Robert Towne Critical Essays

Introduction

Robert Towne 1936(?)–

(Full name Robert Burton Towne; also wrote under the pseudonyms P. H. Vazak and Edward Wain) American screenwriter, director, and actor.

The following entry provides an overview of Towne's career through 1994.

Towne is most famous for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film Chinatown (1974). Widely regarded as the best screenwriter in Hollywood, he is also renowned for his uncredited rewriting—or "screen doctoring"—of the scripts for such noted films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972). Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, epitomizes Towne's cinematic trademarks of rigidly structured and meticulously detailed plots, controversial themes, and intriguing, offbeat characters. Having gained critical acclaim for directing his own screenplays, namely Personal Best (1982) and Tequila Sunrise (1988), Towne has been compared to such prominent and influential Hollywood writers as Ben Hecht, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz, and Charles Brackett.

Biographical Information

Born in San Pedro, California, Towne studied philosophy and literature at Pomona State College before dropping out to join the army. After military service, he took a series of acting classes where he met producer-director Roger Corman—for whom he wrote his first screenplay, The Last Woman on Earth (1960)—and his longtime friend and collaborator Jack Nicholson. While "doctoring" screenplays for a variety of Hollywood directors during the 1960s and early 1970s—most notably rewriting much of Bonnie and Clyde for director Arthur Penn and devising a crucial scene between Michael Corleone and his father, Vito, in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather—Towne also scripted episodes for the television series The Outer Limits and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In the 1970s Towne wrote three highly acclaimed screenplays: The Last Detail (1973), based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; Chinatown; and Shampoo (1975), an Academy Award-nominated collaboration with Warren Beatty. In the 1980s Towne produced and directed two of his own scripts, Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise. However, because of budgeting difficulties and his reputation for costly, painstaking attention to detail, studios were reluctant to back Towne on future producing and directing assignments. In 1990 Jack Nicholson starred in and directed Towne's screenplay The Two Jakes, the long-awaited sequel to Chinatown; and in the 1990s Towne and Beatty worked together on the script for Love Affair (1994), which is based on two earlier films, Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957).

Major Works

While his plots and settings vary widely from script to script, nearly all of Towne's screenplays explore complex moral and social themes. His first critical success came with the script for The Last Detail, a story about two seasoned navy petty officers, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, who are assigned to escort a young, naive seaman to the naval prison in Portsmouth, Virginia. Before completing their mission, however, the two men treat their troubled but good-hearted prisoner to a final good time. The offbeat humor and dark side of life portrayed in The Last Detail are explored in much greater depth in Chinatown. A detective story modeled after those written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Chinatown evokes the style of the film noir genre of the 1940s and deals with moral and ethical questions. In telling the story of detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, and his search for a missing girl, the film explores the history of Los Angeles and examines the depths of moral corruption. Towne summed up the film succinctly: "I wanted to tell a story about a man who raped the land and his daughter in the name of the future." The following year, Towne and Beatty's script for Shampoo addressed what Joel Bellman called "the social contradictions and manic energy" of the 1960s; with director Hal Ashby they examined the libidinous life of a hairdresser named George, whose many relationships bring him in contact with the social and political leaders of Los Angeles on the even of the 1968 presidential election. In Personal Best Towne explored female intimacy among young American women athletes who prepared for the 1980 Olympic games. The film details the relationship of two women, depicting their growth from competitors to friends, lovers, and, finally, to competitors again; the lesbian element of the story generated considerable controversy at the time. Like Personal Best, Towne both wrote and directed Tequila Sunrise, a story about a drug dealer, played by Mel Gibson, trying to retire from his illegal business; a narcotics detective, played by Kurt Russell, who has long been trying to arrest him; and a restaurateur, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who comes between them. The tortuously complex plot and the script's refusal to make moral judgments prompted Mark Horowitz to describe Towne as "a moral filmmaker in the French sense of the word: he's preoccupied with choices and ideas…. Like [Jean] Renoir before him, Towne's black of moral rigidity has often been misperceived as moral laxity."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Towne's work has generally been very favorable. Many critics contend that Towne's reworking of the original storyline in The Last Detail—for example, having the two shore patrol officers deliver their prisoner at the end, rather than allowing him to escape as they do in the novel—together with his superb use of salty dialogue and humor, are considerable improvements on the book. Chinatown is generally considered a masterpiece of narrative structure and plot development. Commentators have praised Towne's interweaving of a multilayered mystery plot with an examination and evocation of the history of southern California. Tony Slade has remarked that the depiction of Jake Gittes as an "ingenious but naive quester seeking answers to questions he can barely comprehend … aims toward the high reaches of tragedy." Several commentators, however, have pointed out inconsistencies in the development of Towne's characters. For example, Slade argues that Gittes's true motivation for following his case to its bitter end is never made clear and that Gittes's stated purpose of protecting his reputation is ultimately unconvincing. Similarly, some critics find implausible the final scenes of Shampoo, when George begins to question his undisciplined lifestyle. Some critics have also suggested that Tequila Sunrise and The Two Jakes suffer from overly complex, "out of control" plots that impair the believability of both the stories and their characters. Additionally, while many applaud Towne's determination to address issues with strong moral implications, some commentators have faulted his refusal to take a clear-cut moral stand. Nevertheless, filmmakers and critics generally agree that Towne is an extremely talented screenwriter and filmmaker and that his work represents a major contribution to the art of American film.