In person, Robert Towne looks every inch the survivor of the Seventies New Hollywood that he is. Tall, white-maned and white-bearded, he settles on the Kabuki Theatre stage, where he is to receive the Kanvar Award given annually to honor distinguished screenwriters at the San Francisco International Film Festival. He’s courteous but wryly guarded as author (and film noir specialist) Eddie Muller begins the interview by dropping the L-word (as in “legendary”) on the guest’s lap. “It’s a bit of a mixed blessing,” Towne muses of the accolade. “Like I’m getting ready for the waxworks.” As the writer of such Seventies favorites as The Last Detail and Chinatown (to say nothing of oft-uncredited contributions to The Godfather, The Parallax View, and The Yakuza), he’s certainly earned the right to bathe in such praise. Yet one understands Towne’s note of rue: Still sharp as a shiv and filled with ideas for projects, he is nevertheless weary of the way things have changed since “the old days,” and, following frustrating experiences directing his most personal projects, has apparently accepted the role of Hollywood’s resident script-doctor.
The clip reel preceding the interview tells the tale: Spiky, expansive dialogue in iconoclastic films (a sort of pungent poetry voiced by Jack Nicholson as a sewer-mouthed sailor or as a shamus digging for rot) segueing into tidy jobs in Tom Cruise blockbusters (included in the montage is, tellingly, a passage from Mission: Impossible with barely a word in it). Structure is all for the seasoned screenwriter, however, so the interview is largely built as a steady ascension toward glory days of the New Hollywood. Towne tells Muller about his beginnings, studying acting (he first met Jack Nicholson in the late 1950s at a class held by veteran character actor Jeff Corey) and cutting his teeth with Roger Corman’s troupe (Last Woman on Earth and Creature from the Haunted Sea, both personal faves of kooky guerrilla filmmaking, predictably go unmentioned). Towne considers his (unbilled) contribution to Bonnie and Clyde as a turning point, the first time he saw writing as an art form in its own right. It was also the film in which he met Warren Beatty, with whom he would collaborate through much of his career. Despite claims throughout the event of Towne’s distinctive style, it’s this comfortable reliance on superstars, whether actors (Beatty, Nicholson, Cruise) or directors (Polanski, Ashby), which to many still sows doubts about Towne as a driving authorial voice as opposed to a skilled dispenser of narrative line and pungent talk.
Whether or not he is his own auteur, however, Towne is an endlessly interesting interview subject, with a streak of melancholy frequently breaking through the practiced delivery of anecdotes. In between remembrances of filmmakers—Hal Ashby: “A lovely, calming Buddha”; Polanski: “The most gifted director I’ve ever worked with… And an impossible little shit”—Towne spoke of how compromised most of the projects he was passionate about have turned out. Of the screenplays he himself has directed, Personal Best and Without Limits are the only ones he feels truly proud of. Tequila Sunrise had a happy ending imposed onto Towne’s darker original (an ironic reversal of the Chinatown situation, even though Towne insists his own ending was as bleak as Polanski’s revision), while his last film, Ask the Dust, proved to be such a fatiguing experience that it made him question his desire to direct another movie. He seems content now to play script-mechanic in pal Cruise’s star vehicles, yet there’s authentic regret in his voice when he recalls the way his script about Tarzan (“The best thing I’ve ever written”) was reworked into what eventually became the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Refusing to be attached to the project, Towne used his dog’s name in the credits—came Oscar time, the pooch duly received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.
Though best remembered in cinephilic circles for Chinatown, the film Towne chose to screen was Shampoo. Heralded by Pauline Kael as a modern Rules of the Game (quoth David Lynch: “Strange what love does”), it’s a flashy social satire whose grooviness, far less barbed and more sentimental than Ashby’s earlier The Landlord, hasn’t aged well. But it’s easy to see why Towne picked it: From its view of political distrust to its offhand ribaldry (the freedom of having Julie Christie’s famous cock-sucking declaration followed by a spit-take) and the half-sly, half-revelatory Beatty at its center, it in several ways embodies what people like to think of as the “adult age of American film.” As a Beverly Hills hairdresser-lothario, Beatty ping-pongs between Christie, Goldie Hawn, and Lee Grant (with a little detour for a quickie with a pre-Princess Leia Carrie Fisher) while the ’68 election around them lands Darth Nixon in the White House. There’s a lovely shape to the structure that’s uncharacteristic of the usually more amorphous Ashby, and yet Shampoo seems to belong as much to Beatty as to Towne. (They shared writing credits.) Beatty’s shaggy-haired Don Juan is always rushing through places, people, and even his own sentences, as if to cover (or escape from) some central void; when he tells his kept-woman beloved that “we’re kidding ourselves,” it might be the superstar himself acknowledging the precipice of their own frivolity in the face of a problematically transitory culture. It’s a sadder film than it first appears, though the warm reception at the festival was no surprise: What was once an ambivalent study of nostalgia for the Sixties has since become a cozy object of nostalgia for the Seventies.
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.