Your Guide to the Stars

Screenwriter Robert Towne maps the psychology of the American bad-ass

In the '90s, Towne became a go-to guy for Tom Cruise, lending his storied talents to projects far more paint-by-numbers than his work for Warren and Jack. I used to sigh and shake my head when I saw Towne's name on those Paramount posters, but a recent reviewing of Days of Thunder (1990) made me change my tune. In that Simpson-Bruckheimer NASCAR movie, in which Cruise raises his arms in that signature, Christlike victory salute, Towne works a unique alchemy. The producers' and star's formula--cocky kid learns to play by the rules, then tastes victory--gets a Townean makeover that turns Days into a Howard Hawks-style melodrama: Cruise's uppity racer comes to respect a wise elder (master mechanic Robert Duvall), collaborates with a onetime rival (surly Michael Rooker), and appreciates the balance between duty and risk. Damned if Towne doesn't make something stirring and even shrewdly observed out of the relationships between these three swaggering archetypes. Even with Tony Scott's cobalt-blue lighting and Hans Zimmer's behold-the-gods score, Days is the one affecting movie of Cruise's hot-dog period.

The write stuff: Robert Towne on the set of 'Ask the Dust'
Paramount Classics
The write stuff: Robert Towne on the set of 'Ask the Dust'

Towne has always struck me as the Establishment's Anti-Establishment Guy, the officially sanctioned bad-ass, the edgiest guy on Zuma Beach. And his savvy about his star friends has always seemed too calculating, too cautious--almost the opposite of Steven Soderbergh's care and feeding of stars, which always drives toward some challenge, some affront to their mystique. But even skeptics have to hand it to Towne: He mastered the traditional star-powered Hollywood movie more immaculately than any writer of his era. In his directorial debut, Personal Best (1982), Mariel Hemingway's pentathlete moans, "My dad and brothers called me 'Carpenter's Dream'--flat as a board and easy to nail." Towne, too, is a Carpenter's Dream--a craftsman of psychological insights so subtle that we feel we're inventing them, a builder of scenes so soft-edged they seem to blur into one another even though each serves a sharp, rigidly defined function. His are finally conservative virtues: economy, grace, the conversion of time-tested stories into startling, fresh-feeling surprises. Towne is a journeyman, not an innovator--but it's our loss that he stands alone on that Paramount mountaintop, the only guy who owns the Stuff.

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