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Despite four Oscar-nominated screenplays, writer Robert Towne owed much of his reputation to his prowess as a pinch hitter, earning considerable respect as one of Hollywood's preeminent script doctors on a wide array of famous works like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "The Godfather" (1972) and "Marathon Man" (1976). Emerging from the schlock of Roger Corman's B-grade sci-fi flicks, Towne reached the top of his game in the mid-1970s by writing three-straight films that were nominated for Academy Awards: "The Last Detail" (1973), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Shampoo" (1975). Towne also delved into directing with acclaimed films like "Personal Best" (1982) and "Without Limits" (1998), though most of his directing efforts failed to make much of a box office impression. For Towne, it was always his Oscar-winning script for "Chinatown" that earned him widespread recognition for being one of the finest scribes of his day, while giving him the distinction of having penned what many considered to be greatest screenplay in cinema history. In fact, Towne's masterwork was studied by would-be scribes hoping to unlock its secrets decades after its release, attesting to how much of a landmark film "Chinatown" really...
Despite four Oscar-nominated screenplays, writer Robert Towne owed much of his reputation to his prowess as a pinch hitter, earning considerable respect as one of Hollywood's preeminent script doctors on a wide array of famous works like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "The Godfather" (1972) and "Marathon Man" (1976). Emerging from the schlock of Roger Corman's B-grade sci-fi flicks, Towne reached the top of his game in the mid-1970s by writing three-straight films that were nominated for Academy Awards: "The Last Detail" (1973), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Shampoo" (1975). Towne also delved into directing with acclaimed films like "Personal Best" (1982) and "Without Limits" (1998), though most of his directing efforts failed to make much of a box office impression. For Towne, it was always his Oscar-winning script for "Chinatown" that earned him widespread recognition for being one of the finest scribes of his day, while giving him the distinction of having penned what many considered to be greatest screenplay in cinema history. In fact, Towne's masterwork was studied by would-be scribes hoping to unlock its secrets decades after its release, attesting to how much of a landmark film "Chinatown" really was.
Born on Nov. 23, 1934 in Los Angeles, CA, Towne was raised in nearby San Pedro by his father, Lou, a former women's clothing store owner who made a fortune in real estate, and his mother, Helen. Since San Pedro was a harbor city, Towne grew up around fishermen, and even plied himself as a tuna cutter when he was older. After graduating the Chadwick School, Towne attended Pomona College, where he studied literature and philosophy, and blithely came to the conclusion - based on no particular ambition - that he wanted to become a screenwriter. Towne left San Pedro and headed north to Los Angeles, where he joined an acting class taught by Jeff Corey that featured a number of soon-to-be prominent Hollywood players, including Sally Kellerman, Richard Chamberlain and Jack Nicholson. Another student, Roger Corman, learned of Towne's writing aspirations and invited him to work on his films. Towne was given his start writing low-budge Corman fare like "The Last Woman on Earth" (1960), a post-apocalyptic yarn about two men (Anthony Carbone and Edward Wain) vying for the affections of the only woman (Betsy Jones-Moreland) on the planet after everyone else is killed in a freak global disaster. Though not an auspicious beginning, Towne could lay claim to being a working writer.
After making his onscreen acting debut in Corman's schlock horror comedy, "Creature From the Haunted Sea" (1961), Towne made the jump to television, penning episodes of "The Lloyd Bridges Show" (CBS, 1962-63), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68), "Breaking Point" (ABC, 1963-64) and "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1963-65). Once again joining forces with Roger Corman, Towne delivered the goods on "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1965), a surprisingly tense and atmospheric gothic horror that starred Vincent Price as a widower grappling with the spirit of his deceased wife (Elizabeth Shepherd) in what marked the eighth and final time Price and Corman collaborated. After writing the watered-down epic "Villa Rides!" (1968) and playing a supporting role in Nicholson's directorial debut, "Drive, He Said" (1971), Towne began plying his craft as a famed script doctor, offering his uncredited services on "Cisco Pike" (1971), a crime drama about a crooked cop (Gene Hackman) pressuring a drug dealer (Kris Kristofferson) to do his bidding, and "The New Centurions" (1972), an adaptation of real-life cop Joseph Wambaugh's best-selling novel about police officers patrolling the beat in urban Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, his uncredited work for Francis Ford Coppola on "The Godfather" (1972) - Towne helped write the transfer-of-power scene between Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and Michael (Al Pacino) - earned him words of thanks during the director's acceptance speech for his Oscar-winning screenplay. Then having established himself as a prolific and talented scribe, Towne managed to churn out three successive screenplays that forever marked him as one of the all-time greats. First, he wrote "The Last Detail" (1973), a serio-comic look at two Navy lifers (Nicholson and Otis Young) who show a young sailor (Randy Quaid) how to fight, drink and score women while they escort him from their Virginia base to a New England military prison. In order to accurately depict Navy life, Towne sprayed the dialogue with profanities, which generated considerable consternation with Columbia Pictures, who refused to release the film. But when Nicholson won the best actor award at Cannes, the studio changed its mind, though their failure to fully support its release led to a quick box office death. Nonetheless, both Towne and Nicholson earned Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor respectively.
With his next writing effort, "Chinatown" (1974), a dark serpentine ode to film noir about a dogged and abrasive private detective, Jake Gittes (Nicholson), who stumbles upon murder and corruption in the Los Angeles Water and Power department that eventually leads to a more sordid scandal involving wealthy developer, Noah Cross (John Huston), and his troubled daughter, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Towne cemented his fortunes as the premiere screenwriter in the business. But what separated "Chinatown" from all the other noirs that came before it was the sordid and disturbing twist involving incest between Cross and Evelyn that only amplified the thread of cynicism and melancholy prevalent throughout the story. Directed by Roman Polanski, with whom Towne clashed over the ending among many other things, "Chinatown" was a masterpiece and considered by many to be one of the finest films ever made. A magnificent portrait of a Los Angeles coming of age in the 1930s, Towne's script later became one of the most-studied and referenced of all time. No surprise, Towne won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Towne rounded out his three best films by collaborating with star Warren Betty on the screenplay for "Shampoo" (1975), a pointed satire about the idle sex lives of the well-to-do while serving as a sharp commentary on the declining idealism of the 1960s generation in the age of Richard Nixon. Beatty starred as a Beverly Hills hairstylist and ladies man whose freewheeling lifestyle falls apart after Nixon's election and after having tried to juggle affairs with several women, including Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Carrie Fisher and Julie Christie. Once again, Towne was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. After contributing to the script for the uneven crime thriller, "The Yakuza" (1975) and doing uncredited work on Beatty's seminal epic, "Reds" (1981), Towne made an impressive directorial debut with "Personal Best" (1982), a character study of a track star (Mariel Hemingway) who embarks on a lesbian affair with a teammate (Patrice Donnelly) while trying to make the 1980 Olympic Team. Though "Personal Best" was a flop at the box office, the film was later championed by lesbians, much to the director's chagrin, while its long-lensed shots of training athletes was mimicked by television and commercial directors for years to come.
Prior to directing "Personal Best," Towne wanted to helm "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984), which was based on his script adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs' famed novel. But an ugly battle with producer David Geffen ultimately cost him a chance to helm his pet project, providing what he considered the bitterest disappointment of his career. Extremely displeased with the final result, he took a screenplay credit as P. H. Vazak - his dog's name - and when his work received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, his dog became the first canine ever so honored. Towne's second directing assignment, the slick romantic thriller "Tequila Sunrise" (1988), fared better with audiences than with critics, but the studio's refusal to allow him to shoot his ending may have contributed to its overall tepid reception. Meanwhile, his friendships with both Nicholson and Beatty soured on the final collaborations with each - Nicholson gave him the boot as director of "The Two Jakes" (1990), a remake of "Chinatown" that hurt far worse than his failure with co-writing "Love Affair" (1994) with Beatty, despite his script doctoring successes on "The Parallax View" (1974), "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) and "Reds."
Despite the fallings-out, Towne found a new best friend in superstar Tom Cruise, with whom he first worked on the racing actioner, "Days of Thunder" (1990). After co-writing "The Firm" (1993), a huge hit adapted from John Grisham's best-selling novel, Towne co-scripted Brian De Palma's "Mission: Impossible" (1996), a contemporary update of the famed 1960s spy drama. Cruise then served as producer - along with partner Paula Wagner - on "Without Limits" (1998), another pet project the writer had been developing about the famed go-for-broke long distance runner, Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), whose rising fame and fortune were tragically cut short from a car accident prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics. Written and directed by Towne, "Without Limits" displayed his fascination with both motion and pushing personal limits, which served as an apt metaphor for Towne's own life and career. Following uncredited work on the disaster blockbuster "Armageddon" (1998), he went back to the well for "Mission: Impossible II" (2002), then directed his fourth feature, "Ask the Dust" (2006), a return to Depression-era Los Angeles about an ambitious young Italian man (Colin Farrell) who moves from Colorado to the City of Angels to become a novelist, while falling in love with a Mexican waitress (Selma Hayek).
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CAST: (feature film)
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"The movies started changing with 'Superman'. The stars became Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Indiana Jones. It's a need for heroes. When we feel we can't do much of anything right, build a car or a TV set, we want someone who can change events, who can do it for us. The characters I write about are men who control events far, far less than events control them. My characters get caught, they try even though they don't prevail or even significiantly influence events. These guys muddle through." --Robert Towne quoted in The New York Times, November 27, 1990
"There are no novels or plays I'm itching to write and there never have been. I love movies. I think movies best communicate whatever I have to say and show; or to put it another way, when what you want to show is what you have to say, you are pretty much stuck with movies as a way of saying it." --Towne in Esquire, July 1991
"Working on 'Personal Best' was a great experience for me. And though the film was not a commercial success, it certainly got a lot of good critical attention and has had a long and honorable life in terms of being a sort of reference point in films. As for 'Tequila Sunrise', it was doomed from the beginning, when I was prevented from doing a script in which the hero is killed. That just twisted everything. Had that movie ended with Mel Gibson's death, the way it had been written, I think it would have been better reviewed and more commercially successful." --Robert Towne to Premiere, April 1998
On giving the scene he wrote to Marlon Brando in "The Godfather": "He was in his makeup chair and he said, 'Read it to me.' 'Read it to you?' 'Yeah.' 'Both parts?' 'Yeah.' That immediately pissed me off, because I thought, 'Well, this fucker's got to know that's an intimidating thing to do to anybody.' I made up my mind about one thing: I ain't gonna read this well. Acting for Brando is one mistake I'm not gonna make. I read it and he said, 'Read it again.' Then he did something that only Tom Cruise has ever done since--he took that scene apart, line by line, pause by pause, word by word. He wanted to know absolutely everything in my head that I could tell him about." --From Movieline, October 1998
About his differences with director Roman Polanski regarding the ending of "Chinatown": "Roman and I have been much misunderstood about this. We both agreed that it ended darkly. The only difference was I felt it was too melodramatic to end it his way. The way I had it figured was just about as dark, but Roman felt he needed that finale. I was wrong and he was right. Roman is one of the most gifted filmmakers of all time. As the years have gone by, I see that he taught me more than anybody. The best working relationship I ever had was with him. By far. He's a giant." --From Movieline, October 1998
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