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

The Don's implicit love for Michael becomes explicit in his sorrow over his son's criminal destiny. The speech epitomizes the power that subtext can have when it suddenly and organically erupts into the text. But what floored me about Towne's description was his ability to summon from memory every pause and phrase of the film's dialogue (like the way Brando repeats a fragment of a sentence about his 3-year-old grandson "reading the funny papers"), as well as the strong visual metaphor Towne developed and pushed further -- a puppet on a string caught in a vortex.

The Hollywood powers that were -- and that be -- thought (and think) Towne would make a superb writer/director. As Jerry Bruckheimer notes, "You've got to understand -- Robert is Hollywood royalty." But even kings in Hollywood don't get free rein, and Personal Best has a typically tangled history.

In fact, his writing/directing debut was supposed to be the hugely ambitious Tarzan epic Greystoke, funded by Warner Bros. With this film, Towne hoped to portray a Tarzan of the apes, by the apes, and for the apes, suffusing his script with the latest scholarship on feral children and simian behavior. But Towne turned to Personal Best as a way for him to test his directing legs before embarking on a tricky picture such as Greystoke. Shooting a film cast mostly with real athletes and incorporating footage of actual events proved an equally daunting challenge. Then the Screen Actors Guild struck the major studios. Towne asked for an exception to proceed on the grounds that the bulk of his cast were athletes, but the union refused. He refinanced the film with then-independent producer David Geffen and made a separate peace with the guild. But three weeks before the end of shooting, Geffen and Towne had a fatal battle over the budget, and Geffen shut him down.

In an arduous six-month-long effort to get the cameras rolling again, Warner Bros. guaranteed the completion and release of Personal Best while seizing the rights to Greystoke. The studio assigned the Tarzan picture to Hugh Hudson, the British director of the prettified period view of Olympic running, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981). As British critic Geoff Andrew wrote, Chariots of Fire "is an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals. Pap. And Greystoke is no better."

Still, back in '82, Hudson was in the catbird seat, Towne in the doghouse. Stories swirled about the writer/director's supposed eccentricities and excesses. Peter Biskind's recent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, promulgates many of them anew, depicting Towne as a frantic, indecisive coke fiend often absent from the set and the editing room. Towne's friend Moore, who both acted in Personal Best and wrote a persuasive eyewitness account of its making for Sports Illustrated (ignored by Biskind), has a word for all these stories: "Bullshit!" (Temperamental artists often hold contradictory feelings toward their co-workers: When I interviewed Towne's director of photography on Personal Best, Michael Chapman, right after the film had been made, he spoke humorously and affectionately of the high-flown debates he and Towne had over his choice of lenses; he even gave Towne credit for pulling together a couple of the non-actors' performances in the cutting room. By contrast, Chapman's quotes in Biskind's book are cranky and accusatory and all about Towne's looniness.)

Towne says that personal chemistry inevitably shifts "day to day" -- that he could be painted, alternately, as an "incompetent sloth" and as being "brilliant," even on sets as happy as that of Without Limits. "I love [cinematographer] Conrad Hall, but when we were shooting the race scenes and he didn't know how they would cohere, he took Luisa aside and told her, 'Your husband's a magnificent writer; he should never direct.' But after he watched me prepare the actors for the crucial dialogue between Bowerman and Pre, he told me that it was the most spectacular exegesis of a scene he'd ever heard, from any director."

Towne is philosophical about the bile arising from the off-screen drama that enveloped Personal Best. "It's like the whole history of theatrical art," he shrugs. "Look at All About Eve as an example of three people beating the shit out of each other and then taking vows, or the end of The Bad and the Beautiful. It's the joy and agony of show business. As in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, there's a huge bloody battle and nobody dies."

You can't deny the stature of Personal Best as a finished work. Among those wowed by it at the time was an actress/playwright turned agent named Paula Wagner. "It awed me," recalls Wagner, "and it marked Robert as a visionary filmmaker." She would eventually become the agent for Towne and for Tom Cruise, and in 1993 left agenting to join with the star/producer to form Cruise-Wagner Productions -- the team behind Without Limits. Although it was a first-run commercial failure, Personal Best immediately fell into the pop zeitgeist. TV-commercial directors ripped off its shimmering long-lens views of sweaty rippling flesh as soon as it appeared. Even last year, Ellen DeGeneres, in her coming-out episode of Ellen, could jokingly chalk up her lesbianism to seeing Personal Best and know that everyone would get the joke. (Towne scowled when I brought up Ellen, since he never meant his film to be a brief for lesbianism -- not that there's anything wrong with it. I told him to relax and be flattered.) A small consolation may well be that Personal Best is now a household phrase. Who today thinks of Greystoke?

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