robin Wright had the only “straight” role in the cast, he made it his goal to make her laugh every day. He succeeded.
As You Wish , co-written with Joe Layden, is peppered with remembrances of the film by the actors and by Rob Reiner, and William Goldman—author of the book and the movie’s screenplay; executive producer Norman Lear, and co-producer Andy Schneinman. When Anneken remarked that the book reads like a love letter to the big-hearted André the Giant, Elwes replied that the book is a love letter to the whole cast. And that love for cast members and for the experience of making the film is on every page, in nearly every shared memory. This is the film that introduced a young, beautiful Robin Wright (who most recently appeared in House of Cards as a character far removed from the innocent Princess Buttercup!).
Goldman’s book, written for his daughters upon request (one wanted a story about a bride, while the other wanted a story about a princess), charmed Reiner when he read it at age twenty-five. He had just made one movie, This is Spinal Tap —with another, The Sure Thing , due out soon— and was looking for another project. He says in the foreword to As You Wish :
“As I was starting my career as a filmmaker, I thought naively, Why not make a film based on The Princess Bride ? That should be easy. It’s a brilliant story written by one of America’s greatest writers. Why wouldn’t everyone just jump at this idea? Little did I know that for fifteen years it had been the story that no studio would touch … Making The Princess Bride was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Living in England for six months, working with old friends, and people who would become old friends, creating a film based on my favorite book of all time. Nothing could be more satisfying.”
Elwes was inspired to write his book after getting together with Reiner, Goldman and members of the cast (missing those who had passed away: André, and the endearing Grandpa, Peter Falk; Peter Cook, the Impressive Clergyman; and Mel Smith, the Albino) for a twenty-fifth anniversary screening at the New York Film Festival in 2012. As he says, “Standing on the stage for the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Princess Bride , I felt an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude and nostalgia. It was a remarkable night and it brought back vivid memories of being part of what appears to have become a cult classic film about pirates and princesses, giants and jesters, cliffs of insanity, and of course, Rodents of Unusual Size.”
To help trigger more memories, Norman Lear gave Elwes all the call sheets and script notes. He also shared his collection of photographs, which are included in the book.
After reading As You Wish (and watching the film one more time, just because), I was impressed to see that the sword fights were indeed performed by the actors themselves. For Elwes and Patinkin (as Westley and Inigo Montoya), this meant weeks of training, learning how to fence both left and right-handed, and doing complicated footwork involving stairs and ledges—all the while reciting lines of dialog. As Rob Reiner describes the Greatest Sword Fight in Modern Times, “I’m very proud of the fact that every single frame of actual sword fighting is both of them. There are no doubles except for the acrobatics when they flip off the bar. The actual swordplay, every single frame, is just the two of them. Left-handed and right-handed. I put it up against any sword fight in movie history.” I timed it, and the scene goes on for three minutes. It took over a week to shoot.
In As You Wish , everyone involved with the film remarks on the perfect casting. Robin Wright, barely out of her teens, cast as Buttercup, who Goldman described in his book as “the most beautiful woman in a hundred years. She didn’t seem to care.” Cary Elwes, who perfectly captured the look of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn; Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, transformed into Miracle Max and Valerie after nine hours of make-up. (They only appear in one scene, but they may have caused more off-screen laughter than anyone. Mandy Patinkin bruised a rib trying not to laugh, and Elwes had a rubber stand-in for his “almost dead” scene because he couldn’t stop cracking up when he wasn’t even supposed to breathe.) Although it’s now inconceivable that anyone beside Wally Shawn could play Vizzini, Shawn himself was plagued with insecurity when he heard from someone at his agency that he was the second or third choice for the role, after Danny de Vito and Richard Dreyfuss. He claims that all through the filming he was sure he would be replaced. His first scene was the Battle of Wits, when he comments on land wars in Asia and how one should never go against Sicilians “when death is on the line.” No one could’ve done it better.
In his love letter to the cast, Elwes describes what went on behind the scenes of The Princess Bride while capturing the heart of the film—and illustrating why being a part of it is still a treasured experience for everyone involved. Fans of the film are showing their love as well; the book has made it to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal’s Bestsellers list.
Can The Princess Bride be categorized now—as a beloved classic that can be shared with children and grandchildren, passed down through generations and families who love adventure, sword fights, giants, magic, pirates, true love, miracles, and a kiss that surpasses the five best kisses in the history of kissing?
I confess that I got a little teary watching the film’s last scene. It’s the one where Peter Falk turns and looks at his grandson, the very young Fred Savage, and says “As you wish. . .” which we all know really means, “I love you.”
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.