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

When Personal Best, the first film Towne directed, premiered in 1982, fans of his earlier screenplays were both overwhelmed and perplexed by the film's torrential physicality. Some balked at the idea that two female athletes who throw off inhibitions (and authority figures) and have a lesbian affair could lead us into a rediscovery of our everyday physical universe. Some may respond the same way to Without Limits. Without sentimentalizing distance runners, the film treats their eagerness to push past the boundaries of known pain as the purest of crucibles. Viewers who can let their guard down will find themselves caught up in an eddying whorl of passion and beauty.

At that Writers Guild event I asked Towne whether he was still obsessed with the physical life and whether that was tied to his fabled affection for the unspoiled California of his youth. (He grew up in San Pedro.) "What I've always responded to," he answered, "is movement -- character is automatically expressed more quickly and eloquently through movement than through dialogue.

"When I think back on the movies I loved as a kid," he continued, "to Stewart or Cagney or Fonda, so much of the way in which they expressed themselves was simply the way they moved. You think of Fonda doing the dance on the post in My Darling Clementine. The whole movie was about Henry Fonda walking up and down the street, and it should have been."

And how does that relate to California? "I think it's in The Brothers Karamazov. There's that fable of the summer fool and the winter fool. The summer fool you can see right away because he's lightly dressed, and he's walking around swinging a tennis racket. The winter fool, however, comes to your door in the dead of night; he's got clothes on that obscure his form -- hiding his movement -- and it's only when you get him inside the house and he takes off his clothes that you can see that he, too, is a fool. I think if you're a Californian, you're a summer fool." And that, concludes Towne, makes Californians innately sensitive to movement. "I went to Redondo Union High School, and I remember being in gym class, in school, and it always struck me: You always wore gray shorts and a T-shirt, you always wore the same goddamn thing. But you could look 300 yards away and immediately recognize somebody by the way they moved."

There isn't a moment when you can't follow Billy Crudup's Steve Prefontaine from 300 yards away -- partly because he's usually running away from the pack. But the movie isn't only about seeing him from far away, in terms of records and accomplishments; it's also about getting so close to his skin that you think you can see what's inside. Crudup plays Pre brilliantly, as a surly boy-man so dedicated to willing himself toward sports Valhalla that he runs over anyone in his path.

In Without Limits, Pre becomes the track-and-field equivalent of a youthful poet burning with a hard, gemlike flame. His soul rising up after defeat in the '72 Olympics (he came in fourth in the 5,000 meters) gives the film its emotional crest. In fact, to hear co-writer Moore tell it, Pre's soul is what hooked Towne; Moore spun yarns about his University of Oregon pal to cheer up Towne through the turmoil of Personal Best.

To understand the impact that the delay-plagued production of Personal Best had on Towne's career, you have to appreciate the string of artistic and financial successes he was part of in the late '60s and '70s.

Towne had built an enormous reputation not simply on the screenplays that carried his name but also on a number of celebrated ones that didn't. He was listed as "special consultant" for the writing he did on Bonnie and Clyde, and Francis Ford Coppola thanked him onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony for the work Towne did on The Godfather. Towne has a knack for taking a script's existing strengths and bringing to them a crystalline lucidity and tension. As we talked about the finishing touches he put on Coppola and Mario Puzo's Godfather script, I asked him how he came up with the final conversation between Marlon Brando's Don Corleone and Al Pacino's Michael -- an emotional father-son climax that sums up everything the movie has to say about family, power, and corruption.

"Well," Towne said, "you know that image of the puppets on the cover of the novel? That was the inspiration. I knew I had to keep the thought of the Don refusing to be 'a fool dancing on the strings of all these big shots.' The movie needed a love scene at that moment, but the only way to do it was to show the Don having trouble with the succession of power, handing this viper's nest to the one son he didn't want to have to deal with it and apologizing for doing so. His saying 'I never wanted you to have anything to do with this' is his way of saying 'I love you.' "

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