Robert Towne

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Pauline Kael (review date 11 February 1974)

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SOURCE: "Nicholson's High," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 51, February 11, 1974, pp. 95-6.

[Kael is one of the foremost film critics in the United States. In the following mixed review of The Last Detail, she argues that despite Towne's improvements on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, the film remains calculatingly sentimental.]

In The Last Detail, you can see the kid who hasn't grown up in Nicholson's grin, and that grin has the same tickle it had when he played the giddy, drunken Southern lawyer in Easy Rider, but now it belongs to the ravaged face of an aging sailor. The role of Buddusky, the tattooed signalman, first class, is the best full-scale part he's had; the screenwriter Robert Towne has shaped it to Nicholson's gift for extremes. After Buddusky's fourteen years in the Navy, his mind and emotions have been devastated, and he lives on nostalgia, ingrained resentment, a lewd prole's quick anger, and booze. The role has the highs that Nicholson glories in. He plays it like a spaced-out, dissipated James Cagney; his face always has something going on in it, and you feel that you can't get too much of him—though you do. At its best, his performance is so full it suggests a sustained version of Barry Fitzgerald's small but classic portrait of a merchant seaman in The Long Voyage Home; it's easy to imagine Buddusky a few years hence returning to his ship after a binge as Fitzgerald did—a wizened little man with his tail between his legs. The movie is about blasted lives: Buddusky's and those of Mulhall (the black actor Otis Young), a gunner's mate, first class, and Meadows (Randy Quaid), a morose eighteen-year-old seaman who has been sentenced to eight years in a Navy prison for attempting to steal forty dollars from a poliodonation box. Buddusky and Mulhall are dispatched to take Meadows from the brig in Norfolk, Virginia, to the naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The movie is the record of their dallying, beer-soaked journey and of their self-discoveries en route.

Nicholson gets a chance to demonstrate his enormous skill, and he keeps the picture going, but he's playing a mawkish role—a sentimentalist with a coward's heart. This time, the emotions he's expressing are, if anything, too clear. The Last Detail, based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel, is the newest version of a heart-wrenching genre that used to work with a huge popular audience—and possibly it will this time, too. Essentially, it's the story of doomed people who discover their humanity too late, and nothing in the movie can keep this from being a sell—not Nicholson's and Quaid's imaginative performances, and not Robert Towne's finely tuned script. It's doubtful if there's any way to extract an honest movie from a Ponicsan novel—Ponicsan also wrote the book from which Cinderella Liberty was derived—because Ponicsan works on us for a canned response. His material didn't play in Cinderella Liberty and it does here, but the same manipulative streak runs through both films, and the same obviousness. Everything in The Last Detail tells you how to feel at each point; that's how the downer-tearjerker has always worked. This picture sounds realistically profane and has a dark, grainy surface, and by Hollywood standards it's strong, adult material, but the mechanism is a vise for our emotions—the mechanism is schlock. The downer-tearjerker congratulates you for your sensitivity in seeing the touching hopelessness and misery that are all you've got to look at.

Meadows, the eighteen-year-old, is a petty pilferer, a bawling, uncommunicative kid, too sluggish and demoralized to...

(This entire section contains 1468 words.)

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be angry at the injustice of his harsh sentence. He doesn't know that he has any rights; he has never learned to fight back. As the story is set up, he's a sleeping beauty; on the drunken trip, Buddusky and Mulhall offer him comradeship, and he awakens and discovers his manhood. We perceive the possibilities in him, knowing that prison life will crush him back down to the listless, almost catatonic state he was in. And, in a parallel process, the tough, damaged Buddusky, who has felt warm and paternal while bringing the kid out, can only retreat to his guzzling and brawling. Buddusky couldn't function except in the service; he's quick to identify with the kid, because he's an emotional wreck himself, living in the past, spinning out tired anecdotes. We're programmed to recognize that he's a man who is always spoiling for a fight so he can let out his frustrations, and we're programmed to respond to each pointedly ironic episode. When the three men go to a Village party, Buddusky comes on with a "line" and he doesn't register that he's bombing out; his peppy cock-of-the-walk act is all he's got—he has no other way to make contact. We see him through the girls' contemptuous eyes; to them he's just a crude blowhard. In contrast, the depressed kid's innocent, solemn dignity is a hit with them. The movie is about the lost possibilities in both Buddusky and Meadows, and about the acceptance of a restricted life by Mulhall. Otis Young's Mulhall has chosen the Navy because it's not a bad deal for him; we can't tell much more about the character. Otis Young has the cheekbones and facial contours of a stronger version of the young Frank Sinatra; his eyes slant upward the same way, and he's marvellous to look at, but the role isn't as flamboyant as Nicholson's or as affecting as Quaid's, and Young's restrained performance doesn't add up to as much as his face suggests. He never quite comes across; he stays as nice-guyish as a black Gregory Peck.

The direction, by Hal Ashby, is not all it might be. I loved much of Ashby's first film, The Landlord—a story about a rich white boy (Beau Bridges) who bought a building in a black ghetto and had an affair with a tenant (Diana Sands). It was adapted by William Gunn from Kristin Hunter's novel (both writers are black), and it had a complicated sense of why people behave as they do. It was full of characters; more and more people kept getting into the young landlord's life, and I became interested in every one of them. In several cases, I don't think those performers have been as good since; maybe the writing accounted for the quality as much as the directing did, but I missed Ashby's second film, Harold and Maude, and I'd been looking forward to more of his work, hoping for a film full of people whose lives can't be reduced to formulas. The material here, though, is on a single track; we go from city to city, but there's never anything to look at. Visually, the movie is relentlessly lower-depths gloomy; it doesn't allow us to think of anything but the pushy central situation. And though Nicholson does suggest some of the qualities of the characters in The Landlord, and Quaid transforms himself before our eyes, they play within a preordained scheme. It's all required. The effectiveness of the movie depends on the director's wringing pathos out of the two older men's gruff tenderness toward the kid and their desire to show him a good time before he's locked away; and though Ashby, to his credit, keeps the pathos down, there is still more mugging than necessary. Ashby's weaknesses show—not so much with the three leads as with the minor players and the staging of the large-scale sequences. That's where you can feel the director trying to get a certain emotional effect, and he gets it, all right (an effect I hate anyway), but he's also heavy and clumsy about getting it (which makes me even more aware of how I hate it). There's a fight aboard a train, and the passengers don't react adequately; there's a church scene in which followers of an Eastern religion chant together, and though it may well be authentic, the way it has been shot it doesn't feel authentic; in a Boston brothel scene Carol Kane does her Pre-Raphaelite wasted-beauty number; and so on. And I think I'd be happier without the Johnny Mandel score, with its antic use of military airs, orchestrated in an unfamiliarly thin way to add a musical layer of irony. It all works together, of course, but the overstressed style and the systematized ironies tighten one's responses. Ponicsan has talent, but he degrades his own material; he milks tragedy for pathos. Towne improves on the novel, and his ear for dialogue gives the film some distinction, but there is only one line that seems to be there for its own sweet sake—when Nicholson tells a story about a whore in Wilmington who had a glass eye—and this was the only minute I freely enjoyed.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 23 February 1974)

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SOURCE: A review of The Last Detail, in The New Republic, Vol. 170, No. 8, February 23, 1974, pp. 22, 33-4.

[Kauffmann, one of the most respected and well-known film critics in the United States, has reviewed movies for The New Republic for many years. In the following positive review of The Last Detail, he notes a number of Towne's improvements to the novel upon which the film is based.]

There's a kind of film that reveals its entire shape very early, with a cleverness that makes us both interested and wary. During such a picture the main question isn't "What happens next?" It's "Are they going to muff it?" Some examples, differently successful: The Gunfighter, The African Queen, The Informer, Lifeboat, The Lost Patrol, The Defiant Ones. Latest example: The Last Detail.

The script by Robert Towne is based on, and better than, the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. Two US Navy sailors, old pros, are assigned to escort a young sailor from the Norfolk, Virginia naval base to the naval prison in Ports-mouth. New Hampshire. The story deals with the three men in transit, and the moment you understand that, you see that this is going to be a symbolic film with overtones. The situation is far from new: innumerable Westerns have dealt with a marshal bringing back a prisoner to justice, the two men traveling through wilds and hostiles, facing danger together. But The Last Detail is better than most like it because the story is not so consciously abstracted and, chiefly, because the drama results from the struggle not to change, rather than building to some kind of rosy affirmation. This script ends exactly where it was headed from the beginning. Nothing is bettered. The real agon comes from the fact that, after temptations to go somewhere else, the script gets right back where it was heading—into reality, habit, fear and compliance. The result is not ironic; it's flatly truthful.

Jack Nicholson, of Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, is the senior of the Shore Patrol duo. The other is a black actor named Otis Young, previously unknown to me. Their prisoner is Randy Quaid, a big fellow who has been seen before in small parts. Quaid plays a kleptomaniacal 18-year-old boy, insecure, apathetic, uncomplaining. He tried to steal a collection box containing $40—he didn't even get away with it. The collection was for polio, the pet charity of the admiral's wife. Quaid got an eight-year sentence, with a possible two years off for good behavior. The two old toughies have to take this kid to the prison and turn him over to begin this sentence.

Nicholson's first plan is to hustle the kid up to Portsmouth as quickly as possible, so that he and Young can have the rest of the allotted five days on their own. But the boy's continuous presence, the grotesqueness of his sentence, his incompetence to handle his life, his inexperience of practically everything, his puppy-like regard for his guards, all of these have a foreseen but nicely handled effect. Instead of rushing, Nicholson dallies. He obviously wants to give the boy something, some fun, some pleasantness, before he gets shut away. This of course includes first sex, in a Boston brothel. Young argues with Nicholson about his sentimentality. (In other language. The dialogue is, justly, very raunchy.) They either have to let the kid escape or turn him over, and they're not going to let him escape because that would mean their asses; so why all this silk wrapping? Why not just get it over with, without sops to their own nobility? But Nicholson insists, and Young, who really wants to do the same thing, agrees.

"Don't let it go pulpy," we keep hoping. Except for a contrived encounter with some Greenwich Village types engaged in Nichiren Shoshu chanting and some fisticuffs with marines that are right out of Paramount service comedies of the '30s, the script hews to its line. No one short of a beast could have responded less than these escorts; no one but fictional characters would have let the boy escape as a result of that response. They deliver him to prison at the end and walk away, chatting about what they're going to do before they get back to Norfolk. (An improvement over the novel, which has a long tediously ironic coda.) Responsibility, the script implies, is always elsewhere; the lower man bucks it to the higher, and the highest bucks it back to the lowest, en masse. This last is called duty to the corps or the service or the People.

A strong undercurrent of the script is the implication, not new but still true, that the armed forces are the career for you if you want to remain a boy. Substitute cokes for beer; eliminate sex, which is only one number on a program, an incidental chance for triumph or patronization; and you have three 12-year-olds on an outing with overeating and dormitory hijinks. A uniform, particularly for the lower ranks, is armor against growing up.

Jack Nicholson, tattooed, comes back. He was figuratively away in The King of Marvin Gardens and A Safe Place; here he has a part that is exactly right for him—a rough romantic, innately furious, frequently gentle but knowingly cruel. To cavil, the only thing wrong with his taking over this picture is that his role has been built for him to take over the picture. Aside from the faint air of virtuoso occasion, he and the role are perfect for each other, and together they galvanize the film.

As his sidekick Young is less effective. He's passable, but I was always conscious of his working; he lacks that last access of confidence in the medium, confidence that the camera will reach in and get the performance from him. Quaid, I thought at first, was not going to be good. But physically he reminded me of so many big country boys that I used to know, with spaces between their teeth (I don't mean missing teeth) his very lack of appeal contributed so much to his pathos that my reaction soon became that of his guards. Michael Moriarty, now so fine on Broadway in Find Your Way Home, has a nice bit as an uppity marine lieutenant.

The director was Hal Ashby, who made Harold and Maude and The Landlord. I saw only the latter and disliked its inflated cinema rhetoric. Here his work is hard, businesslike, clean. (But he ought to have watched the fellow-passengers on train and bus; they are strangely oblivious to the trio's broilings.) The opening credits are whipped past briskly to staccato drum rolls. (Military marches occasionally underpin matters—the only attempt at irony, and superfluous, I think.) At Portsmouth Quaid is whisked upstairs into prison without even a chance to say goodbye; it's just the effect that's needed, like the abrupt clanging of a steel door. And two other moments are especially well handled. Nicholson and Young take the boy on a detour to Camden to see his mother who lives there alone. The mother isn't home—another improvement over the novel, which has a trite scene with the mother and her seedy lover. After some chuffing and blowing on the wintry porch, Nicholson tries the door. It's open. We get just a quick look at the scruffy living room. The boy doesn't even step inside. Our look at the room and the boy's reaction to it tell us all we need to know about the past life that has put him where he is.

Then, during a childishly perverse picnic in a snowy Boston park, the boy makes a last-minute unplanned attempt to escape. The guards chase him. He slips; they catch him and subdue him. Ashby holds the camera back from the struggle in a long shot. It's an excellent touch. Ashby doesn't want to maul us with immediate violence; he wants us to see the three men, former friends, struggling in the middle of open space, three physically and humanely entangled items of humanity. Instead of being shocking or gory, which it might have been, the moment is perfectly sad.

Martin Kasindorf (essay date 14 October 1974)

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SOURCE: "Hot Writer," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 16, October 14, 1974, pp. 114-114B.

[In the following, Kasindorf discusses Towne's approach to screenwriting and his experiences working on Chinatown.]

The Hollywood star system is back stronger than ever. Once again it's an age of the hot performer, the hot director—and now the hot screenwriter. Where for years studios were reluctant to take chances on original screen-plays, preferring adaptations of "sure-fire" hit plays and books, now the bidding for original scripts is fierce. The success of originals like David S. Ward's Oscar-winning The Sting, William Goldman's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Carole Eastman's Five Easy Pieces has put a big premium on originals. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the husband-wife team who created American Graffiti, were paid $400,000 for their new story of rum-running in the '20s, Lucky Lady, which will star Liza Minnelli. All this has given the screenwriter a status he hasn't had since the '30s and '40s, when people like Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz and Charles Brackett were pounding typewriters and bending elbows in palm-shaded bungalows.

Right now there's no hotter screenwriter than Robert Towne, whose salty adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan's novel The Last Detail earned him an Oscar nomination last year, and whose brilliant Chinatown will be hard to beat for the best original screenplay of 1974. At 38, after unsung years of "doctoring" others' efforts as an Abe Burrows of Hollywood, Towne now gets $150,000 for adaptations and up to $300,000 for his original stories, with juicy percentages of the box office. Long handicapped by a chronic sickliness that he shrugged off as "writer's hypochondriasis" until it was diagnosed two years ago as a complex of allergies, the bearded, rumpled Towne had been considered, he wryly recalls, "a relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game."

Towne got his start by writing horror movies for producer Roger Corman whom he met in 1958 at acting classes along with Jack Nicholson, James Coburn and Sally Kellerman. After some television scripting, Towne moved into rewriting scripts. He put a final polish on Bonnie and Clyde and added the brilliant, crucial last scene between Marlon Brando and Al Pacino to The Godfather at the request of director Francis Ford Coppola, a superb screen-writer himself. But not until he was cured of his allergies did Towne begin the sustained productivity that has brought him to the top.

The first choice of Paramount production chief Robert Evans to do the screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Towne luckily turned down that job, convincing Evans in the process to commission Chinatown. Then, among other projects, Towne teamed with Warren Beatty to write Shampoo, a forthcoming comedy about a fashionable Beverly Hills hairdresser, starring Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn. Nowadays the busy Towne hangs out with big-name buddies like Beatty and Nicholson (the star of both The Last Detail and Chinatown), and lives in an idyllic hillside cottage with his girlfriend of six years, actor John Payne's daughter, Julie.

Doing most of his writing in a tiny Los Angeles apartment, Towne likes to follow his solitary drafting with daily visits to the set to solve problems once filming starts. A classic craftsman who uses no gimmicks, Towne believes that "People want to escape into stories with strong narrative lines. A well-made screenplay has to go somewhere, not just ramble around. A good script should have air in it, to allow everybody latitude. If you don't want to totally alienate directors and actors and drive them crazy, don't tell them what they're feeling." Not surprisingly, Towne finds it easier to adapt material than create his own. "Fear and vanity don't come into the process in the same way as in original material," he notes.

Nevertheless, Chinatown succeeds largely because Towne, like the best novelists, chose to work close to his own roots. Raised in the San Pedro harbor district of Los Angeles, he worked on a tuna clipper and noted the paranoid fear of the fishermen that their wives were cheating on them. He began Chinatown with a scene playing on this theme involving his private eye, J.J. Gittes. A longtime devotee of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Towne fused their hard-boiled atmospherics with his own concern for the violation of the land. His archvillain, Noah Cross, played by John Huston, is an amalgam of several portentous figures from California's history of land and water scandals. "I wanted to tell a story about a man who raped the land and his own daughter in the name of the future," says Towne. "Men like Cross believe that as long as they can keep building, keep reproducing, they'll live forever."

For all their new star status, writers are still the low men in the director-dominated movie hierarchy. On Chinatown Towne found himself at loggerheads with director Roman Polanski, a strong creative force with ideas of his own. After wrenching debates, Polanski changed Towne's original ending, in which virtue at least partially triumphs, to a denouement of unrelieved despair. "The ending is so relentlessly cynical that it works against itself," says the still bitter Towne. During one dispute, Polanski asked Towne, in his Polish accent, "Bob, do you think I'm a schmock?" No, Towne shot back: "You're a terrific 400 hitter, which means that I think you're right less than half the time." Even before the cameras rolled, the two had stopped speaking to each other. "I would never work with Roman again, nor he with me," Towne says.

Nevertheless, Towne accepts the screenwriter's lot. "Film is totally a director's medium," he says. "And I would rather work with a strong director, because the chances are it will be a better movie. Ideally, your relationship with the director should be one of loving contentiousness."

J.J. Gittes may live on in a sequel, sans Polanski. Meanwhile Towne is working on his most bizarre project, Lord Greystoke, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's original Tarzan story. Towne is converting the ape-man from a mighty, monosyllabic mumbler to a marooned idealist. "The original myth showed that an English lord could conquer nature on the Dark Continent," says Towne. "This lord will have a communion with nature."

Charles Michener (review date 10 February 1975)

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SOURCE: "Don Juan in Beverly Hills," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXV, No. 6, February 10, 1975, p. 51.

[In the following excerpt, Michener favorably reviews Towne's collaboration with Warren Beatty on Shampoo, suggesting that "many people will view Shampoo as 'Warren Beatty's film,' not just because he is listed as producer, co-author and star, but because his public persona is … in many ways its central subject and joke."]

Warren Beatty, a rich, complicated man with a reputation as Hollywood's most active Don Juan, has made a rich, complicated comedy about the perils of Don Juan-ing called Shampoo. To imply that Beatty alone is responsible for its success is unfair to his sharp-eared co-screenwriter, Robert Towne, his sensitive director, Hal Ashby, and his brilliant co-stars, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden and Lee Grant. But many people will view Shampoo as "Warren Beatty's film," not just because he is listed as producer, co-author and star, but because his public persona is, as Marlon Brando's was in Last Tango in Paris, in many ways its central subject—and joke.

Beatty's fictional alter ego is a hairdresser named George who practices his art in that citadel of hairdressing, Beverly Hills. His subjects are women who are preparing themselves for one of America's favorite social rituals, an election-night party—in this instance, Nov. 5, 1968, the year that both mini-skirts and Richard Nixon were "in." George worries, in one of the film's funniest moments of self-meditation: "I've been cutting too much hair lately; I'm losing my concept." But his energy is mostly directed outward, since it is the core of Beatty's joke that, contrary to popular folklore, his hairdresser is a helplessly heterosexual stud, entangled not only in wet hair but in postadolescent wet dreams—and having no trouble at making them come true.

From its opening sequence, which finds him in coitus interruptus with the most voracious of his clients (Lee Grant), it is clear that his dreams have become waking nightmares. His nominal girlfriend (Goldie Hawn), an insomniac actress who is kept awake by "gunshots in the canyons," is pressing him for a greater show of feeling ("After work," he grumbles). A former girlfriend (Julie Christie), who is being kept by the Republican fat-cat husband of Lee Grant (Jack Warden), turns up unpropitiously. George hops from body to body on his motorcycle, but by the time the bodies start colliding on election night it is also clear that we are in an updated Don Juan fable that can end only in comeuppance for the hopper.

But in the meantime, Shampoo has become something much more: a satirical account of human disaster that is far more devastating than that other study of disaster in Los Angeles, Earthquake. "I don't take up your time, don't take up my time," goes the love song of Lee Grant. "I wish my son knew what to do … anything … as long as it's something," complains Jack Warden. "Are you married?" Goldie Hawn asks a young director. "Sometimes," he answers. Before an urgent copulation in a Louis XVI bedroom, it is necessary to turn on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Shampoo achieves a fine comic distance by setting itself so specifically in "the past," but it doesn't—to its credit—try to get us, in the present, off the hook. And how could it? For as its ending implies, George the hairdresser is still alive, a bit older—and burning up energy in the midst of the energy crisis.

Which is a good description of Warren Beatty, who has been involved with Shampoo ever since his initial producing effort in 1967, the resoundingly successful Bonnie and Clyde. "Robert Towne and I independently came up with the idea of doing a modern version of The Country Wife, the Restoration comedy about a compulsive Don Juan," says Beatty. "It seemed like a good idea to make the character a hairdresser—to upset the conventional idea that all hairdressers are homosexual as well as the Freudian assumption that all Don Juans are latently homosexual."

Other movies and a two-year sabbatical from films to work full-time for George McGovern's Presidential candidacy intervened. But about a year ago, he and Towne holed up for eleven days and turned out a final script. "I just wanted to get the subject out of my system," says Beatty—which suggests that George is closer to Beatty himself than most of his previous characters were. "People can make what they want of it," he says. "There's a lot of me in every character I play. And I think that all of us have to close out that promiscuous phase in our lives. But, in a lot of important ways, George is simply not me."

Robert Towne with John Brady (interview date 1981)

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SOURCE: An interview in The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters, Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 366-432.

[Brady is an American nonfiction writer, interviewer, and critic. In the following excerpt, Towne discusses his screenwriting career, focusing on his scripts for Chinatown and Shampoo, and describes his "script-doctoring" work on such films as The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde.]

[Brady]: When did you start writing for movies?

[Towne]: About 1960. It was on and off. I started with Roger Corman doing horror and science fiction films—almost the same time that Jack Nicholson started acting. Nicholson and I were in the same acting class (run by Jeff Corey), but I always thought I was going to write. It was a class that included many directors, producers—Irv Kirschner was in the class, for instance. Roger Corman was in the class. That's how I got my first job. He was producing and directing. There were a lot of actors, too—Sally Kellerman was in there, Jimmy Coburn was in there … Dick Chamberlain. It was invaluable for me—for all kinds of reasons. I met a lot of people, who I thought were terrific at the time, and as it turns out most have done very well professionally. In some cases—Jack's, in particular—the acting influenced me as a writer. Watching Jack improvise really had an effect.

In what way?

His improvisations were inventive. When he was given a situation, he would not improvise on the nose. He'd talk around the problem, and good writing is the same way: It's not explicit. Take a very banal situation—a guy trying to seduce a girl. He talks about everything but seduction, anything from a rubber duck he had as a child to the food on the table or whatever. But you know it's all oriented toward trying to fuck this girl. It's inventive, and it teaches you something about writing.

You started writing for Corman. Can you tell me about the writing that goes into a horror movie?

It's the toughest kind. Really, it's a tough form. Roger and I were really a classic mismatch. It was very painstaking, the screenplay of The Tomb of Ligeia. In fact, I worked harder on the horror screenplay for him than on anything I think I have ever done. And I still like the screenplay. I think it's good.

Roger works so fast, and you seem to have a slower sense of craftsmanship. How did you adapt?

Actually, I didn't. It just meant I practically starved to death while I was writing.

Not even time for meals?

No, it just meant that Roger was not really lavish with the money he paid anybody. I think that Ligeia may have been made for about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and the amount of money on the script was negligible. So if you take a long time writing something like that, it works against you.

How do you write a horror movie, particularly when you have a short story in front of you that must be expanded into some ninety minutes of screen time?

Well, "Ligeia" was a very short story. I remember reading all the body of Poe's work, and I felt the best thing to do would be to take Poe's themes and expand on them. There was a strong hint of mesmerism in the story. I decided to make it overt—with all that emphasis on Ligeia's eyes and how they held the beholder. Also in Poe there is a lot of necrophilia—implied if not expressed. So I took the combination of mesmerism, which was there, and necrophilia, which was sort of there (because the first wife was always in the background), and brought them together. It provided a natural explanation for this woman. She had hypnotized the protagonist, and he was making love to this body under posthypnotic suggestion, literally being controlled by someone who was dead—which is kind of a gruesome notion, but perfectly consistent with Poe. I was trying to use a theme consistent with him, even though it wasn't in the story.

American horror stories tend to provide natural explanations for events—like "Oh, well, she was hypnotized"—whereas the English tend to go for supernatural explanations. I tried to have my cake and eat it too in Ligeia. There was that natural explanation of posthypnotic suggestion, along with the supernatural explanation of a possession. That was also a theme in the story—this vaguely pantheistic notion of being able to come back from the dead in a blade of grass or an animal—and there was the cat and all that.

Some people liked the movie quite a bit. I think it was a little dull. I think it would have been better if it had been done with a man who didn't look like a necrophiliac to begin with.

You disapprove of Vincent Price?

I love Vincent. He's very sweet. But, going in, you suspect that Vincent could bang cats, chickens, girls, dogs, everything. You just feel that necrophilia might be one of his Basic Things. I'd felt the role called for an almost unnaturally handsome guy who the second wife could fall in love with. There should also be a sense of taboo about the really close tie he had with his first wife—as though it were something incestuous, two halves of the same person. The intensity of the relationship is a sacrilege in itself; just being together is almost an unnatural act.

At the outset, Corman told me he wouldn't cast Vincent Price in the film, but when it was done he called me in L.A. from London. He told me he had cast Vincent, and added: "It's OK, we've got Marlene Dietrich's makeup man." I've never been able to figure out what difference that made.

I did a couple of films for Roger Corman—Ligeia, and another horror film I'd rather not mention. Then I did some television work—The Outer Limits, some Man from U.N.C.L.E. work, a show called Breaking Point, The Richard Boone Show, an anthology. I also did The Lloyd Bridges Show, an anthology he did after his Sea Hunt shows.

Can you draw any comparisons between TV and movie work?

I think that dramatic writing for television is, if anything, almost harmful to the potential screenwriter. The only good thing about it is that it allows you to, theoretically anyway, make a living writing. Censorship is one problem. It was then, anyway. There is more permissiveness in television today, but a lot of it is still the same. I once did a script for Outer Limits which presented an interesting problem. These guys came to me and said, "We want to do a story on how adaptable man is, how chameleonlike human beings are. We want a story in which creatures come to earth from outer space, and, in order to study them, a man gets transformed into one of them to figure out what they are." Which is a wildly improbable story. I remember saying, "Fellas, did it ever occur to you what would happen if we went on a five-man space mission to Mars, and we're walking around and suddenly a sixth man shows up that none of us knew? Don't you think we'd be a little dubious about the new guy?" It's an impossible problem. But they said, "No, go ahead and do it."

Well, in those days I would try anything. I was just trying to work. So I came up with these creatures who were almost bear-like. I had them in these weird iron bars high up in the Rockies or the Sierras or someplace, and a forestman came across them. He was killed by them. People found his body, and they realized that his killers had taken him apart, literally, system by system. His vascular system, his muscular system … and so on. They had literally pulled him apart. Then they tried to put him back together, but they didn't do it quite right. People were appalled and frightened. They didn't know quite what to do with these creatures because they seemed so brilliant, yet erratic.

They got a piece of tissue from beneath the fingernails of the dead ranger and tried to program these creatures genetically to learn how they could transform a guy who goes there to find out how they can be so brilliant and so erratic. What he finds out is that they are children, and that they are literally in a playpen waiting for their mother, who has deposited them there temporarily. Which would explain why they could be precocious and bright but unpredictable.

Well, ABC Continuity read it and said, "No, we can't do this because we don't want to have anything to do with children." I said, they're not children children. They're these creatures from outer space. "No, can't have it." Well, that's insane. I don't know if it would happen today, but it was deeply demoralizing, and it was the only solution I could come up with for the particular problem that these guys wanted to do. The script had to be entirely rewritten. I did the rewrite in one day—eight hours—and it was terrible. I just didn't care what I wrote. It was shot (I don't know who did it—Bobby Duvall, maybe), but it was no good at all.

That sort of thing would happen time after time after time. Censorship like that is so demoralizing. Also, you had to write so explicitly. If a story had a theme, you had to state the theme. Scenes had to really be kind of on the nose. In every way. It got you into the habit of writing too much. Too much dialogue. Because they wanted it.

I think by and large it was not a terrific period for me, and I did not enjoy it in any way, shape or form. I should say one thing, though. I think that comedy writing on television is terrific—all those Mary Tyler Moore scripts, for instance, were very well written. But one of the things that is almost implicit in comedy is something that is repetitious, static—that is, you pretty much leave a character the way you find him. That's OK in all comedy. Repetitive or even compulsive behavior is what makes comedy. Archie Bunker is funny because he keeps repeating his prejudices in one form or another, and you expect these things. Jack Benny's repetitive behavior, his stinginess, was funny, and you came to appreciate him for it. Comedy in that sense lends itself better to television, where you have to have a running character the same every week, whereas in dramatic writing the very essence is character change. The character at the end is not the same as he was at the beginning. He's changed—psychologically, maybe even physically. He may be dead by the end of a show. Yet in a running dramatic series for television, you have to leave the characters the way that you find them—and that is basically antithetical to good writing.

Do you think you came too late to television? Do you believe in the so-called golden age of television in the 1950s?

No. I believe that there was some good stuff written in the fifties, and there were some terrific writers. But who knows? I've seen some of the stuff. Some of it was dogshit—pretentious, silly and precious. But some of it was great. There's nobody better than Paddy Chayefsky. An incredible writer. But the would have been incredible anywhere. A talent like that is as responsible for the golden age as is the so-called climate that went into creating him.

After working in TV, how did you get back into movies?

Corman again. He was doing a supposedly big-budget film at Columbia and needed a western script rewritten. He asked me to do it. I did, but there was a lot of subsequent difficulty between Roger and the studio over the movie. Roger left the picture, somebody else did it, and I took my name off it. But the script attracted attention from Warren Beatty. That's how I met Warren. At the time he and Arthur Penn were having trouble with the script for Bonnie and Clyde. They felt that they had reached a dead end with it, so I was asked to read it. I was brought together with Arthur, did the rewrites on the film, and that's how I got back into the movies.

Arthur Penn has called you Warren's best friend.

We're as close as two people are likely to be, I suppose.

The work on Bonnie and Clyde sounds like it must have been especially close.

It was. I was rewriting scenes time after time. The movie was impromptu in the sense that there was rewriting going on constantly, but once Arthur was satisfied with a scene, once the rewriting was done to everybody's satisfaction, there was no deviation whatsoever from those lines. That's the way it was shot. There was less improvising in Bonnie and Clyde than in any other movie I have worked on. Which speaks well for the acting and directing, I think, because the film was praised for its freewheeling sense, as though the cameras just happened to be there to record real life.

What were the rewrite problems on Bonnie and Clyde?

The original script, by David Newman and Robert Benton, was very talented, but it was written as a ménage à trois among Clyde, Bonnie and W.D. At that time the climate was not so permissive that it would be easy to do something like that, so, for several reasons (partly because of the studio), it had to be changed. Also, the script was kind of static. I mean, it was funny—Clyde and W.D., Bonnie and W.D., and so on—but ultimately it didn't go anywhere. If you're going to do a movie about shifting relationships, like Truffaut's Jules and Jim, it is tough to do a gangster movie at the same time.

Arthur Penn and Warren decided that they didn't want the ménage à trois, but instead a relationship between Bonnie and Clyde, and asked Benton and Newman to do it. But the script just didn't seem to work after that change was made. One of the problems was in making that relationship go somewhere. Arthur was very unhappy with it. That was when I was called in—things had reached an impasse. I remember the first suggestion I made. It was obvious that everybody knew the people in the picture were going to get killed, so that was never an element of mystery, but rather one of suspense. When was it going to happen? The other element was: Would Bonnie and Clyde resolve some element in their relationship before it happened? Which is one of the first things I think I said—that we would have to heighten the fact that the particular roads they were traveling on led to one place.

In the original script the mortician episode came after Bonnie went to see her family. She went and saw her mother, had a nice time, then picked these people up along the road, after stealing their car and chasing them, had hamburgers with them, then learned that Gene Wilder was a mortician—and kicked him and his girl out of the car. I suggested that they take that scene and place it before Bonnie sees her mother so that the impetus of having a good time, only to find out that the guy is a mortician, strikes Bonnie, who is the most sensitive and open of the group, and makes her say, "I wanna go see my Mama." It scared her. Pacing like that gives the character a little drive, makes her want to do something as a result of it. And then, at her mother's, instead of having a happy scene, I suggested that the scene end up with Clyde saying to Bonnie's mother, "We're gonna end up living by you," and with the mother replying, "If you're gonna live three miles from here, you're not gonna live long." In effect, Bonnie can't go home anymore. All of these avenues are being closed off, and she is being thrown back on Clyde for a ride that is going one way. Then came a scene in a hotel room where Bonnie says, "I thought we were really going someplace," with disillusionment setting in. And Clyde says, "Well, I'm your family," heightening the intensity, the meaning and the need of that relationship for her, and hopefully something will be resolved about it before they are killed. Of course, they eventually end up sleeping together.

Then one had to be careful (we all worried about it) about Clyde. Suddenly, just because he could have a normal heterosexual relationship, it could not mean that he would put down his gun and stop robbing banks, which is a script problem to deal with. Those were the initial changes. I started working with it then, always under Arthur's guidance—he would have me rewrite something ten or fifteen times, until I felt I just couldn't write at all. He used to scare me. I used to think, "Gee, I must really be terrible if he keeps having me rewrite like this. God, I'm really bad." Then they asked me to come down to Texas, where I stayed all during the picture, working even in postproduction, writing wild lines for background.

From a writing point of view, the thing that was interesting was the number of times I rewrote scenes. But when you're rewriting, very often you're doing the scenes that don't work. The toughest scenes in a piece of material may not only have been the toughest for the writer who worked ahead of you, but may also be the most difficult scenes to solve, period. So they are the ones you have to keep redoing, whether it's you or somebody else. Tough scenes create problems. All other things being equal, some scenes are easy for seven out of ten writers to do—the actions of characters are clear, and it's simple to get through. But other scenes are more difficult. There may be more ways in which a scene can go. Maybe a scene reaches a point where you have to carry both plot information and character information, which makes it difficult. There are all these problems, which I didn't realize at the time.

But afterward I realized that was one of the reasons why I was rewriting scenes so many times. There were other reasons, too. It was very valuable for me. I was learning an awful lot from Arthur just by doing and redoing. From Warren, too. There was constant collaborative effort. Story conferences. Arthur, Warren and myself down there in Texas.

When you come in to do rewrites on a script, do you ever work with the original writer?

I did work with Francis Ford Coppola when he called me in on The Godfather.

Mario Puzo shared the credit on that. Did you work with him?

No, I didn't meet Mario until afterward.

The reason I asked is that he wrote an article afterward which made it sound like that was a rather traumatic period for him.

It always is. Your first movie is terribly traumatic. But I'm sure he's gotten over it. He's survived, hands down. He's a terrific guy. But I didn't work with him.

I wondered how far the rewrite man works from the guy he's replaced. It sounds as if they want a fresh opinion, and don't want any

Usually very far removed. Invariably. But sometimes the person who does the rewrite can write a whole new script. Literally, a whole new script. It wasn't the case in Bonnie and Clyde or in The Godfather, but in other films I've done, it's been entirely new scripts. I mean, the rewrite in that western I did was virtually a new script. Rewrites at times can be entire.

What were the rewrite problems on The Godfather?

Mainly, Francis was perplexed. In the book there wasn't any resolution between Vito Corleone and his son Michael—their relationship. He needed a scene between the two of them. Francis kept saying, "Well, I want the audience to know that they love each other." He put it that way. But you couldn't do a scene about two people loving each other. So I wrote a scene about the succession of power, and through that it was obvious that the two men had a great deal of affection for each other. Through Brando's anxiety about what would happen to his son, and his anxiety about giving up his power—his ambivalent feelings about, in effect, forcing his son to assume his role, and having to give up his role—that was the key to that scene.

If you want to use the "script doctor" analogy, it wasn't a major operation—just spot surgery in a highly specific area. That creates all sorts of problems by itself. I wasn't rewriting the script from beginning to end, which I've done most often. Instead, I was adding outside material and had to fit it in with what existed, make it consistent—and this meant knowing everything that had been shot, and everything that the director had in mind. An interesting problem. Usually you're rewriting right along with the director as you know where you're going. On The Godfather it was a case of someone saying, "This is where I think I'm going, but I don't know where to go anymore. You help me make up my mind where I want to go next." And yet I hadn't been in on any of the original process. They'd been shooting for five or six weeks before I even got there. So I had to look at the footage and say either, "This is terrific" or, "This is so bad, I can't possibly fix it." Which, of course, was the last thing in the world from the truth.

You were called in under extreme pressure, weren't you?

That was the scariest situation I've ever been in, because I knew they were going to lose Brando within twenty-four hours. It was a tense situation at that particular point because no one figured that the film was going to be the big hit that it was. I saw about an hour of assembled footage, and I thought it was brilliant. Francis was troubled. There was a lot of backstabbing on the set, and he was constantly being undermined. So I couldn't get over it: The footage was so extraordinary. I felt that I was going to make a contribution to a film that was virtually assured of being a major hit, although that was not the prevailing opinion on the set.

I worked on a few minor scenes. I remember restructuring Michael's speech for the scene where he tells how he is going to kill the cop. I just did a simple thing there. The way that Francis had originally written the speech, Michael says at the beginning he's going to kill the cop, and then he tells about the newspaper story and other things to justify it. But it was much more dramatic for him to withhold what he was going to do until the end of the speech. I just reversed it. There were a few other little things like that.

But mainly Francis was concerned about having a scene between Michael and his father. So we sat down with Marlon and Al Pacino, got their feelings, and began writing about eight o'clock that night and did a scene about the transfer of power: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. I don't know if you remember the scene at all, but that's the gist of it. The don is saying, "We've got to see about this," and Michael is saying, "Dad, I told you I'd take care of it, and I'm taking care of it." What seems to be a kind of absentmindedness on the part of Vito Corleone as far as protective measures are concerned is really his unwillingness to accept the position he's placed his youngest son in.

But the two men in the course of the scene really accept the dictates of fate. It's sort of a perverse noblesse oblige: Vito is obliged to pass the cup, and Michael is obliged to take it. He does, and through that you see that the two men love each other very much, rather than my writing a scene about love, which wouldn't have worked in that movie. It's illustrative in a way of writing in general. Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is.

You mentioned this earlier in relation to Jack Nicholson improvising scenes at Jeff Corey's school—improvising off the point.

Corey had an exercise in which he would take a scene from, say, Three Men on a Horse, which is a farce, and he would say, "OK, you're a junkie, and you're trying to sell this guy some dope." In other words, the situation that he would give would be totally contrary to the text, and it was the task of the actors, through their interpretation of the various bits of business they could come up with, to suggest the real situation through lines that had no bearing on the situation. When you see that for three years running, when you are asked for improvisations in which you are given a situation and told that you must talk about everything but the situation to advance the action, you soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things headon. They're afraid to. I think that most people try to be accommodating in life, but in back of their accommodation is suppressed fear or anger or both. What happens in a dramatic situation is that it surfaces. And it shouldn't surface too easily, or it's not realistic.

How much do you take from your actors when you sit down and have to structure a scene with twenty-four-hour notice?

It depends on the actors. I took a lot from Marlon and Al. Particularly Marlon. He said, "Just once in this part I'd like not to be inarticulate." So I took the notion that he wanted to have this man try to express himself. I took the notion of Vito Corleone trying to talk, then, rather than having him give sage nods. Through most of the film it is the power of his silence that carries force. But in the situation I was asked to write, he actually talks. Most of the time the power of the character is conveyed through pregnant silence.

I took a lot of things from Jack Nicholson in life for the character of Gittes in Chinatown, too. Things that happened. I used his idiosyncrasies, but, more importantly, I tried to use his way of working. I've seen him work so much that I feel I know what he does well. In fact, I don't even think about it. I just do it. I saw Jack work and improvise two or three times a week for maybe five straight years. It's hard not to think about Jack even when I'm not writing for him. His work literally affected the way that I work, totally independent of doing a movie with Jack. He and other people in that class.

In the case of working with Warren on Shampoo, obviously there's an effect there. I definitely take him into account when I am writing scenes for him, because I feel that I know what he does well. I feel that Warren always has to be tougher than he thinks. He presents a peculiar problem as an actor because he is a man who is deeply embarrassed by acting. Unlike Jack. Warren is a very talented man, but he's so embarrassed by his acting that you have to constantly force him, one way or another, to use himself, whereas Jack doesn't have that reluctance. He doesn't mind using himself. Warren has the instincts of a character actor. He'd rather hobble around on one foot in Bonnie and Clyde, or wear a gold tooth in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He's a little bit like another great actor who is embarrassed about using his own instrument—and that's Albert Finney. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, he plays Hercule Poirot and manages to cover himself up completely as a character actor. Both men have the instincts of character actors, and that's not really good for movies, because after a time if an actor is playing a "leading man" he has to be willing to use aspects of his own personality for a role. It won't look real if he doesn't. Film is just too sensitive. When you are dealing with someone like that, if you know him well, you are obliged as a writer to try to push situations where an actor must use aspects of himself, and you remind him of it in the way in which you write scenes. Or when you write scenes together, as Warren and I did in Shampoo, you've got to say, "Look, you've got to be tough with yourself here, and not be afraid of yourself."

Now I am talking about two cases in which I enjoy close personal relationships with actors whom I respect professionally. In many ways I'm as close to Jack and Warren as I am to anybody. When you work with people you don't know so well, the problems are much more complex. Then you've got to go through a lot of diplomatic crises. When you say you don't approve of something (whether it's with an actor, a director or whatever), then they assume that what you are saying is you don't approve of their talent or of them—the way they part their hair, whatever. That's very time-consuming and exhausting, and there is not that kind of time on a movie when it's being shot—which is one reason why, whenever possible, you should do movies with people whom you are intimate with at one level or another. You can cut through that shit. The disadvantage, of course, is that over a period of years you can get sloppy, I suppose. John Ford finally just got tired, got very old. But for years he was working with people he knew. All really good directors do it. Fellini does it. Bergman.

He has a repertory company, I think.

Sure. And there's a reason for it; it's just too hard otherwise, too hard to keep working with strangers. It's like starting a marriage over and over and over again.

I'm very interested in how you write with somebody else. On Shampoo, you and Beatty shared writing credits. Does it come down to two men sitting in a room, or is it a back-and-forth type of arrangement?

In the case of Shampoo, it goes so far back I can't tell you. I had done an early draft—about two hundred and twenty pages—of the thing that I was interested in having Warren do around the time of Bonnie and Clyde. It was very amorphous, though. Warren looked at it and said, "You really seem lost, though the writing is interesting." I still have that draft, as a matter of fact. We sat and we talked for about a month about a new shape it might take. Warren went to Europe for a couple of months while I rewrote the script. When he came back we had a big argument over the script because there were two strong female parts. He had wanted one part for Julie Christie, and a very secondary part for another female. As it happens, there were two major parts in the final script—for Julie and Goldie Hawn—but at this time it was very dicey, and Warren was very unhappy, and we didn't speak for about six months. I thought that was the end of that particular arrangement. He had given me option money, but I felt the script would never be made, and there was some mutual confusion as to who had the rights to it. So it was left in limbo for three years. I went on to do other things—The Last Detail, Chinatown, and so forth. I did The Yakuza during this period, too.

Finally, Warren sat down and took the script and did a draft with some new material, including a couple of party sequences. He was trying to restructure it in a more interesting way, particularly after a lapse of three years. One particular sequence in the old script which involved dope was bad. He did a draft that really just didn't work. It wasn't much related to what I had done. Then he did another in which he rearranged a lot of the original material. We talked, and I took that draft and in a seven-day period in December 1973 we sat down in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with Hal Ashby, whom Warren had hired as director, and the real collaboration took place.

We thrashed out and rewrote entirely the rewrite of the draft I had done in 1970—if that makes any sense. It's a very convoluted history. Hal, Warren and I would sit in a room and thrash out the sequence of events in the picture. We had very little time to do this because they were going to try to shoot it in six weeks. In order to get Warren, Julie, Goldie, Lee Grant and Jack Warden together meant you had to be ready to go during these six weeks, or you'd end up costing yourself a lot of money. Warren had committed himself financially to people prior to finalizing the deal with the studio, which meant that he was personally on the hook for a lot of money. So there was enormous pressure to get it done immediately. We went through the draft then, and in many ways it ended up, at least in spirit, very close to the earliest version—that is, with two women, and with the guy more attached emotionally to the less naive of the two. The work on that final draft, though, was the most intensive I've been through in a long time. We'd start about nine in the morning and work until about eleven at night, then sleep and start again.

We would talk through the scenes, and I would go into another room and do the writing of the scenes themselves. Some writers can collaborate and write on the spot. I can't. Maybe comedy writers work that way: You say this line, and I'll say that line. But I prefer to talk through the scenes, reworking their structure, arguing back and forth about the party sequences, trying to make them an organic part of the whole script, and making relationships between characters come to a head during the parties, and not just having a party for a party's sake. It was completely rewritten in about seven days. Then I went to Japan to do the finishing touches on The Yakuza, then came back to do the rewriting on Shampoo as it was being shot.

In Shampoo the rewriting during shooting was less extensive than it has been in many other cases. It's a film that I like about as much as I like anything I've written in a while. Maybe other people don't, but I feel very positive about it. I was given an ongoing voice in the process of the making of the film. I was on the set every day, rewriting every day. At one point I even asked to have a scene reshot because I saw that there had been a crucial mistake. I rewrote the scene, and it was reshot.

Which scene?

It's between Warren and Goldie—the climactic scene in their relationship. She has caught him with her best girl friend. She faces him and says, "There were others, too, weren't there?" And he says, "What do you want to know for?" "Well, there were, and I want to know," she says. Finally, he blows up, and tells her to grow up, everybody fucks everybody else, and he goes into this whole speech about why he went to beauty school.

I took a couple of my dogs for a walk, and it occurred to me that as the scene was shot, he advanced on her; but as it was written, she advanced on him. In order for the scene to work at all, he had to be the passive agent and have it forced out of him. Anger or fear, as I've said, can't come out of a person too easily. It has to be forced out of him to be realistic, to make him more of a person. I realized, too, that the speech itself wasn't working. It was didactic when it should have been personal. He should have said it's me, not that's what people do. The speech was changed. He sits down (so she's towering over him), and he fumbles, but he gets it out—and it's a speech that we worked out with Warren. The part that's most important to me occurs when he says, "Well, look, I don't know what I'm apologizing for. I go into an elevator or walk down the street and see a pretty girl, and that's it: It makes my day. I can't help it. I feel like I'm gonna live forever. Maybe it means I don't love them, and maybe it means I don't love you, but nobody's gonna tell me I don't like them very much."

What I was getting at with the last half of that speech—the notion of seeing pretty girls and feeling like he was going to live forever—was someone as far away as possible from compulsive Don Juanism, or latent homosexuality, or someone who is trying to prove his masculinity. None of these things interested me, nor did I believe in them in the case of this guy. Instead, I perceived him as sort of a crude Pygmalion—he makes women pretty, then falls in love with them, moment to moment. They're pretty, they're nice to touch, they smell great, they look great, they feel great—which is what he says in the speech. They are a life force for him in the classic Don Juan sense. The man just has more life in him. He is a rebel in the sense that he doesn't want to deny himself. The man sort of goes through a breakdown. He really is getting old in the course of the two days in the film. It's never quoted in the film, but that line from William Butler Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"—That is no country for old men—is never far from the back of my mind when I think of this film and of Southern California. And never far from the front of my mind.

Julie Christie has gone with George, the hairdresser, and at one point wanted to marry him. But he's always running around, having a hell of a good time, and she says, "You know why I always used to be so angry with you?" And he says, "Because I wouldn't settle down." And she says, "No, because you were always so happy about everything." And he says, "I was?" Because in the two days of the film he's kind of frenetic and occasionally very funny. But he's not happy. It's that element which it was necessary to deal with and carry through in the speech to Goldie, from a guy who really had a greater, more genuine appetite for certain kinds of enjoyment—particularly because the film is filled with people who settle for things. They settle for things because they feel they should, or because they are told they should, or because they're afraid not to. But the hairdresser is a guy who is dumber than the rest of them, in a way. He doesn't even know enough to settle for things, and he's lived his life in a certain sybaritic way. But there's nothing corrupt or crude about the guy at all. He's very sweet.

You've been called an Abe Burrows of Hollywood because of the years you spent doctoring the scripts of others. What's your attitude toward that kind of reputation? Is it an exalted role, like that of a star relief pitcher? Or is it a minor role, like someone who plays only when the star pulls up with an injury?

I don't know if a relief pitcher is an exalted role, but I think it's more like that than the other. It's misleading, though, to talk about script doctoring or polishing as though it were a specialized art. All scripts are rewritten, whether they be yours or somebody else's. The only question is whether it is rewritten well or badly. But everything is and should be rewritten. Movies are not done under laboratory conditions. They are done over a period of time, under the gun of a budget—maybe a film will cost a hundred thousand dollars a day—and there are all sorts of problems: weather problems, people problems, lots of surprises. People may not know each other, and there may not be enough time to rehearse. You can lose locations. You can lose light. You can lose your fucking mind. So there are tremendous numbers of variables.

Also, when you are looking at something, and then it is blown up thirty-two times, just that can surprise you. You don't know what you've got. You see it on the set, and then you see it on the screen, and you say, "Hey, that's good!" or, "That's bad!" For example, at an early point in Bonnie and Clyde, everybody was worried about establishing their relationship in a particular scene. I must have written seven or eight little scenes. Then, one day, we were looking at dailies when they came in, and there they were in the same frame on the screen, and Warren was saying, "I'm Clyde Barrow, and we rob banks." It was obvious.

Their relationship was established. It would be stupid to write any other scenes. You are always miscalculating in a movie, partially because of the disparity between what you see on the set and what you see on the screen. No matter how skilled you are in anticipating what the image is going to look like finally, you can still be fooled. So you have to rewrite, and be rewritten—not because the original is necessarily badly written, but because, ultimately, if it doesn't work for a film, it's bad.

Some people may think there's something pejorative about the term "script doctor." But on the whole it's better to have a reputation for fixing things up than for messing them up. I have enjoyed the role, and conceivably would and will do it again. If for no other reason than you force yourself into somebody else's world and you learn things at every level that you don't if you are doing original material. It's a way of revitalizing yourself. You learn things from other people. In rewriting someone or in adapting a work, you can come to feel it's your very own, too. Or you can feel that you are in the service of somebody else's material that you love very much, and you want to work. We all have rescue fantasies….

Is good writing enough? Or does a screenwriter also have to be good at story conference strategies for dealing with producers, directors, and the like?

Well, it helps. But the best answer to that problem is to work with your friends, because no matter how much moxie you've got, if you're with a guy who is fundamentally not congenial to your point of view, or if he's worried about what somebody else is going to think, it just doesn't matter. So if you can sidestep such things, it's best to work with people you know and trust—and who know you and trust you—and to work from that vantage point. There are going to be disagreements, for sure. But there is also mutual respect, and work that is bound to be satisfying insofar as everyone on a movie can be satisfied with the outcome.

I assume that you had some enemies on Chinatown. The early drafts of that script are completely different from the shooting script, especially at the end.

Yeah, there was some conflict there between Roman Polanski and me. We went over everything, and he said he didn't like the ending. In the original, I had Evelyn Mulwray going to jail and her daughter escaping to Mexico. Roman wanted Evelyn to die at the end. "You're kidding," I said. "Well, think of something else," he said. And I did. I came up with an alternative ending about four or five days before shooting. I brought it over to him, and he said, "Well, it's too late. We're going to shoot in a week and I can't change anything. I just can't do it." That was the last we spoke during the picture. It was very quiet, subdued, although we'd had several fights in which I'd blown up and yelled at him, and he at me. But I must also say that except for Arthur, Roman taught me more about screenwriting than anybody I've ever worked with, both in spite of and because of our conflicts. Roman is great at the elucidation of the narrative—to go from point A to B to C. In that sense, he is excellent.

The shooting script of Chinatown is such a reversal of everything the first, second and third drafts build toward. Can you recall the compromise version that you came up with?

I never wanted Evelyn killed. I can't recall the specifics of the original scene because I've lost it—but in it she did kill her father in Chinatown.

I remember that the second draft was very clumsy, and I was forced to embark on a third draft. One of the things about the first and second drafts is that Gittes is told by Evelyn, when she feels backed up to the wall, that she is seeing somebody else, that she's seeing a married man and that's her reason for not wanting to go to the police. It was a little lame in the third draft, a little vague in the shooting script, but in the earlier drafts it was very clear. Gittes says, "OK, I'm going to the police unless you tell me what is going on." And she gives the most plausible reason to her mind that he would accept, because it involved a certain amount of culpability on her part: She's a married woman, and she's making it with somebody else. Because he thinks that she's being honest with him, and because he's been kind of a sucker, he decides to go along with her. Then he becomes slowly jealous of this mythical character. So when he goes to see who she's seeing—when he follows her—he thinks he's going to find her lover. Which I felt would have been much more interesting.

The postcoital love scene, in which Evelyn adores Gittes (in the shooting script), was improvised on the set. In the original scene, Evelyn was so upset after having sex that she was ignoring him completely. And he was misconstruing it as her being concerned about her other lover, whereas, as she'd indicated earlier, her reaction to sex was very neurotic. But, frankly, I don't think Roman Polanski could be interested in a woman who is involved with somebody else, or, in this case, a hero who would worry that his lover was fucking somebody else. And it was Roman's identification with the hero that was making the film work. It has to be unqualified involvement with him. As with the love scene. The woman has to approve wholeheartedly of the man's performance in bed.

Roman needs that kind of approbation from both women, men and everybody on the set. He's the little king. That's a case where that kind of attitude warped the mystery, the tension at a point in the film. Also, it prevented the film from dealing with what I thought was the most important missing thing of all—namely, that Gittes was getting progressively, insanely crazy about this woman. He was jealous, and really falling in love with her. Although she came to like him very much, her other problems were so overwhelming that she couldn't … she came to admire and like him and really find him enormously attractive. But he was falling in love with her.

That kind of passion I felt was very important for the film, in order for his betrayal of her to have any significance. He had to really love her.

At any rate, the script had to be turned into a shooting script. I was struggling through the first and second drafts simply trying to figure out the story for myself. The second draft was so complex that a shooting script based upon it would have run close to three hours. I would have had to do a radical rewrite in order to simplify it.

There's incredible texture to it.

In the film I missed that kind of progressive jealousy by Gittes—his thinking that she was involved with someone else. And the ending, as shot, is very harsh.

Didn't you want to direct Chinatown yourself?

Initially I did. That's why I wrote a detective script. I figured that no matter how badly it was directed, if I wrote a story that people wanted to know the outcome of, it would carry. That was one of the reasons for the genre. There were others that I discovered as I went along with it.

I hope you do the novel. There's so much puzzlement in the film of Chinatown. I came away wondering, "What does this or that line mean? Why does Gittes repeat 'as little as possible' at the end?" The reference to Evelyn's flawed eye. There's so much going on in the film that is cerebral, that is just not visual enough—it's like a tease. I think the novel would answer many questions the film poses.

The novel would be very different, all right. What do you mean about the eye reference—are you referring to Evelyn's getting shot in the eye in the end?

Yes, but earlier Gittes notices some flaw in her eye. It's a point of discussion. Then, at the end, she is shot in the eye.

That shot in the eye at the end does make you think of that earlier line, which is unfortunate. The flaw in her iris was intended for another purpose. You may remember an early speech in the script, and Gittes says, "Who does she think she is? She's no better than anybody else in this town." She was sort of a perfect, upper-class lady. So Gittes comes up against this woman who is infuriatingly correct, and everything about her is an insult to this lower-class guy who monograms everything and is made to feel like a crude, dumb asshole. And finally: He sees a flaw in the iris. It's emblematic at that moment of her vulnerability. If you've ever seen such eyes, you know they are very pretty. To me it was also emblematic of the fact that she is psychologically flawed. The fact that she was shot in the eye later is a coincidental echo.

All the more reason for doing the novel.

Either I will do it, or it won't be done. It's a highly personal thing. In fact, most of the locations that Roman chose for the film were ones that I directed him to. I remembered them from my childhood.

What sort of childhood did you have?

I grew up in California, around San Pedro. I grew up amidst fishermen, Mexicans, chief petty officers in the merchant marine with three-day growths of beard who would come up and wheeeeze on you. Sailors and guys with raspy voices. It was kind of a fun neighborhood, actually. Rather polyglot: Slavs, Italians, a total melting pot. I was the only Jew on the block, I think. It was terrific. I've never regretted it. I even worked as a fisherman for a while on a boat, and when I was in college I wrote maybe half a dozen short stories that were largely descriptions of my life on that boat. Even today, I don't think they're bad. Every writer has to use the world he lives in as source material, I think, though it shouldn't impose restrictions or limitations on what you write. You have to be able to get into the worlds, the fantasies of people outside yourself as well.

Besides writing out of experience, how much research goes into a script like Chinatown?

I did a lot of research—mostly reading to get a feeling for the ambience of the time, the way people spoke, what their inhibitions were. For example, today it's perfectly proper to talk about all sorts of intimate sexual things, but people are rather chary of talking about how much money they make—whereas in the 1930s I think the reverse would have been true. People wouldn't have minded talking about how much money, but boy, would they not have talked about sex. To get attitudinal differences like that, you have to read, and I suppose that's research. You have to find out what people would say or would not say in a social situation. And the basic premise of the scandal was researched, too. I read about the Owens Valley, and became interested in it. But I didn't base a single character in Chinatown on any person I read about in the Owens Valley episode. My characters fulfilled roles that in some cases were analogous to roles in the original scandal but were wholly made up. Mulwray was perhaps somewhat like Mulholland of the Owens Valley deal, but in Chinatown Mulwray was depicted as a very decent guy, whereas I think that Mulholland was a corrupt man who allowed himself to be used by Chandler and everybody else. He was ambitious. The Mulwray of the film was intended to be a tough but decent man who was trying to avoid a scandal that would have ruined the public ownership of his department, which he had fought for, while at the same time trying to keep the thing from taking place which eventually took place.

And yet you have a William Mulholland statement as a prefatory quote to the first and second drafts of your script.

Which I would use in the novel. Sure: "There it is, take it." That's what the attitude had always been out here about everything. L.A. has never been viewed as a city, but as a place where hustlers come. It's like a mine, and everyone's trying to hit the main vein and get it out, then leave the fucking place. It's never viewed as a city. Never has been. It's a place where you just Get Yours, then get out. It doesn't matter what happens to the land, the air or any of its natural beauty. That's the attitude. So I felt that the Mulholland quote was apropos not only of Mulholland, but of everyone who was here to make a fast buck, to make it big and fast.

I liked the Seabiscuit material in the early drafts. That shows research, too, I suppose.

Right. That was an interesting thing. Big argument over it. Remember the early draft of the barbershop scene?


Remember when he gets mad? Somebody says "Boy, did Seabiscuit fold in the stretch the other day," and Gittes gets furious. He threatens to get in a fight over it. And later, when he goes to see Noah Cross, Cross offers him, by way of payment, a horse. The point (and I would have smoothed it out in the final draft if I'd continued to use it) was that I wanted to show a venal, corrupt man in Gittes—well, pettily venal and crude, rather than corrupt, really—crass, crude, self-serving, social-climbing—who admired the character of this tiny horse named Seabiscuit. At one point in an early draft he is asked why he thinks so much of the animal. I don't know how much you know about Seabiscuit, but it was a horse that came back from a complete breakdown, and won the following year. The animal didn't look like it could win anything, but really was one of the classiest horses that ever lived. A small horse with tremendous character. And Gittes' admiration of that character was meant to be an early tip-off that the guy was susceptible to class in one form or another. Of course, he would be susceptible to class in a woman, too. Seabiscuit was meant to be the transfer. But Roman said, "That's folklore," although he ended up using the Seabiscuit thing in the paper. What he insisted on using in the barbershop scene as a means of getting Gittes mad was a story in the newspaper and some guy calling him a headline seeker. Gittes is then called upon to justify his work—which he had to do with Evelyn anyway, when he went to her house after being threatened with a suit. I disliked the self-serving moment there in the barbershop. I wanted to suggest at that point that the guy had the capacity to admire something, just for the sake of its beauty or its character. In one way or another, it was thoroughbred. Which is a tip-off that he could be in real trouble with a woman he admired. I missed that. I felt it was a mistake to get rid of it. It made that moment kind of petty and dumb, whereas if the Seabiscuit idea had been developed, I think it would have been more insightful to the guy.

It's an angle on Gittes that is simply not fleshed out in the film at all.

That would have done it, really. Everything I was doing was driving toward Gittes falling in love with Evelyn. Everything that Roman was doing was blunting that.

An influence that I see in the early writing is Dashiell Hammett. In the first draft, Gittes at one point says, "In my case, being respectable would be bad for business." Hammett's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That kind of reputation makes it easier to deal with the enemy."

I remember the line very well from The Maltese Falcon. It may be an unconscious echo there.

Are there any parallels between Sam Spade and Brigid in Falcon and Jake Gittes and Evelyn in Chinatown?

The relationship in Chinatown is meant to be the opposite. In Falcon, Brigid is the villain. The woman is usually a femme fatale, and I was trying to suggest that that was the way I was going, but go against that convention and make her the only decent person in the story, which is what Evelyn is meant to be. She is acting from a pure, basic motive—mother love. That's generally conceded to be the most unselfish motive there is, and that was the basis for all her actions in the film. I was trying to make Evelyn the opposite of what someone like Brigid was.

Hammett's toughness of character was the main value in his work, I would say, at least for me. If you reread all of Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though, I don't think you can touch Chandler. Hammett ages badly in some of his short stories. Chandler doesn't. Both Hammett and Chandler, though, were so much better than anybody else. Chandler's prose about the city of Los Angeles at that time is really inspiring. I'm old enough to remember what the city was like then, and reading Chandler filled me with such a sense of loss that it was probably the main reason why I did the script. Just reading Chandler kept me going.

Your background readings, then, were used more often to acquire a mood for your own writing than to acquire outside material, it would seem.

No question. That's what it was really all about.

Who else did you read?

John Fante, who wrote one of the best books about L.A. ever—called Ask the Dusk. A terrible title, but a terrific book. I had read Nathanael West before. A very telling writer, but I'm not one of the unqualified admirers of The Day of the Locust. I don't think it's that good a book. West was brilliant, but Locust was not a great book in the manner that Miss Lonelyhearts was.

How did you decide on the names in the film?

I picked my names on the basis of sounds. I thought Mulwray had a romantic sound, redolent of some heroines of the past. It had a ring to it. Hollis Mulwray sounded good for the husband. Julian was the original name for Noah Cross, but there was a Julian Cross living, so it had to be changed. For which I'm sorry, because Julian Cross is now actually dead. If I do the novel, I'll return his name to Julian. Gittes' name was chosen because I wanted an antiromantic name for him—a name that sounded like a hustler. Jack Nicholson and I have a friend called Harry Gittes, and I've always loved his name. Just pronouncing the name is vaguely insulting: Gittes. Jake is a good name from the time period, and it is also the name I have always called Nicholson. Jack's full name is actually John J.—so I took that, too, and it became J. J. Gittes, which seemed like a reasonable name, a real name. I tend to name characters that way, on the basis of their sound.

How did you decide on the dirty joke that Gittes is telling when Evelyn comes into the room?

I was talking to a fellow who lived out here in L.A. in the thirties, when there was much antipathy toward the Chinese and when that joke had its origins out here. I asked him to tell me everything he could remember—what people called people, what they did when they went out, how they fucked, did they use rubbers, and so on. I went crazy with details like that. I talked to guys in their fifties and their sixties who were resilient, sharp. There was one writer in particular, and he told me this joke.

I thought, that's the perfect kind of joke for that time, because it was a time when people's prejudices were much more out front, and I wanted to make use of that throughout the movie. "Do you accept anyone of the Jewish persuasion?" Gittes asks at the old folks' home. "Sorry, we don't," he is told. Jake: "Well, that's good; neither does Dad."

I wanted to be consistent with that. I had some Mexican stuff that I wanted to use, too. People then were more ashamed of their origins. Prejudices were more open. They all wanted to be Americans, and were vaguely ashamed of being anything else. Society was more stratified at every level. People had principles. There were certain things they would do, and certain things they would not do. Fucking. Not fucking. Marriage. Adultery, Abortion. All these things were really major issues. Behavior was much more codified, and people were much more certain of the limits on their behavior—which is what Gittes learned. Gittes thinks he understands people's limitations, and then he comes up against a monster, Noah Cross, who will do everything. There is nothing he won't do. Man has no limits. That was the point of that confrontation scene, which Gittes didn't understand: Cross tells him that some people have no limitations. At a given place and a given time, people are capable of anything. Gittes' cynicism, by comparison, is petty, naive, and almost sweet.

When and why did you decide to call it Chinatown?

The origin of that was the vice cop who sold me one of my dogs and who used to work in Chinatown. "Down there," he said, "we never do anything, because the tongs are still working. We don't know all the dialects, and they say don't do anything, because you could make a mistake. You don't know who's a crook and who isn't a crook. You don't know who you're helping and who you're hurting. So in Chinatown they say just don't do a goddamn thing." Which I found an intriguing notion, and when I started working on the script I tried to elaborate on that idea—turning it into a metaphor. Chinatown is the place where Gittes fucked up, and Evelyn is a person where he fucked up. That was the idea. But ultimately, I think Chinatown—where if you're smart you do nothing—suggests the futility of good intentions.

Did you have trouble getting the name through?

Oh, yeah. That was why the last scene was set in Chinatown. These guys sat around like Harry Cohn saying, "How can you call a movie Chinatown when there's no Chinatown in it?" Roman led the way. One highly sensitive man whom I love went so far in this discussion—and things had gotten so out of hand—that he actually said, "Well, maybe if Gittes liked Chinese food." At which point I blew up. It was one of those story conferences with the best of men, I'm afraid, saying these crazy things.

How did the idea for slitting Gittes' nose come about?

I didn't want to use a lot of overt violence in the film, because I felt that the only real way you could be scared for your hero is emotionally—that is, if he got hung up on somebody you were afraid he shouldn't have gotten hung up on. Or if he committed some act that destroyed him as a character, because your identification with him as a detective is probably the greatest instant identification an audience can have with any hero. You follow the guy, the mystery, and try to unravel it the way you follow yourself around in a dream. You know you're not going to die—in the dream, anyway. So the only fear you can threaten the viewer with is something suggestive of a deeper horror. So I just sat back and asked, "What is the most horrible thing I can think of that would really scare you?" And I just came up with that. I thought of slitting his ears and everything else, but he's a nosy guy, and a knife up his nose just seemed to work.

I would think it takes a special actor to agree to a role requiring that he go around in half the film with a piece of gauze over his face.

That's Jack. A grand guy.

Which is easier, adapting the material of others or creating your own?

I think that almost always it's easier to adapt. Your writing inhibitions are lower. In a sense, you might even be writing a little bit better when you're adapting somebody else's material because vanity, fear and all the things that inhibit you as a writer don't come into play. You tend to be a little looser, taking shots from different parts of the court that you wouldn't normally attempt—and making them—just because you are looser. Sometimes with your own material you get constipated, vain and stupid. For that reason it's somewhat easier to adapt. But not always.

Jack Kroll (review date 8 February 1982)

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SOURCE: "Chariots of Desire," in Newsweek, Vol. XCIX, No. 6, February 8, 1982, p. 60.

[In the following review, Kroll favorably discusses Personal Best, contending that it not only "takes the world of track and field as a microcosm for the ecstacies and pains of self-striving," but also explores lesbianism as "a paradigm of authentic human intimacy."]

Robert Towne's splendid film Personal Best opens at the 1976 Olympic track tryouts at Eugene, Ore. In the first shot you're looking at a screen filled with blurred, sungold images. Then, slowly, the profiled face of Mariel Hemingway drops into the frame in sharp focus, two beads of sweat glistening at the tip of her nose and chin as she crouches at the start of the 100-meter hurdles. It's an image of beauty and concentration, which is what this original, compelling and no doubt controversial film is all about—the beauty of human beings focusing all their energy on excellence. Just as the recent Chariots of Fire did, Robert Towne's Personal Best takes the world of track and field as a microcosm for the ecstasies and pains of self-striving. And it dares, with great delicacy and insight, to show a loving sexual relationship between two young women, not as a statement about homosexuality but as a paradigm of authentic human intimacy.

Chris Cahill (Hemingway), a young track athlete, and Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), a more advanced athlete, meet at the 1976 trials. Their sexual desire flows from the concern each feels for the other in a world where physical pain and psychic anxiety are the ingredients of self-development. One of the best things in this picture is its feeling for the wisdom of the body. The love scenes between Hemingway and Donnelly have the dignity of true sensuality. Hemingway and Donnelly are friends, lovers and competitors, and Towne traces their shifting relationship through the four years they work to make the 1980 Olympic team—the team that never got to Moscow.

You don't have to be a sports nut to enjoy the excitement and the kinetic drive of this story. The relationship between Hemingway and Donnelly is a casualty of relentless competitive intensity, fueled by the women's win-at-any-price coach, played with a kind of poignant machismo by Scott Glenn. Hemingway winds up with a man, a swimmer named Denny (Kenny Moore), and it's this heterosexual pair who play the film's central scene. Watching Hemingway work out in the weight-training room, Moore has a revelation as he sees a power that both enhances her femininity and becomes an inspiration to him.

The beautifully controlled humor of this scene reflects the wit, lyricism and dramatic sense shown by screenwriter Robert Towne in his first directorial venture. Towne gets an appealing humanity from all his players, not only the colt-like Hemingway but the many women athletes in the film and Kenny Moore, a former Olympic marathoner who is now a writer for Sports Illustrated. Most astonishing is the performance of Patrice Donnelly. A former Olympic hurdler, she not only has a ravishing physical grace but in her first acting role plays with unerring emotional truth and sensitivity.

Technically, Towne and his brilliant cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) achieve many stunning scenes: the long-legged Hemingway in superslow motion seeming to soar forever over one hurdle; a montage of the women's shot put, in which all the competitors merge in an explosive burst of balletic power; the final 800-meter run that's the most excitingly filmed race since Leni Riefenstahl's controversial epic film of the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin. This is an original movie, full of feeling, fire and thought.

Robert Towne made his reputation as the phantom script doctor, the man producers called in to do uncredited revisions on other writers' screenplays. His masterpiece in this respect was his rewrite of Bonnie and Clyde, which led to similar work on The Godfather and finally to his original screenplays for Chinatown (for which he won an Oscar) and Shampoo.

Personal Best is a personal project for him, a labor of love. "I have an absolutely blatant prejudice for women athletes," he says, "for their bodies, the way they move, their temperament. Just watching them check their sweat socks knocks me out."

For the leads in Personal Best he needed a rare combination of acting and athletic ability. When he found out that Mariel Hemingway (who played Woody Allen's teen-age lover in Manhattan) was a cross-country skier and trampoline expert, he persuaded her to go through the exhausting, yearlong workouts to prepare for the film. After trying out actresses like Sigourney Weaver for the other lead, he decided on Donnelly against the advice of Hollywood professionals who warned him that she was a great athlete who'd never be able to act.

Doing the love scenes with two straight, shy young women wasn't easy. "I'm going to try some things that will shame you and anger you," he told them. During rehearsal of a scene in which the two girls arm-wrestle one another, Towne yanked a towel away, leaving Donnelly to play the scene naked. Such methods did arouse anger. Towne would tell her, "You're used to having pain in workouts but if I give you psychic pain you rebel. It's the same thing—pain is your teacher in athletics and in art. You get roses for winning but the real tribute is to offer you not a rose but a thorn."

Towne is a lean, intense, bearded 47-year-old who has conquered chronic illness by physical conditioning. He expects some people to be upset by the sexual odyssey of his two heroines. "To me the story is about innocence, purity, growing up," he says. "My idea is that they're children, like my daughter, discovering who they are with their bodies. They learn to come to terms with someone else without violating their need to excel." Towne recalls an article the great Jesse Owens wrote, urging President Carter to modify the Olympics boycott to allow athletes to compete as "free individuals." "Owens said that the Olympics leads not to Moscow or Los Angeles or even to Athens. It leads to the best within ourselves."

Laurie Stone (review date 16 March 1982)

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SOURCE: "Personal Best: What's New in Towne," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 11, March 16, 1982, pp. 52-3.

[In the following review, Stone discusses Towne's treatment of women's sports and lesbian sex in Personal Best, contending that "the themes are entwined in a startlingly innovative way."]

Nervous sweat drips off Mariel Hemingway's face as she sets up for a sprint in Personal Best, and real life bursts through decades of movie convention. We've seen sport as background to romance in the charming caprice, Pat and Mike. We've seen the athlete as manipulated beauty: Susan Anton in Golden Girl. But we've never before seen the beauty as jock foremost; and, amazingly, the woman's commitment isn't presented as some dazzling exception or aberrant piece of sublimation. Writer-director Robert Towne doesn't explain it at all. It's simply a given.

Women's sports are treated with an altogether new seriousness in Personal Best, and so is lesbian sex. The themes are entwined in a startlingly innovative way, but most reviewers, even those who liked the movie, have failed to identify its novelty and daring. Personal Best is striking resonant chords and pinching sensitive nerves among feminists and gay activists too. Some love it. Others think it's exploitive and distorting. Herewith, an attempt to sort out the controversy and distinguish what works in the film from what doesn't.

Personal Best is about Olympic contenders Chris Cahill (played by Hemingway) and Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly). They meet at a track event, become lovers, and then teammates at the University of California. When we first see Chris, she's an emotional wreck, unable to perform under her father's goading. When we first see Tory, a seasoned competitor, she's lifting her male coach in the air after a victory. Tory attracts Chris because she displays the self-confidence the younger woman lacks and desires, and Tory recognizes in Chris the great physical potential she has always longed for. Tory encourages Chris as no one ever has, and she blossoms into a champion. After three years of living with Tory and working out with her, however, Chris hungers to test experience on her own. The women break up and Chris eventually takes a male lover, but sport remains the center of both women's lives.

I found Michael Chapman's cinematography intoxicating, with its close-up and slow-motion adoration of female anatomy and racially integrated sport ritual, and I was surprised to learn that others thought it leering and reductive. I first heard the charge from a magazine editor. "But what about all those crotch shots?" she asked, with obvious distaste. She was referring to a sequence of high jumps. At the peak of the event, the pelvis, of course, is thrust upward, and that astonishing arch is what the camera recorded.

For a fuller elaboration of her chagrin I recommend Robert Hatch's denunciation in the February 27 Nation. "What gravels me about the film is its persistent treatment of its large cast of women as sex objects in situations that are unrelated to sex. We wander into their steam room, where they are relaxing in languorous nudity," Hatch fumes and then adds: "This is cheesecake; it demeans women, and the lubricious chuckles in the audiences suggest that it does so successfully."

Hatch has completely misread the film's images. His category "not related to sex" seems vast to me, and Towne's naturalistic depiction of sport life and its innate eroticism is thus lost to him. Does Hatch imagine that women in steam rooms sit at attention in dress-for-success ensembles? Towne's depiction of women athletes is an unqualified triumph. He sees sport with a voluptuary's eye—a far sight from the ascetic, running-for-God/running-for-the-Jews sensibility which steered Chariots of Fire. He makes Chris's and Tory's physical attachment—and that between men and women, and men and men, who train together—seem a natural concomitant of the pared-down jock world of group saunas, massages, gallops on the beach, and salty embraces. The lines dividing sex and sport are easily blurred, for both genders: there's a playfulness to the sex and a sexiness to the carousing. These are people who can think of fucking as building lower body muscle.

Personal Best is a celebration of the life lived entirely in and of the body. Tory and Chris are both raw material and the artists who mold it. They know sensation—the agony of ripped tendons; the exhilaration of achieving new feats—as nonathletes never can. And they are wonderfully unsqueamish about physical functions. In a funny, revolutionary scene, Chris gets behind her male lover and holds his penis while he urinates, exclaiming: "I've always wanted to pee standing up."

But the indignant response to the film (it's in a lot of other reviews too) belies more than ignorance about sports. It's a muddled, knee-jerk puritanism, also known as antiporn feminism, a line far more focused on how women are damaged than how they are pleasured. To claim that Towne sees his characters merely as sex objects is preposterous, since his camera is almost always revealing the nitty-gritty of women's training. Towne makes women's sexiness a function of their power: he shows that women are alluring when they're strong, graceful, accomplished, and rippling with muscle. What a long, salubrious way Mariel Hemingway is from the poignantly helpless flesh of Marilyn Monroe, or an anorectic wisp like Audrey Hepburn, earlier exemplars of female sexiness.

This month's Playboy photo layout on Personal Best unwittingly documents the difference between empathetic images of female sexiness and the other kind. First there are four pages of stills from the movie: the camera has observed women in their lives, engaged in either athletic activity or sex with one another. Then boom! On the next double page is a classic, posed Playboy shot of Hemingway nude except for pearls, doing a spilt with her head bent forward. She's photographed from behind, so the camera targets her ass, legs, and back in a darkened room.

It's a disturbing picture, partly because the photographer flaunts his advantages over his model—you're on display; I have put you there—and partly because the photographer's advantage is precisely what makes the shot sexy to its intended audience. The Playboy viewer needs to see configurations which declare, unequivocally, that the woman is displaying herself for no reason other than to arouse the viewer and that never, for one moment, has she forgotten she exists only to be seen by potentially excitable men. The less the Playboy viewer sees a woman's strength and accomplishment, the less he is reminded that she can be distracted from her role as turn-on for him.

Personal Best is a male fantasy too—only Towne gets off on female vigor and self-will. He really tries to get feminism right (unlike poor George Cukor who, in his recent debacle, Rich and Famous, depicted liberation as a woman's right to get humiliated by increasingly younger men). Towne is careful to show how good women are to one another and how successful they've become at telling pushy men to fuck off. He dramatizes both the gratitude and the impatience the women feel for their coach, a man who wants them to win, but his way. And Towne subtly reveals how sport and lesbianism—two choices which make women marginal in society—reinforce his characters' independence. Eventually, their inner lives match the radicalism of their outer situations and both are able to feel fine without male approval.

Towne's treatment of lesbianism—despite the problems it raises, and there are some—is completely new in films. Personal Best is a gratifying, clarifying departure from lesbian-punishing movies like The Children's Hour, The Killing of Sister George, The Fox, and Windows. A friend who recently saw Personal Best at the Greenwich Theater, with an audience consisting largely of lesbian couples, said that spontaneous applause and cheering broke out after the initial lovemaking scene.

It is gloriously sensual, if too brief. Tory and Chris drink beer, smoke dope, get silly, and whip off their clothes, ex-ulting in their nerves and cells. The camera traces their long thighs and flat stomachs like an amorous tongue. It's intent but unsmutty, partly because Towne doesn't view their sex as neurotic. He rescues lesbianism from a number of other bum raps as well, including the belief—advanced by some lesbians and gay men—that lesbians disdain lustiness in favor of affectionate cuddling (while gay men supposedly do the opposite). The movie cuts against the stereotype that lesbians accept each other as a consolation prize, because they can't attract men; Tory and Chris are known as "the two best-looking women in San Luis Obispo" and choose each other freely. There's no butch/femme division: both women combine tomboyish swaggering with womanly tenderness. And most remarkable—a first among movies with lesbian characters—their sexuality isn't made the Problem around which everyone else's emotions quiver and congeal.

Towne's good will notwithstanding, a number of gay men and women have come down hard on Personal Best. Recently interviewed in the Times, Vito Russo said that Towne trivialized lesbian sex, and therefore all homosexuality by having Chris go from Tory to a man. It made the women's affair seem adolescent, Russo argued. A lesbian friend, who came back railing against this movie I'd suggested she see, thought the lesbian sex insultingly tame, nothing like genuine eroticism which, she said, Towne didn't come close to portraying.

I don't think these charges make a case for Towne as a homophobe. Tory is clear about what she wants. Chris isn't. She is young, an experimenter who wants to taste the full sexual menu. If anything, it was bold of Towne to make a movie which didn't lock characters into an either/or rigid sexual identity. Tory has had male lovers—she describes one at the beginning of the movie. She may have a man again, and it's certainly possible that Chris could fall in love with another woman. Chris is uncertain about how her male lover will feel about her affair (he accepts it), but she never disavows this aspect of her sexuality.

Towne doesn't make lesbianism like beginner sex. When Chris makes love to a man, she's just as coltish as she was with Tory. In fact, her lesbian affair is presented as more intense than her heterosexual one. There's no hot-and-heavy eroticism anywhere in this film. It's about people obsessed with sport, not sex.

The trouble with Personal Best is that Towne doesn't know how to dramatize his characters' conflicts, and, as a result, the film portrays athletes more astutely than it does a lesbian relationship. The women's break-up is awkward and unimaginative. Chris isn't exactly a fount of introspective eloquence, and with her grazing-animal, Renoir face and squeaky drawl of a voice, Hemingway is terrific as a jock required to look dumber than she is. Still, the women's emotions deserve a more intelligent treatment than the few fuzzy hurt-feeling episodes Towne provides. By not permitting us to understand or probe his characters, Towne distances us from them irretrievably.

He makes another crucial error by abandoning Tory. Until the split-up, Personal Best is about two women, but afterwards, Tory is glimpsed in snippets and only in relation to Chris. It's unfair to the character, and it severely unbalances the film. We need to see Tory in her own life—miserable, or with friends, or with another lover—because Towne has made us care about her. Tory and Chris are thrown together once more at the Olympic finals, and Chris gets a chance to return the support which Tory first gave to her, but the ending is slapdash, and Chris's relationships with both Tory and her coach are left frustratingly unresolved. After the astonishing and lengthy first section—well worth seeing—the story goes nowhere, like the athletes who cannot get to Moscow.

The abandonment of Tory as a character is the one uncontestable antilesbian charge that can be leveled at the movie. I did get the feeling that Towne wanted to see Hemingway in bed with a man—not to legitimatize her, however, but because that's what he likes. Towne clearly doesn't get off on the spectacle of affirmed, second-round lesbianism, or he would have shown Tory with another woman. It's not believable that this beautiful, adventurous character would just mope and pine indefinitely.

In a similar vein, Towne and Herningway have been telling reporters that Personal Best is not about lesbianism, which is rather like saying that Moby Dick is about men at sea, nature, and change, but not about whale-hunting. Having made the most enlightened movie about lesbians to date, is Towne now afraid the theme will hurt the movie commercially, and if so, why doesn't he come right out and say so? The producers of Making Love made a big, newsy deal out of their risk in doing a movie on gay men. What's up?

By advertising the financial chanciness of male gay sex and not mentioning that lesbians are risky too, everyone seems to be agreeing that homophobia is essentially about male/male sex—that sex with penises is the kind that's truly threatening. Lesbians aren't a turnoff to straights of either gender, the rationale goes, because what women do together isn't serious.

But this doesn't quite square with Towne's denial of the content of his film, or with the fact that Towne's film company was harassed with bomb threats and guns while on location in Oregon, or with the fact that lesbianism is a far more closeted subject in society than male gay sex. Gay men are a reality in popular culture, even if only as a Phil Donahue "issue." There are male gay characters on sitcoms, and comedians satirize the cruising life, while lesbians rarely show up on the tube and are never joked about. Gay means gay man on TV, and to most Americans, therefore, the questions of who lesbians are and what they do in bed are still mysterious and fraught. Why else the morbid gravity when the subject comes up?

Maybe the relative openness with which male homosexuality is now discussed is partly a cover for, and distraction from, the possibility that lesbian sex evokes even deeper terrors. Perhaps Towne denies his subject because he's realized that nowhere, save the laid-back world of Personal Best, are people relaxed about female sexuality. Maybe most people feel that sex without penises isn't safe and sweet but scary and subversive. It's certainly not good for the family. It's certainly not good for men. That's dangerous enough for me.

Michael Sragow (essay date January-February 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5149

SOURCE: "Darkness at the Edge of Towne," in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 4, January-February, 1989, pp. 40-61.

[In the following excerpt, Sragow surveys Towne's career, focusing on Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise, and his reputation in Hollywood.]

"… Nobody wants me to quit. 'Don't quit, don't get caught, stay on top long enough for us to knock you off.' That's the motto around here. Nobody wants me to quit. The cops wanna bust me, the Colombians want my connections, my wife wants my money, her lawyer agrees and mine likes getting paid to argue with them. Nobody wants me to quit—hey, I haven't even mentioned my customers. You know they don't want me to quit."

That speech belongs to the drug-dealer protagonist of writer-director Robert Towne's new movie, Tequila Sunrise, but it may echo the sentiments of Towne himself, a prodigiously gifted filmmaker who's never been able to shake his reputation as simply the best screenwriter in Hollywood.

Tequila Sunrise producer Thom Mount is not alone in considering Towne's directorial debut, Personal Best, among "the best first movies ever made." But in the nearly seven years between that film's release and Sunrise, Towne's only other writing-directing project, The Two Jakes, tripped at the starting block. Pundits and industry gossips seemed to be pressuring Towne back into what they saw to be his proper place—as a great writer, period.

In some ways, who could blame them? A short list of the most memorable movie moments of the last 15 years would have to include a bunch of speeches, confrontations and revelations written by Robert Towne, such as the crisis in The Last Detail (1973) when the cantankerous Navy signalman harasses a redneck bartender until the latter threatens to call the shore patrol. The signalman slaps his service revolver on the bar and proclaims, "I AM THE MOTHER-FUCKING SHORE PATROL!" Or the time in Chinatown (1974) when an alternately slick and seedy '30s private eye, taking on a case that ripples through the power circles of Los Angeles, gets his nose slit by a verminy punk. "It looks like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine with me. But Mrs. Mulwray—I goddamn near lost my nose! And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something."

Or maybe the magnetically shaggy oration of the charming Beverly Hills hairdresser in Shampoo (1975) when he explains why he's such an unregenerate womanizer:

"I go into that shop and they're so great-looking you know. And I, I'm doing their hair, and they feel great, and they smell great. Or I could be out on the street, you know, and I could just stop at a stoplight, or go into an elevator, or I … there's a beautiful girl. I, I, I don't know … I mean, that's it. I, it makes my day. Makes me feel like I'm gonna live forever. And, as far as I'm concerned, with what I'd like to have done at this point in my life, I know I should have accomplished more. But I've got no regrets…. Maybe that means I don't love 'em. Maybe it means I don't love you. I don't know. Nobody's going to tell me I don't like 'em very much."

These speeches, casual and simple in their language yet vivid and revelatory in their dramatic impact, are so intimately keyed to the performances that they bring to mind the actors and—amazingly for movies—their edgy, vernacular characters: Jack Nicholson as Billy "Badass" Buddusky in The Last Detail, Nicholson again as J. J. Gittes in Chinatown and Warren Beatty as George in Shampoo.

What's more, the outbursts arrive at just the right instant to clinch the stories and the characters. You immediately comprehend Buddusky's volatile dissatisfaction with life, Gittes' drawling slyness and romantic curiosity, and George's fundamentally innocent sensuality. Just listening to the lines brings back the movies in their entirety.

Creating scripts like these, which are full of existential showdowns, diversely expressive speeches, and characters that bring out the vitality in stars such as Nicholson and Beatty, helped make Robert Towne the first superstar screenwriter of the current Hollywood era.

Towne, now 54, was no Wunderkind when he hit it big. Raised in San Pedro, California, he worked as a tuna fisherman, studied literature and philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, and reportedly did a stint in military intelligence before landing in Jeff Corey's Hollywood acting class in 1958, where he met Nicholson and quickie movie king Roger Corman.

Madison Avenue-man-turned-producer Harry Gittes, the friend of Nicholson and Towne whose last name became immortalized in Chinatown, refers to Towne as

"the best example of an actor-turned-writer in the business. If you're an actor first, you know what's tough to play, how much exposition you need to get a point across. I ended up coproducing Drive, He Said [Nicholson's 1972 directorial debut]. Towne was in it as an actor. He was in a scene that was extremely tough to articulate—two characters just speaking totally between the lines. The Towne character knew that the other character was having an affair with his wife. The way that Towne helped rewrite that scene, the point came across light rather than heavy-handedly. It's a lesson I'll never forget."

By the mid-'70s, Towne had parlayed his string of hits, as well as the reputation as a script doctor that he acquired on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), into the chance to become a writer-director. For years, Towne labored on the script he felt was the best thing he'd ever done—Greystoke, a version of Tarzan of the Apes that concentrated on the trials and tribulations of an ape raising a baby boy. Towne says that long before Gorillas in the Mist, The Adventures of Dian Fossey, he hoped to portray a hero "for whom the life of an ape was no less important than the life of a human being."

Still, the prospect of directing the scenes between boy and apes was daunting. So for his producing-directing debut, he chose a "smaller" script, Personal Best (1982), a story of female pentathletes, played by Mariel Hemingway and real-life track star Patrice Donnelly, who fall in love with each other while competing to qualify in the 1980 Olympics. Though not a commercial success, it was an audacious piece of work. A speech given by Scott Glenn, as Hemingway's coach, ranks with Towne's funniest and grittiest: "I could've coached football, I wouldn't have had to put up with this insulting shit from you. Do you actually think Chuck Noll has to worry that Franco Harris is going to cry if Terry Bradshaw won't talk to him?"

But Towne also demonstrated that he could extend his gifts for narrative structure and speech rhythms into the visual and tactile elements of movies. By concentrating his eye and ear on the athletes, he was able to recapture the unself-conscious grace that characterizes his memories of growing up in an unspoiled Southern California, and Personal Best became an ecstatic coming-of-age film, an indelible expression of the joy of movement.

The move into directing ultimately resulted in the stalling of his career, the loss of two dream projects and the disruption of old friendships. Where he once had been known as the consummate script doctor and Hollywood professional, he now found himself caught in a swirl of innuendo that raised questions about whether he was suited temperamentally to be a writer-director.

It all started when, as producer and writer-director of Personal Best, Towne clashed repeatedly with executive producer David Geffen during the completion and release of the movie. Geffen had rescued the project by taking over the financing from Warner Bros. when the 1980 Screen Actors Guild strike threatened to scuttle the movie. But a contract dispute between Towne and Geffen shut down production between December 1980 and June 1981.

In the course of what he later called a "coerced agreement" with Geffen and Warner Bros. in order to finish Personal Best, Towne signed away his rights to Greystoke. His Tarzan was made in vastly different form by Hugh Hudson, director of Chariots of Fire, a considerably more pompous movie about Olympic athletics. The daunting new title told the story: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.

Meanwhile, Towne endured years of gossip centering on Geffen's countercharges that the director had taken "a picture budgeted at $7 million and made it incompetently for $16 million." (Towne rebutted that the original budget was $11.7 million, renegotiated to $12.7 million and that it rose to $15 million partly because of the interest paid during the six-month contract dispute.)

In 1985, after some odd writing jobs, Towne was once again a writer-director, all set to launch The Two Jakes, the highly anticipated sequel to Chinatown. Jack Nicholson had gotten back into leading-man shape to repeat the role of Gittes, and, in the boldest, weirdest stroke, Robert Evans co-starred as the second Jake, a mysterious real estate operator named Jake Berman. According to the one full report ever published on the film (by David Thomson in Vanity Fair), that oddball move may have killed the production. Whatever the ultimate reason, when Evans couldn't cut it as Berman, things fell apart, and the production was halted almost before it began. Towne once again became the center of scrutiny, which this time questioned his leadership ability.

Over the years, Towne kept busy with writing chores—rewriting an unproduced fantasy named Mermaid for Beatty and Ray Stark (Splash beat this prestige team to the punch), and doing script surgery on Hal Ashby's 8 Million Ways to Die and Roman Polanski's Frantic. Still, since Personal Best, the only times his name appeared onscreen were as the executive producer for his friend Curtis Hanson's The Bedroom Window, and as an actor (and uncredited creative consultant) in writer-director James Toback's comedy The Pick-up Artist.

But, as Toback says, "Robert Towne is a Hollywood outsider with the compulsiveness, determination and slyness to crack into the center whenever the need arises." And with the help of independent producer Thom Mount, Towne has cracked back in with Tequila Sunrise, an "under $20 million" romantic comedy-drama starring Mel Gibson as a former cocaine dealer who now sells ecologically sound leaky-pipe irrigation systems, Kurt Russell as his best high-school buddy, who happens to be a star narcotics cop, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the chic Manhattan Beach restaurant owner who gets caught between them.

Towne asked Mount to produce Tequila Sunrise, a project he had been trying to make for a number of years, while they both were working on Frantic. Frantic star Harrison Ford, who was originally penciled in for the Mel Gibson role, had second thoughts about playing an ex-dealer. Mount downplays the difficulties he had selling the project to Warner Bros., where he worked out a negative pick-up deal for the film's distribution. (As part of the "coerced" 1981 agreement, Warners had the right to a first look at Tequila Sunrise.)

"Let's just say everyone looked very carefully at the balance between the drug dealer's current life and his past life," says Mount. "And, as a director, Robert has one of the most important weapons anyone could have to sell a project—a concrete vision of what he wants."

To Curtis Hanson, the clouds hanging over recent Towne productions have wrongfully obscured Towne's creative steadiness and industry clout. Shortly after The Two Jakes fell apart, Towne called Hanson and asked what he was doing. Hanson replied that he got The Bedroom Window back from Paramount in turnaround and was trying to set it up with himself directing. "And Robert just went crazy. Over the course of a holiday weekend, he got the go-ahead at Fox." Eventually, with Towne's help, Hanson ended up making the movie at the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

"Think about the gossip surrounding Robert," says Hanson.

"You know, when he was a writer, people used to say, 'Yeah, he's good, but he's too slow,' and now that he's a director, people say, 'Yeah, but does he have the temperament?' This is a very small town. A lot of guys who have bad experiences making movies don't work any more. Yet Robert commands great respect at Orion. He commands great respect at Paramount. And now, after the nightmare of the release of Personal Best and the further nightmare of Greystoke, he's back at Warner Bros. with Tequila Sunrise. They wouldn't be in bed with him if they didn't think he could perform!"

Mount says he wasn't disappointed on Tequila Sunrise: "Robert took 'the long view' on every scene and every shot; the flip side of that was intense work on issues of performance. There was a lot of night shooting (40 nights out of a total of 68 days), a lot of high-powered actors. And 10 days into production, he had to fire the cinematographer, Jost Vacano (Das Boot), a terrific guy who just wasn't in sync with his ideas. Robert handled it."

I found Towne at the Evergreen Studios, where he was overseeing the film's music scoring. He was paunchier than the last time I saw him, right after Personal Best when he was in the middle of a physical fitness obsession. But otherwise he seemed steadier now. The gaze of his eyes—his dominant feature—was more direct. There has always been something dolphinlike and slippery about his imposing physical presence. Instinctive in all his convictions, spontaneous in their expression, he sends out thought waves not only when he's speaking in his surprisingly soft voice, but also when he's punctuating his talk with silence.

"One of the reasons the first cinematographer and I had difficulties," Towne explained during a break,

"is that he wanted it to look grainy and gritty, because it was a drug world and everything else. And to me, it's like being in the olive oil business. I mean, what makes The Godfather real is all the glamour in it, which is what most of us would see in our daily lives. You'd see Sam Giancana sitting in a beautiful restaurant, very gentlemanly, and quiet, retired.

"So if you're trying to tell a movie about cops and robbers, you withhold the underbelly of it as long as you can. You show what most of us see, and it's not that different from our lives, when we're living well. And then, gradually, the audience starts getting scared, because they realize there's this underbelly, and they haven't seen it yet, and something is going to sneak up on them and bite them on the ass if they're not careful."

As the movie evolved, Towne turned parts of it into a celebration of West Coast light:

"There was a piece of graffiti I once saw that I tried to put in the movie and couldn't find a place for—'There's no life east of Sepulveda.' And this movie is about life west of Sepulveda, as I knew it. San Pedro, Redondo, Hermosa made up a magical place for me. It was unlike L.A., it was unlike anywhere I'd ever been. I was setting the movie in the place of my magical memories, even though the movie is contemporary.

"Conrad Hall [the cinematographer who replaced Vacano] has the same understanding of Southern California that I have, and that Richard Sylbert [the production designer] has. I always start out saying, 'I'm just going to show how this place has turned to shit.' And then I can't stop myself. My eye keeps going to the things that were beautiful, the things that I remembered as a kid—like people having trailers in the backyard, and bougainvillea in the backyard, and crab grass and those funny little redwood fences."

At the heart of Tequila Sunrise is the triangular tale of an honest master criminal who tries to be loyal to all his friends, including a Latin drug dealer; a good cop who's emotionally dishonest but redeemable; and the slick yet feeling woman who's caught between them. As a minor character comments, their interplay poses the question, "Who says friendship lasts forever? We'd all like it to, maybe, but maybe it wears out like everything else, like tires."

Over the years, many names had been dropped as possible players in Tequila Sunrise, including Warren Beatty and L.A. Lakers coach Pat Riley. After Harrison Ford dropped out, Towne saw Lethal Weapon and sent Gibson the script. "I just got stupidly lucky; no one could have been a better choice than Mel," he says. Towne was banking on Gibson bringing to the part the unhinged, reckless quality that it needed in its final act.

Towne thought of Michelle Pfeiffer after seeing Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty.

"She gave a very witty performance, one in which she displayed an ability to have a surface persona and then break into a whole other character. And somebody who owns and runs a restaurant has to have those two speeds, this surface persona as the hostess, dealing with people regardless of what's going on, gracious even in the face of crises, which has its own kind of comedy. And then there's also intrigue in, 'What's that woman like when she's not being so fucking gracious that she drives you nuts?' Her sangfroid and her beauty become a challenge and a kind of rebuke…."

Kurt Russell was the actor most firmly set in Towne's mind:

"Hanging out with him and Goldie [Hawn, Russell's live-in mate], I saw something in Kurt that was so right for the character—the irrepressibly mischievous nature of the man. It's an expression of the life force that allows you to take a character who has certain complexities that would normally be unacceptable or unappealing—enough to vitiate the drama—and with Kurt, he makes the movie a horse race."

Towne explained that each character is an amalgamation of several people.

"For example, in Kurt you will see a physical resemblance to Pat Riley that's unmistakable. Pat never comes unglued on the sidelines, never undoes his ties, and nobody can read into his behavior one way or the other. That's good for a glamorous cop who's trying to get a job done; it's useful with cops and criminals alike.

"What I wanted to create was a character who is politically very adroit, which is the reason for his success in his professional life and for his undoing in his personal life. He's charming and mischievous and basically decent, but he's also manipulative and damn near gets a lot of people seriously hurt."

From the beginning, Towne's Hollywood identity has been tied in with that of his friends Nicholson and Beatty. Towne has often given credit to Nicholson for teaching him the art of indirection—of playing the action of a scene against the ostensible subject, so that (as he once told John Brady) "a guy trying to seduce a girl … talks about everything but seduction, anything from a rubber duck he had as a child to the food on the table or whatever."

But after Towne toiled on cheap movies and television (including The Outer Limits and Breaking Point), it was Beatty who brought him into big time when, impressed by an unproduced western Towne had rewritten, Beatty asked the unknown writer to work on Bonnie and Clyde. Though Towne didn't get any screenwriting credit, the movie made him legendary as a script doctor, a reputation that was cinched when he provided Francis Coppola with a crucial scene in The Godfather—the one in which Don Vito tries to pass his wisdom along to his son Michael. And it was with Beatty that Towne wrote the critical and commercial hit, Shampoo.

"In my life," Towne says,

"I have known, at a little distance, what were putatively my closest friends for 20 years. I read about them in the paper, I see them in the movies, I get glimpses of them from the gossip columns, and yet they're my close friends. And I think we get lulled into a false sense of seeming that we know each other better than we do, because we read about each other in the newspapers and elsewhere."

"Movies are insulating experiences," says Towne, "and unless you have those experiences with your intimate friends, you inevitably lose contact with them but think you haven't." Tequila Sunrise took shape when Towne began to explore

"that feeling, and what it does to you, and the increasing willingness, in movies and in all kinds of business, to be able to use anything that's personal in the name of your business is OK. People use the name of art and the name of business the way they're given to saying, 'I swear on my child's life.' That feeling seemed transferable to a cop who could do anything in the name of his business because he's got justification—drug dealers being what they are and the world being what it is.

"When the characters get crazy over certain issues, none of them are venal…. They're always a matter of personal honor. The drug dealer has a very strict belief that there's a right and wrong way to behave. And, unlike most drug lords, the only thing that upsets the Latin so-called villain is that he feels an old friend may have behaved in a way contrary to the way friends are supposed to behave. They all operate out of an elemental code of honor. If your girl lies to you, that's it."

In its witty, sophisticated and surprisingly soft-spoken way, Tequila Sunrise protests the opportunistic morality that has held sway in this country's public life for 30 years. Although the movie focuses on the ethical corners present-day cops cut in order to nab drug dealers, Towne feels that the drama has its roots in the '50s.

"When Eisenhower admitted that we flew a spy plane over Russia, it was a big shock in this century. It was a bad thing to do. It wasn't fair. We were engaging in an underhanded activity.

"In the old westerns, before drawing your gun, the other guy had to draw his gun and fire. Take that and World War II, and you have a rather elevated way of viewing how you were supposed to deal with your adversary. The U-2 came along and just didn't square with that. It affected me, my thinking, strongly. We were doing that to them. From that moment on, the end justified the means.

"And that thinking is transferable in this country to any scourge, whether it's communism or drugs or whatever it is. You know, everything's fair. You've got to do whatever you can to get rid of the problem. It's another version of what you have to do to ferret out witches. And if you're like me, you never end up knowing how valid the problem is because you're so pissed off."

The most daring part of Tequila Sunrise is that the drug dealer is more of a traditional hero than the cop is. McKussick (the Mel Gibson character) still does drug-related favors for family and friends. But he's trying to go straight and devote himself solely to his legitimate business—his leaky pipes that irrigate fields without wasting water or endangering the ecology.

How upset were the folks at Warner Bros. at this sympathetic portrait of a drug dealer? "Oh, well, man, I tell you, I like and respect Bob Daly [Warner Bros.' chairman of the board and CEO], but at first he was terrified," says Towne.

"He couldn't believe it. Couldn't the guy be in the numbers racket? Couldn't he be anything else? Couldn't he just sell marijuana? But if a man is trying to escape his past and it's difficult, he's got to have a difficult past to escape from, and you've really got to identify with the problem. I mean, if the underlying dynamic of your story is that a gunfighter is desperate to hang up his guns, you've got to have some sense of what it was like to be a gunman, sort of unsavory. You can't have a gambler or a numbers runner ashamed and desperate to stop—the difficulties of trying to escape that kind of past are just not the same."

Towne can be indirect and disarmingly frank at the same time—like some of his best characters—even when he's discussing the current anti-drug crusade:

"I mean, if I were Rip van Winkle and went to sleep in 1968 and woke up in 1988, and they told me that drugs were bad and that sex could kill me, I'd say, 'I'm going back to sleep, man.'

"Of course I don't think drugs are good for people in general, they're just not. But I think the current preoccupation with drugs is more damaging than anything else. The real lie is, you CAN'T say no. You can't say no to the kid making thousands and thousands of dollars in the ghetto. You can't go around saying no—that's the lesson of William Blake, he knew that 250 years ago. He's the one who knew you can't have a 'Thou Shalt Not' writ over the door—people will just lose themselves in gin, because life is miserable. You can't just say no, you have to provide an alternative. You have to find something you want to do. Drugs is a way of saying that you haven't found anything you want to do."

Does he speak from personal experience?

"Hey, I'm just the wrong person to ask. In my life, until I was 28 years old, I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, until one day I decided, 'That makes me sick.' Up to eight, nine years ago, I smoked Cuban cigars. I've still got a thousand Cuban cigars in London in a beautiful humidor that James Fox has for me. I don't smoke them anymore because they make me sick. Certain things just tend to give me up, whether I want to give them up or not. But I do know that Bob Daly's position on drugs isn't so far from mine, and he's on Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' committee."

The last six years have been a tumultuous time for a man who believes in simple codes. He's gone through divorce, remarriage and a custody fight for his young daughter, and the fracas over The Two Jakes strained his long-standing friendships with Nicholson and Evans. But Towne, who feels that the Jakes script is now "as solid and disciplined" as Chinatown, says he's happy that the film seems to be headed for production with Nicholson directing as well as starring, and will be glad to offer his help. (Although nothing has been officially announced, Nicholson's friends regard it as a done deal.)

Towne and his second wife, Luisa, are devoted to each other. Over her protests, he calls her "the keeper of the flame"—the person who keeps reminding him of his dreams whenever the pressures of production threaten to bury them.

Curtis Hanson, once described by Towne as "one of three close friends who one way or another have helped me through scripts and through my life over the years," has known Towne well for over two decades. Hanson admits that he and Towne have had their ups and downs—severe ones. And he agrees with Towne that things got more complicated for the writer when he became a director, "around the time of Personal Best, when he got into the center of the hurricane." Still, says Hanson, "Robert is an emotional guy and a complicated guy.

"My feeling," Hanson continues,

"is that Robert likes being in the middle and working with the actors and the cameraman and doing all the things that go with carrying your vision out. At the same time, I think Robert would also be happy to work with a director on a given project and see the picture go off and kind of godfather it—if he felt it was going to be made right. Of course, the question is, would he ever feel the projects would be made right?"

One project that Towne feels is sure to be made right is Hanson's next film, The Brotherhood of the Grape, in development at Orion. Based on John Fante's roisterous 1977 novel of California-Italian family life, Towne and Francis Ford Coppola were to team up on the movie, but instead will serve as co-executive producers.

Towne has fought hard when trying to preserve the form and meaning of his own scripts, never more notoriously than when he clashed with Chinatown director Roman Polanski over the bleak ending and cynical slant that Towne felt Polanski had imposed on the material. (Towne gets his revenge in his script to the sequel, The Two Jakes. By the end, the sleazy private eye J. J. Gittes turns into a romantic hero.)

"If he's really convinced of the rightness of something," says James Toback, "and he's given a couple of shots to explain why it's the way to go, he starts to get quite frustrated if you don't see it the same way." This willingness to take a stand over artistic issues, along with his stubborn attention to details, have helped to give Towne a reputation for integrity, and, in recent years, for "difficulty." But Toback admires Towne for his intellectual tenacity, which he calls "a very un-Hollywood trait. There, the attitude is, 'You don't like my script? I don't like it either, here's my other one.'"

Towne's sense of craftsmanship would seem to link him to Hollywood's glory days. "If we were back in the '30s and '40s, it might be that Robert would have become like Nunnally Johnson, more of a writer-producer," says Hanson. "But today, directors get all the praise and a lot of the power."

But Towne says that Hollywood tradition

"isn't important to me at all, personally. I think that I have always felt that people respond best to structure, especially if you're going to make an unorthodox point. I mean, to show how the farmers were blown out of the Owens Valley, I'm not going to do a Frank Norris novel like The Octopus or Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain. Nobody would go to see it—nobody would let me make it.

"So I figure I do a detective movie and do it about a real crime, which is fucking up land and water rather than stealing a jewel-encrusted falcon. The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorite stories. It's about greed and something else, and so's Chinatown. But Chinatown is about greed and its consequences, not just in the present, but to the future. The land is raped as surely as the daughter, and these things have far-reaching consequences.

"I mean, the important thing is, how much better can you write? How much better can you lead? Why are you doing it?"

Towne says, echoing the words he wrote years ago in Chinatown. "For the future."

Mark Horowitz (essay date November-December 1990)

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SOURCE: "Fault Lines," in Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 6, November-December, 1990, pp. 52-5, 57-8.

[In the following essay, Horowitz analyzes Towne's career through The Two Jakes and reassesses the significance of Chinatown as "the lens through which all of his other films are judged."]

Sixteen years have gone by since we first met Chinatown's Jake Gittes, the Los Angeles private eye who specialized in divorce cases, though he preferred the more delicate term "matrimonial work." By whatever name, Gittes' métier was still the sleazy but lucrative snooping on adulterers that his closest professional rival, Philip Marlowe, fastidiously eschewed. It has also been sixteen years since we met the doomed and beautiful Evelyn Mulwray, she of the anxious hunted look and the nervous habit of lighting up a cigarette when she already had one going. Mrs. Mulwray and her family had terrible secrets, and Gittes, regrettably, learned them all. The year was 1937.

Robert Towne's screen writing career divides easily into two parts: 1) Chinatown and 2) Not-Chinatown. The second category includes an impressive list of credits, among them The Last Detail (1973), from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; Shampoo (1975), co-written with Warren Beatty; Greystoke (the original version by Towne, not the final film version written, according to the credits, by Michael Austin and P.H. Vazak, Towne's sheep dog, now deceased); Personal Best (1982) and Tequila Sunrise (1988), both of which Towne also directed; Days of Thunder, this summer's Tom Cruise retread; and The Two Jakes, this year's long-awaited continuation of the Jake Gittes saga.

But of all that Towne has written, Chinatown remains the keystone. Critics still treat it as his definitive statement. It is the lens through which all his other films are judged, and, if they are found wanting, it provides a convenient rhetorical club to beat them with. In view of how often this has happened over the years, it's possible to conclude that writing Chinatown was the worst mistake Robert Towne ever made.

Chinatown's artistic ambitions were as grand as they were apocalyptic. It promised to lay bare the sinister roots of modern capitalist society by proposing a countermyth to the traditional American story of benevolent founding fathers. Evelyn Mulwray's father, the all-powerful Noah Cross, begat modern Los Angeles by bending man as well as nature to his will.

Named for the founding father in another popular origin myth, Cross was the paragon of unrestrained capitalism, monstrous and heroic, destructive and creative. No meat was unfit for his insatiable appetite. He was the secret id of modernity, the Oedipal nightmare turned on its head: Dad kills son and rapes daughter. He was unstoppable.

When the movie hit theaters in July 1974, unbridled pessimism was the currency of the day. Political disillusion was epidemic. OPEC had the West by the short hairs. Watergate was at high tide. Less than a month into the film's successful run, President Nixon resigned from office. The formal burial of the sincere Sixties came nine months later when Saigon, without American support, fell to the North Vietnamese Army and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The country was in foul spirits. Chinatown, set in the deepest, darkest Great Depression, captured the mood of 1974 to perfection.

But as grim a portrait of American society as Chinatown was, the film still wasn't dark enough to match the true depths of the contemporary mood. Chinatown was a modest hit and won Towne an Academy Award for best screenplay, but the Oscar for best picture that year went to its rival in radical despair, Godfather II, an even darker and more tragic vision of corruption in high places. Chinatown still had a hero, albeit an impotent one; Godfather II had none.

Towne never intended to create a classic of despair. Granted, he took Raymond Chandler's detective genre and enriched it with a more fully articulated social critique, giving the pessimism inherent in all detective fiction a stronger foundation. But Towne also preserved intact Chandler's romantic notion that, despite the odds, there were occasional candles against the darkness. Marlowe and Gittes were both cynical private eyes, but they were also closet knights-in-shining-armor who occasionally made a difference.

Towne wrote Chinatown but it was directed by Roman Polanski, a man whose philosophical views had been uniquely shaped by his tragic encounters with both Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. He lost family members to both. Towne's and Polanski's artistic agendas diverged at times, and Polanski, as director, had his way at the crucial moments.

At the end of the film Evelyn Mulwray confronts her father over custody of their daughter, the product of their incestuous union. "She's mine, too," he moans pitifully. Apparently, in Towne's original draft Evelyn shoots her father and goes to jail, but, with Gittes' help, the daughter escapes to Mexico. There was a partial victory; hope was kept alive, even if only a glimmer.

Polanski took Towne's romantic pessimism and twisted the knife until it metamorphosed into his own brand of East European nihilism. In the final Polanski version, Evelyn dies and Noah Cross gets his hands on the girl. The forces of darkness are unbeatable. No one makes a difference and Gittes' meddling probably made matters worse. At the end of the tunnel Polanski saw only … more tunnel.

Since 1974, the libraries of few aspiring screenwriters have been complete without a tenth-generation Xerox of the script for Chinatown. The true connoisseur possesses several different drafts. Towne's script is held up in film schools and how-to-write-a-screenplay books as a master-piece of construction, noted for its layered plot in which one revelation after another unwinds with absolute precision, no scene ever lasting longer than it has to.

Thanks to Polanski, Towne not only acquired a reputation for unqualified pessimism despite the fact that he intended something far more equivocal—he was also given too much credit for Chinatown's tight, clockwork plot structure.

Towne was tagged as an avatar of crystalline screenplay structure when nothing could have been further from the truth. Admirers confuse his craftsmanlike respect for the formal demands of a particular genre—the detective film—with an overall commitment to rigid story structure in every case.

Such discriminating attention to craft has always stood Towne in good stead with producers who happily pay him unimaginable sums to take a look at their ailing properties. (His uncredited interventions as script doctor are known to include Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Reds, Swing Shift, Eight Million Ways to Die, Frantic, and Fatal Attraction. Some of these were major page-one rewrites and some were brief hit-and-run consultations. A complete list of credits will probably never be known.) But in his original screenplays Towne prefers a loose approach to storytelling. Chinatown was the only exception, and Towne readily gave Polanski credit for a large part of the film's narrative precision.

Chinatown's canonization wreaked havoc with critical perceptions of Towne's career. To borrow a perverse line from The Producers, Chinatown was just "too good." It created a vivid but false impression. Towne is most famous for a film whose content is darkly pessimistic and whose form is crystalline and succinct. These qualities are uncharacteristic of everything else he's written, and this anomaly has been interpreted as clear evidence of a decline in artistic quality since 1974.

Chinatown, so the argument goes, is perfect, while the rest of Towne's scripts are all over the place, like big sloppy shaggy dogs (like P.H. Vazak, in fact!): Personal Best feels improvised and unstructured, the plot of Tequila Sunrise is incomprehensible and its climax is sentimental, Shampoo is too light and ambivalent, and The Last Detail pulls its final punch, compromising the novel's dark conclusion by having Badass Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) deliver his prisoner to the brig, then go back about his business, whereas in the novel he feels so guilty he goes AWOL and destroys himself. The novel ends with the doleful finality of Chinatown, while Towne's adaptation substitutes a wishy-washy conclusion.

Oh what a falling-off there's been. In every instance, Chinatown's moral certitude (life is shit) has given way to moral vagueness (life is kind of complicated). Or so it appears.

What if you turn the painting around and try looking at it another way? What if the sins of an artist unable to find his way back to his one single moment of perfection are actually the hallmarks of his true style? What if Chinatown, far from being quintessential Towne in theme, style, and structure, is really his most atypical and misleading work?

"The greatest filmmaker that I know of, the one who moves me the most, is Jean Renoir. If I ever were to do a course on screen writing, I would deal a lot with Renoir … [who] got more of life into his art than anybody I've seen before or since." [Robert Towne, in a interview with John Brady]

Many of Towne's alleged weaknesses are also those of his avowed master, Jean Renoir, whose artistic universe is as far from Polanski's Chinatown as Frank Capra is from the Coen brothers. Renoir's is a world where villainy and heroism are never clear cut, where each character has his reasons, where scenes end only after every last ambiguous bit of meaning, buried intent, and misunderstood motive has been teased out, where the moral terrain is constantly shifting and where actors and camera alike appear to be freely improvising rather than fatalistically following their well-worn path to oblivion.

Towne's affinity for Renoir may not be the master key that unlocks all his films, but it's a useful corrective to the tunnel vision engendered by Chinatown. For starters, Towne finds justification in Renoir for ignoring many of the innovations of modernist cinema. Towne is a classicist—at least in form—not an innovator. He does not subvert or "appropriate" old forms in the postmodern fashion; he embraces the conventions of whatever genre he happens to be working in—whether detective story, romantic melodrama, even Restoration comedy (Shampoo was inspired by Wycherly's The Country Wife).

He shares this deference to existing forms with Renoir, who also moved freely from costume drama to war film to Hollywood melodrama to Technicolor musical, always leaving the conventions of the form as he found them. His interests, like Towne's, lay elsewhere: in the moral relationships of the characters.

It is a conundrum of 20th century modernism, familiar to literary critics, that stylistic radicalism is no guide to anyone's politics. (Eliot and Pound come to mind.) For all their dynamic innovativeness, Scorsese, Schrader, DePalma, Cronenberg, and Lynch are, to a man, rigid moralists. They subscribe to the profoundly conservative line that man is born bad and only society restrains him, though just barely. The cosmological specifics may vary according to their religious backgrounds, but corruption always lies just beneath the surface, sin is everywhere, and redemption is possible only through violence, death, or, less frequently, love. It is one of the many ironies of postmodernity that our hottest cinematic rebels are the true heirs to the moral intransigence of old Hollywood's Production Code. Flesh betrays spirit, and transgression must bring punishment.

In stark contrast to so many of his peers, Towne is moral without being moralistic. He is a moral filmmaker in the French sense of the word: he's preoccupied with choices and ideas. In an earlier day, we might simply have called him a liberal humanist. The same goes for Renoir (despite a brief flirtation with Communism in the Thirties). Their style of psychological realism is rooted in the brilliant bourgeois culture of the 19th century European novel.

Like Renoir before him, Towne's lack of moral rigidity has often been misperceived as moral laxity. Moral absolutists of the right have attacked Towne for glorifying drug use in Tequila Sunrise because the drug dealer (Mel Gibson) is not a villain and, what's worse, in the end he gets the girl. Moral commissars on the left denounced the same film for its allegedly shameless revival of old-fashioned, hero-worshiping Hollywood decadence, not to mention its cop-out of a happy ending.

But Towne prefers ambiguous, morally compromised characters because they're real. His attitude is that no individual can walk through life along a perfectly straight line. He must live and work in the real world.

Money is usually a problem; so is job stability. Towne has the common man's contempt for those who enjoy enough material luxury to never have to compromise their high-priced values. Shampoo's George the hairdresser (Warren Beatty) caters to the rich, but he himself is not; he desperately needs others' capital if he is to open his own shop. Mac, the drug dealer in Tequila Sunrise, used to be rich, but his decision to go straight has caused financial problems that are driving him to the wall.

Another dose of reality is that Towne's characters aren't all geniuses, either. George, Mac, Buddusky, and Jake Gittes are all explicitly portrayed as intellectual under-achievers. They cannot easily discern the truth of their situations, or see clearly what's right and wrong. They have the desire to be faithful and good, but they make mistakes, they misread events, and they always, always are forced into unpleasant compromises.

Those characters who have the greatest luxury of all, the luxury of moral certainty, like the track coach in Personal Best, are never the heroes of a Towne story. The coach (Scott Glenn) knows he's right, and his certainty is very seductive, at first, to his two young protégés (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly). He "knows" that any athlete who wants to make it to the Olympics has to be selfish, singleminded, and completely alone. But the two young women develop an intimate friendship, at first erotic, then platonic. Their innocence turns to experience and challenges the ideological authority of the coach. Personal Best is about testing the limits of the self, on and off the track. It's a sexy, physically intimate film about the life of the mind.

In The Last Detail, Buddusky escorts a young sailor to prison. The poor dumb kid (Randy Quaid) is being put away for years—for stealing just a few dollars. Buddusky gives the kid a happy last few days, but he still follows his orders and takes him to the brig in the end. In Towne's version of Darryl Ponicsan's novel, Buddusky hates himself for doing it but he accepts it as part of his job and lives with it. Towne's ending is compromised, unresolved, unheroic, but true to life. In a corrupt and compromising world where everyone eventually gets their hands dirty, the important question is: how dirty.

"Most people just do their job," Towne said à propos The Last Detail, "whether it's shove Jews in ovens or take a kid who's stolen forty bucks and rob him of eight years of his life. You're nice about it. You're polite … I'm just doing my job…. The ending of that screenplay is more consonant with my sensibility than the ending of Chinatown." Not surprisingly, Ponicsan is said to have hated it.

Towne not only wrote Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise, he directed them as well. And directing style is another area where Chinatown can be misleading when it comes to analyzing Towne's other work.

In his first two directorial efforts, Towne has shown more affinity for the sympathetic and accommodating directing style of Hal Ashby (with whom Towne made three films) than for Polanski, whose sharply controlled technique gave Chinatown its edge. Towne, Ashby, and, at a much higher level of development, Renoir share a flexible method that allows greater room for the contributions of the actors. Their styles are slightly rough around the edges, with a looser, more spontaneous feel. Towne has even gone so far as to use nonprofessional actors in Personal Best, not for their malleability (as Bresson does), but for their unpredictability, perhaps taking his cue from Renoir's Toni. (Jack Nicholson, who years ago directed his acting-class colleague Towne in Drive, He Said, also leans toward a more improvisatory style. All the more reason we should have expected that The Two Jakes, directed by Nicholson, would be a disappointment to hardcore purists awaiting a literal reprise of the Polanski Chinatown.)

Towne's penchant for informality has been harmful in one respect. His plots have grown increasingly complex, even to the point of incomprehensibility, and he is reluctant to pare them back. This is especially true of the last two, Tequila Sunrise and The Two Jakes. Towne might agree with Raymond Chandler—another writer whose plots have gotten out of control at times—who once wrote: "With me a plot … is an organic thing. It grows and often it overgrows. So that my problem invariably ends up as a desperate attempt to justify a lot of material that, for me at least, has come alive and insists on staying alive."

I am reluctant to defend either of them on this point, though Oscar Wilde might take their case: "Incomprehensibility is a gift," Wilde said. "Not everyone has it."

If plot construction is not among Towne's evident strengths, character certainly is—even though film is a difficult medium for a psychological realist. Unlike the novel, film permits no direct view into a character's mind. The filmmaker's tools are acting, dialogue, visual style, and whatever tricks of the trade can be found amidst the artifice of 19th century drama, the unsung source of many a classic Hollywood dramatic mode.

Towne revels in the kinds of conventions previously at home in the well-made plays of Feydeau or Sardou, not the least of which is his nearly fetishistic use of symbolic objects as foci for the shifting meanings that surround his characters. Cigarette lighters, watches, missing eyeglasses, even scars recur within and between films, each time imparted with a new and different symbolic meaning by the character who touches them. We often come to truly know Towne's people through their bric-a-brac.

Take the common envelope. In Chinatown Evelyn Mulwray mails a check to Jake. She's trying to buy him off. He tries to return the envelope—and the check—but not before noticing her engraved initials, which reveal her relationship to Noah Cross. Not much; but the same envelope reappears in Tequila Sunrise with a vengeance. (At least, I prefer to believe it's the same one.)

Tequila Sunrise is about two high-school buddies—one who grew up to be a cop, the other a dealer—and the woman they both love. Mac (Mel Gibson) is suspected of still dealing drugs. Envelopes of cash are a drug dealer's stock-in-trade. So when Mac gives an envelope to his cousin to deliver to Jo Ann (Michelle Pfeiffer), everyone eyes it suspiciously. Is it evidence that Jo Ann is involved with Mac in some sort of drug-dealing scheme? Is it a love letter? In fact, he's just asking her restaurant to cater a party for him.

The envelope reappears, in duplicate now, when Mac hands one to Jo Ann as payment for the party and then hands another to his ex-wife as his monthly alimony installment. This time they really are filled with cash, but he has accidentally mixed the two up and given too much money to Jo Ann and too little to his ex-wife. The envelopes move from hand to hand in an elaborately choreographed dance of meaning and misunderstanding. Jo Ann assumes he's trying to buy her affection. Mac "explains" everything, but the symbolic envelopes are closer to the awkward truth.

Or how about cigarettes and lighters? In Chinatown Evelyn Mulwray lights a cigarette everytime she tells a lie—it's as reliable as Pinocchio's nose. In Tequila Sunrise, Mac the dealer and Nick the cop both nervously flick matching Zippo lighters bearing the initials, in raised brass letters, of the high school they attended together. The lighters are constant visual reminders of the bond of experience and affection that ties the two unlikely friends together.

And if not lighters, then ordinary matches. In the film's finest scene—one of Towne's all-time best—Nick the cop (Kurt Russell) gives a long, confessional speech in front of Jo Ann. He's saying he loves her and will no longer be the suspicious cop with her. It is a moment of absolute sincerity and it wins her heart.

Then the phone rings. Jo Ann goes to the other end of the bar to answer it. Nick's police instincts get the better of him. He has to know who she's talking to. He thinks it may be Mac. He decides to eavesdrop. Let the screenplay finish it:

He reaches for a cigarette, doesn't seem to be able to find a match. He moves down the bar ostensibly to pick up a pack by the cash register which is close to Jo Ann and her conversation. She turns questioningly when she senses he's at her back. He holds up the pack of matches by way of reply. She nods, "oh"—then stops. She looks down the bar—two packs of matches are crammed under the ashtray in front of Nick's bar stool….

Betrayed by a book of matches. With that eloquent gesture, more truthful than his long confession, Nick drives the woman he loves into the arms of his rival. Nick will always be a cop. That's his strength and his fatal flaw.

Like Personal Best before it, Tequila Sunrise is a portrait of a tense and competitive friendship. Towne has shown an increasing interest in how friendships and love affairs survive in the real world. Where the public and the private overlap, professional demands impinge on personal and romantic ones. (He may have drawn inspiration from his own highly publicized friendships with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, with each of whom he has collaborated on numerous film projects.)

The public and private realms do not peacefully coexist; the choices between the two are often impossible, but choices have to be made. "Given the choice between betraying my country or my friends," E.M. Forster provocatively wrote, "I hope I will have the courage to betray my country." Towne can be infuriating in the same way.

Lately Towne has taken to doubling the number of protagonists as a way of upping the moral ante. The moral dilemmas of individuals has given way to the moral distractions of pairs and couples. The trend continues with his most recent film. Where there was only one Jake sixteen years ago, today there are two.

In The Two Jakes we meet Gittes eleven years after the events of Chinatown. He's added a few pounds and lost some hair, but is prosperous and content. The Great Depression is over, World War II (in which he served with distinction) has come and gone, and the postwar boom is in full swing. His company, Gittes Investigations, has its own building now, and the proprietor has his own parking space. All that remains of the unpleasant past are a few scars: one on his nose, others hidden deeper.

The script for The Two Jakes (which circulated in samizdat form for several years) again concerns a character trying to do good but making a mess of it. This time there are two knights-errant, both named Jake—and two fetishistic cigarette lighters as well.

It is also the next chapter in Towne's history of the social and economic development of Southern California. The harsh social realism precariously coexists with the romantic recollection of the Southern California of his youth.

In Chinatown the historic focus of desire was water; in The Two Jakes the smart money is on real estate and oil. The original tenants of the San Fernando Valley land appropriated by Noah Cross in the first film are long gone; postwar tract houses are going up where walnut groves once stood. The second Jake of the title is a Jewish real estate developer who at first seems like the bad guy but (shades of Marcel Dalio in Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game) turns out to be, well, more complicated. Is he another cynical megalomaniac who'll stop at nothing to further his own interests and mint more money? Or is he a different kind of dreamer, and Gittes' doppelgänger in more than name only?

The Two Jakes is a continuation of the Chinatown story, but on a deeper level it is also a rebuttal. Part of the new script's subtext seems to be how Towne himself, in the form of Jake Gittes, must atone for his mistake in the previous film—namely, letting Polanski give a dark, nihilistic twist to the original ending by killing Evelyn Mulwray. Towne and Jake failed to save Evelyn in Chinatown. The failure still haunts them both. In The Two Jakes they want to protect the memory of her daughter, Katherine, as a way of atoning for Evelyn's death.

Katherine was always a perfectly balanced Towne symbol: the tainted product of a horrible incestuous rape—but also a symbol of innocence and hope for the future. Would Robert Towne, the third Jake, manage to protect her this time? (Part of him must have been confident. After all, four years after the release of Chinatown, his wife gave birth to a daughter. They named her Katherine.)

As he did with Polanski, Towne had some differences of opinion with director Nicholson, and he apparently absented himself from L.A. during the latter part of the shooting. Nicholson reportedly reworked the ending to suit his own artistic instincts—and, no doubt, to simplify the very long and convoluted script.

But finally … so what? The compromises of filmmaking are a perfect mirror to the compromises in life, and they do not always lead to inevitable failure. Towne once called Chinatown the first part of a projected trilogy, so there's always hope for another shot—though prospects are dim: after all, the second film took sixteen years to reach the screen, and was soon playing to empty houses. Still, anything is possible. Like the old revolutionary, Robert Towne is a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will.

David Ansen (review date 24 October 1994)

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SOURCE: "An Old Affair Revisited," Newsweek, Vol. CXXIV, No. 17, October 24, 1994, p. 76.

[In the following mixed review of Towne's Love Affair, Ansen asks: "Why do another remake of the sentimental classics Love Affair and An Affair to Remember … if you're not prepared to wallow in four-hankie heaven?"]

Like every movie Warren Beatty has produced, Love Affair is made with skill, the participation of topnotch talents and considerable taste. There are times, however, when good taste can get in your way. Why do another remake of the sentimental classics Love Affair and An Affair to Remember (both directed by Leo McCarey, in 1939 and 1957) if you're not prepared to wallow in four-hankie heaven? Beatty, who stars and co-wrote the script with Robert Towne (Glenn Gordon Caron directs), follows the originals' plot line with great fidelity, with a sprinkling of contemporary details to drag it into the '90s. He's a former pro quarterback and notorious womanizer engaged to a TV talk-show host (Kate Capshaw). On a flight to Australia he meets the woman of his dreams—piano teacher Terry McKay (Annette Bening), herself engaged to marry a wealthy financier (Pierce Brosnan). The plane crashlands on a Pacific island; the two embark on a ship for Tahiti, fall in love and vow to meet in three months atop the Empire State Building. If you don't know what happens next, you didn't see Sleepless in Seattle.

Aside from the autobiographical echoes—famous philanderer discovers monogamy late in the day—Beatty offers no fresh take. The movie, bathed in soft focus, is as reticent about sex as the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr version, and half as romantic. The only fun is in the lively first third: Beatty and Bening are at their best in push-pull seduction mode, when they can be a bit naughty. But once the couple clinch their bond—just when the story gets really shameless—the life drains out of the movie. Love Affair takes such pains to dodge vulgarity it forgets to put anything in its place.


∗Principal Works


Further Reading