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

What's tragic about Greystoke is the waste of Towne's magnificent script. It's mind-blowing. The jungle scenes detail an orphan boy's maturation under the loving eyes of an ape mom named Kala; he gradually realizes that, far from being a retarded ape, he has powers simians don't have. With the hero perceived as a misfit until he discovers he can outthrow, outrun, and outthink his furry brothers, it's an anthropoid version of an ugly duckling story, and it called for the imagistic vibrancy of silent fantasies or the best cartoons. "What a pity he didn't get a chance to direct that film!" sighs cinematographer Hall.

Back then Towne was also developing the techniques to make his wild vision take root. Hall (the acclaimed lensman of Fat City and The Professionals) has gone on to shoot 1988's Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits with Towne. He called me from his Tahiti home to describe the Greystoke tests he shot for Towne: "We shot a scene with an orangutan and a gymnast in a gorilla suit -- like in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- and they looked like a child and his mother holding hands and walking through the forest together. Robert loved what I shot. They got into some real beefs, which I caught on film. The orangutan would bite and wrestle and grab and run away and climb trees, and the 'mother' would climb after him, and together they'd go swinging through the trees. It looked very violent. There were real bites, and the gymnast had to fight for life. That's what made it real. And I was on the perimeter kicking dust up and making it look more violent."

There have been other losses along the way, but Greystoke, Towne confides, "is the only one that left me inconsolable." Presumably that includes the public deterioration of his production on The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown that he was supposed to direct in 1985. With regard to what went down there, the studio dish again placed the blame on Towne's putative indecisiveness, this time over whether producer Robert Evans could return to acting and pull off the second lead. (Nicholson himself went on to direct it as a 1990 release but only semicoherently.)

With the gossip mill still churning, Towne wasn't about to get final cut on his next film, Tequila Sunrise, a heady romantic comedy-drama starring Mel Gibson as an almost-retired cocaine dealer; Kurt Russell as his old best buddy from high school, who happens to be a star narcotics cop; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the chic Manhattan Beach restaurant owner who gets caught between them. Towne wanted Gibson to go up in smoke -- literally -- at film's end, but one of the conditions Warner Bros. set was that Gibson had to live. "Gibson's character was supposed to be a moth in the flame," says Towne. "The real high for him was never doing the drugs but the danger of dealing the drugs. I made the guy too earnest and hangdog. He should have been more like the racehorse attached to the milk truck -- he hears a bell and he's off!"

Perhaps because the elements were so irresistible -- Robert Towne directing Gibson, Russell, and Pfeiffer in a California crime film -- an aura of disappointment settled over Tequila Sunrise, no matter how engaging, and profitable, it turned out to be. (Made for less than $20 million, it grossed $100 million worldwide.) "After that and Personal Best," Towne remembers, "I was so busy trying to pay for my life and make sure I could see my older daughter [he was in a custody dispute at the time] that directing was almost not an option."

Ironically, the power and gutter grace of his earlier works made them contemporary classics -- and made Towne fear he was "becoming a museum piece." That's a natural fear for any popular artist, even if, as his collaborators protest, it's a ludicrous one for Towne. So when then-agent Wagner, banking on Towne's "mental and spiritual daring, his love to try new things," put him and Cruise together to work on a stock-car racing story (Days of Thunder), he was ready to give it a try. Two things convinced him: He sparked to Cruise, and he fell in love with the stock-car world.

Towne had written for big stars in the past, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty (1975's Shampoo) among them. But in the late '80s Tom Cruise was a luminary whose power was still developing. And the concept of stars has always intrigued and stimulated Towne. In an oft-quoted 1995 article for the script-anthology magazine Scenario (since reprinted as the introduction to the Grove Press edition of Chinatown and The Last Detail), Towne wrote: "What was once said of the British aristocracy, that they did nothing and did it very well, is a definition that could be applied to movie actors. For gifted movie actors affect us most, I believe, not by talking, fighting, fucking, killing, cursing, or cross-dressing. They do it by being photographed. It is said of such actors that the camera loves them. Whatever that means, I've always felt their features are expressive in a unique way: They seem to register swift and dramatic mood changes with no discernible change of expression."

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