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 Towne's eyes, Cruise, at his best, is that kind of actor. And if Towne's work has brought new subject matter into the movies and revitalized celluloid sexuality and profanity, it has also been rooted in the traditions of heightened emotion and flamboyant storytelling that old-fashioned stars made possible. While strolling through the Santa Barbara Zoo with Towne and his family during his tribute weekend at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last spring, I laughed as he broke into re-enacting the scene when Leslie Howard first confronts Raymond Massey in 1934's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard reties his foe's cravat after telling Massey, the agent of the guillotine, that the French "have the cleverest heads in the world. The only trouble is you all go to pieces around the neck."

Towne made me realize anew that '30s films had their own sparkly kind of subtext, expressed in cleverness and fun. At the Writers Guild appearance in Santa Monica, to illustrate the idea that repetition can define a change in character, Towne brought up James Cagney's recurring motif in 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces -- "What do you hear, what do you say?" -- which the actor spits out as a kid, as a young man on the move, as a big shot, and as a dead man walking who's ready to sacrifice his tough-guy image. These are the kind of things that Towne carries in his head, along with military history and Mark Twain and whatever real-world topic is seizing him at the moment. On Days of Thunder it was stock-car racing.

The rugged intertwining of Towne's hunger for reality and yen for voluptuous escape is what gives his work its sinew. Even on Days of Thunder he wasn't sold on the project until he and Cruise immersed themselves in the stock-car world. The resulting script never got beyond the tale of the brash young man who flinches in the face of mortality and has to restore his own confidence -- the hot dog who becomes an underdog. But Towne grew to love the racers ("The best people on Earth, so gutsy and superglamorous and everything else"), and Cruise, and working with Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson. "Don would fume and carry on beyond unreason, go into black rages," Towne recalls. "But if you told him he was so full of shit, he'd say, 'OK, I stand corrected,' and turn on a dime. He was great that way."

Bruckheimer, noting the extensive research Towne does "once he gets the story in his head," began thinking of him as "the godfather of verisimilitude. If the script called for a bloodhound, and [Days of Thunder director] Tony [Scott] brought out a dog that wasn't a bloodhound, Robert went nuts. He's a stickler." He also proved to be a speedster and a utility player, banging out scenes overnight and directing a lot of the second unit. And he did the production a huge favor. According to Bruckheimer, it was Towne who saw the 1989 Australian thriller Dead Calm and told him, "You've got to hire Nicole Kidman." She was hired.

All this synchronicity didn't blind Towne to the finished movie's shortcomings. "What everybody learned," says Towne, "is never to lock a film so early into an opening date ever again. The fact is, the editors had four weeks to go through 2 or 3 million feet of film." The racing scenes focused on spectacle and not on the narrow parameters the drivers operate within, and whatever nuances and colors Towne and Cruise worked to achieve ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Still, Towne is right to point out that "there were some very good things in Days of Thunder." Surrounding Cruise were deft turns by a host of canny character actors, especially Robert Duvall as a crusty car designer and coach, and Randy Quaid as a drawling car salesman. And there are some good lines, as when Quaid tells Cruise, "If you're from California, you're not a Yankee. You're not really anything."

Days of Thunder was not the blockbuster that had been anticipated, but Towne continued to tell himself throughout the '90s, "I'll prove I can do anything to get back to directing, including writing commercial movies." Like The Firm, based on the John Grisham best seller of the same name. Although Towne acknowledges that he and the film's other writers, as well as its director, Sydney Pollack, couldn't do much with the white-bread Grisham hero at the novel's center, he felt Cruise lent the character credibility. And Towne was proud of turning Gene Hackman's corrupt lawyer role into a sad-eyed hero, while filling the edges with colorful character work for the likes of Ed Harris and Gary Busey. At one point Cruise tells a mob fat cat, "You're gonna feel like you were fucked with a dick big enough for an elephant to feel it." A delicious pause ensues. "You know that for a fact?" the mobster asks. "Those lines were worth the scene," Towne says now. "So often, guys with a shitload of money -- abuse them at the right moment, and they just love you for it."

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