Your Guide to the Stars

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

Every ink-stained wretch who humps it for a nickel in L.A. County is haunted by the shaggy mane and dour glower of Robert Towne. His shamanic countenance, once likened by Pauline Kael to that of Albrecht Durer, stares down from every screenwriter magazine on the racks. Film-school fogeys who wouldn't have given the man a gentleman's C now teach Shampoo and Chinatown as if they emerged from a burning bush. There are screenwriting auteurs held in high regard--Paul Schrader, Charlie Kaufman--and then there is the Man.

When Towne came to mumble a few words at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer, crowd control at the Directors' Guild Theatre suggested the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Clearly, in the view of executives, filmmakers, and purchasers of "Write a Spec Hit in 20 Days!," Towne has the Stuff--the magic juju of storytelling, the ineffable Homeric goods. But what is the secret formula? And why does Towne have sole custody of it?

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, appearing at Walker Art Center on February 22, will screen and discuss his new adaptation of John Fante's novel Ask the Dust (along with a half-hour clips reel of greatest hits). He has the powerful producing muscle of Tom Cruise behind him, and has managed the jump from writer-for-hire to writer-director with relative ease--and ongoing support, too, despite the lack of substantial hits. The basis for this septuagenarian's juice in a trend-based community is his trilogy of masterly screenplays: The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975). Whether the true authorship of these works belongs to Towne or to collaborations between Towne and Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, and others, is best left to writers of '70s kiss-and-tell gossip books. But what's unassailable is that Towne better understands his masters in the industry--the superstars who make him bankable--than any other contemporary screenwriter.

A friend of Jack Nicholson from their Roger Corman days (when Towne penned the still-sharp Poe cheapie Tomb of Ligeia), Towne had a brilliant insight on the set of Nicholson's 1971 directorial debut Drive, He Said. (In it, Towne perfectly essays the role of an ineffectual small-town academic--the most self-lacerating performance from a moviemaker in recent times.) Towne imagined Nicholson as Bad-Ass Buddusky, the Navy lifer who is the hero of what would become The Last Detail. Only Towne would have the insight and chutzpah to write a role for Nicholson where the character is literally named Bad-Ass. (This guaranteed that Jack would sign off on it after reading Page 10.)

In this three-handed chamber piece, Bad-Ass is given the sorry detail of accompanying a black sailor (Otis Young) on a journey to the brig, where teenage Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) is to be locked up for eight years. The kid's offense: stealing 40 bucks from the base's polio charity box--a no-no in the eyes of the chief's philanthropic wife. As Meadows moves closer to lock-up, Nicholson gets to perform the function that would make him the icon of his generation: teaching the squares around him how to loosen up and have a reckless good time. Just as he often does when not playing an introvert, Nicholson gets through much of the movie on bullshit "charisma": busyness, hyperbole, and funny faces. Towne tweaked Nicholson's alienated Five Easy Pieces persona into a mustachioed, bare-chested rowdy who had audiences cheering when he rebutted a redneck bartender's threat with the brandishing of a handgun and a catchphrase: "I am the motherfuckin' Shore Patrol!" At last, Nicholson's Easy Pieces chicken-salad meltdown turned into a touchdown.

Towne himself became the star when he conceived Chinatown as a neo-noir with Nicholson as a scuzzier Philip Marlowe. The screenwriter's calculation of where his superstar friend's desires might lie was impeccable: Having been the middle-finger rakehell in various low-budget pictures, Jack now deserved the Cadillac treatment. Chinatown burnishes Vietnam- and Watergate-era resentment in an ironic gloss on Otto Preminger's poisonous noirs, with a smoky sax score and high varnish from Roman Polanski. Here, Towne perfected the template that would become a career-long thematic: He turns the American existentialism of Ernest Hemingway into the drama of a largely corrupted figure rebelling against, then sighing and giving in to, a system of total corruption. You don't have to squint too hard to see the source of this metaphor.

Towne spelled it out plain in what is probably his strongest work, the script for Shampoo. Here, the L.A. of November 1968 becomes a chic, sun-baked parody of the aristocratic grounds on which Renoir's Rules of the Game unfolds. Towne exquisitely plays upon the audience's fascination with and fantasies about the private life of Warren Beatty, who stars as George, a sought-after Beverly Hills hairdresser who cuckolds a nouveau-riche businessman (Jack Warden) by shagging his wife (Lee Grant), mistress (Julie Christie), and daughter (Carrie Fisher). One of the script's most striking qualities is the way in which Beatty's persona is protected from the overall wave of melancholy and distaste that rides across the large ensemble cast: Everyone is somehow fatally sleazy or self-deluded, except the boyish innocent George, who attributes his massive promiscuity to his love of how women smell. Towne lets Beatty have his cake and eat it in the climactic scene, probably the single strongest moment of Towne's and Beatty's careers: George's crack-up in front of his favorite girlfriend (Goldie Hawn), a scene in which George's and Beatty's inabilities to tell the truth on every imaginable level merge in a Pirandellian conceit of staggering genius.

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.

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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