From Chinatown to Niketown

Robert Towne, the best screenwriter in the business and the man who invented Jake Gittes, is back with a bio of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine

In 1974 Robert Towne was seething about the lot of his script for Chinatown, now considered his most famous work. Released that same year, the screenplay won an Oscar for Towne. When I interviewed him at the time, he was appalled at director Roman Polanski's heavy hand, particularly his insistence that Evelyn Mulwray, Faye Dunaway's character, be killed in the ending. Twenty-three years later, as I chatted with him on-stage for a Writers Guild Foundation event in Santa Monica, his memories had softened. He said, "Roman and I never really had any arguments except one, and that was over the ending. And it wasn't that I wanted a happy ending; I had felt that his was excessively melodramatic.

"The way I had seen it was that Evelyn would kill her father but end up in jail for it, unable to give the real reason why it happened. And the detective [Jack Nicholson] couldn't talk about it either, so it was bleak in its own way. Evelyn was in jail and never coming out, and he was responsible for it, so the dynamic was the same." Two more decades of work taught him that "with a story of that complexity, the simpler, more brutal ending is almost the only thing possible. It needed a simpler, starker resolution, and I think Roman was right."

Towne -- writer of The Last Detail and Shampoo, and writer/director of Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise, and the new Without Limits -- long ago proved himself the master of the American screenplay. He knows how to use sly indirection, canny repetition, unexpected counterpoint, and a unique poetic vulgarity to stretch a scene or an entire script to its utmost emotional capacity. He's also a lush visual artist with an eye for the kind of images that go to the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. Now -- after years of highly paid script-doctoring and on the eve of his bravura return to the director's chair at the age of 63 -- his dueling tastes for street-elegant truth-telling and romantic catharsis have been amiably fused.

These days, living comfortably in Pacific Palisades, he's a disarming mixture of contentment and ambition. He's devoted to his wife of 14 years, Luisa; their 7-year-old daughter, Chiara; his grown daughter from his first marriage, Katherine (or "Skip"); and their dogs -- a border collie named Angus and a kuvasz named Aprod. (He's not nuts about Luisa's corgi, Florence.)

He's also aching to make up for lost time as a writer/director. A decade ago, with his career bogged down in professional controversies and personal crises, he made a concerted effort to put himself back in the game. But he wasn't able to launch his dream film -- an adaptation of John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust, about a struggling writer in 1930s L.A. -- even with Johnny Depp scheduled to appear as the lead. He began to feel, he reflected recently, that if he "wasn't able to do something that was considered a big box-office, star-driven vehicle that was supposed to appeal across the board, then I would be severely hampered in some of my more unconventional ventures."

His way out of the cul-de-sac, the script to Days of Thunder (1990), might have been the most written-to-order, seat-of-the-pants movie to wear a Towne credit since his days in the early '60s penning Roger Corman exploitation flicks, such as The Last Woman on Earth and The Tomb of Ligeia. But it forged partnerships and friendships with Jerry Bruckheimer, today's reigning action-spectacle producer, and with the star and co-author of the story, Tom Cruise. And it showed that rather than just alternate between being the invisible script doctor and the driven artiste, Towne was willing to throw himself into what old-timers would have called honest "jobs of work" -- the screenplays for The Firm (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996).

His new film, Without Limits, which is slowly rolling across the nation this fall, is no job of work. It's a labor of love, the second screen biography in as many years of the late Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner -- often called the James Dean of track -- who died in a 1975 car crash at the age of 24. It's that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. "Pre," as he was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner -- that is, he believed in racing full tilt from the starting line rather than strategizing his way to victory. A close friend of Towne's, the empathic sportswriter Kenny Moore, was an Olympic teammate and friend of Pre's. With Moore's help on the script, Towne depicts his rebellious hero as an icon of youth who shows he has the mettle to grow up, then dies before he gets the chance. It's almost a secular Passion play, as Pre nails himself to a cross of his own making: his belief that he can achieve anything through resolve alone. You might say that his Gethsemane comes after a heartbreaking loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. The movie has its own non-moralistic trinity, with Pre (Billy Crudup) as Will, his University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) as Reason, and Pre's Catholic girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) as Faith. Their conflicts get articulated in dialogue but played out in motion. Usually on the track.

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