Robert Towne - Writer

Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, 23 November 1935. Education: Attended Pomona State College, California; studied acting with Jeff Corey. Family: Two daughters. Military Service: U.S. Army. Career: Sold real estate and worked as a commercial fisherman; 1960—first film as writer, The Last Woman on Earth ; then worked as script doctor and for TV; 1970–71—negotiator between San Pedro tuna fishermen and environmentalists. Awards: Academy Award and Writers Guild Award, for Chinatown , 1974; British Academy Award, for Chinatown and The Last Detail , 1974; Writers Guild Award, for Shampoo , 1975. Agent: Contemporary Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Writer:


The Last Woman on Earth (Corman) (+ ro)


The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman)


Bonnie and Clyde (Penn) (consultant)


Villa Rides (Kulik) (co)


The Last Detail (Ashby)


Chinatown (Polanski)


Shampoo (Ashby) (co); The Yakuza (Pollack) (co)


Personal Best (+ d)


Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hudson) (credited as P. H. Vazak)


Tequila Sunrise (+ d)


Days of Thunder (T. Scott); The Two Jakes (Nicholson) (from original characters)


The Firm (co) (Pollack)


Love Affair (co) (Caron)


Mission: Impossible (co) (De Palma)


Without Limits (+ d); Armageddon (Bay) (additional writing [uncredited])


Mission: Impossible II (Woo)

Film as Producer:


The Bedroom Window (Hanson) (exec pr)

Film as Actor:


The Pick-Up Artist (Toback) (as Stan)


By TOWNE: articles—

American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1976.

In The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady, New York, 1981.

Time Out (London), 1–7 July 1983.

Towne, Robert, "On Moving Pictures," in Scenario (US), vol 1, no.1, Winter, 1995.

"I Wanna Make it Like Real Life," interview with Hadani Ditmars, in Sight and Sound (London), vol.9, no. 2, February 1999.

On TOWNE: articles—

Sragow, Michael, "Ghost Writers Unraveling the Enigma of Movie Authorship," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1983.

Bellman, Joel, in American Screenwriters, 2nd series , edited by Randall Clark, Detroit, 1986.

Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1989.

Film Comment (New York), November/December 1990.

Engel, Joel, in Screenwriters on Screenwriting , New York, 1995.

* * *

The main characters in Robert Towne's technically impeccable scripts are outsiders flirting with coming in from the cold. Jack Nicholson's J. J. Gittes in Chinatown ; Warren Beatty's George in Shampoo ; Mariel Hemingway's Chris, the novice athlete, and Patrice Donnelly's Tory, the veteran, in Personal Best ; the two petty officers, Otis Young's Mulhall and Jack Nicholson's unruly Buddusky, and their childlike prisoner, Meadows (Randy Quaid), in The Last Detail ; Christopher Lambert's Tarzan in Greystoke ; Robert Mitchum's American hero and his Japanese cohort (Ken Takakura) in The Yakuza —these are characters living on the fringe. Towne's misfit protagonists are caught at society's margins, and his screenplays find them at the moment when they confront the mainstream. The overarching sadness at the end of Towne's scripts has to do with their remaining on the outside, having realized that is where they belong. As with Tarzan in Greystoke , their inability to be integrated into the system only underscores their dignity and the hollowness of society. All the characters above, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, Vito Corleone in his twilight days in The Godfather , and Michael Corleone contemplating vengeance, are all figures as alien to "civilization" as Tarzan.

One of the major changes Towne made in adapting Darryl Ponicsan's novel The Last Detail for the screen concerned stripping away Buddusky's eccentricities, eliminating his closet intellectualism and his beautiful wife. Shaped in the mold of a typical Towne protagonist, Buddusky could not get off Towne's existential hook: he could not, as the book's character could, retreat into ideas, nor take any comfort from the fact that waiting at the end of this detail was a pretty wife. And Towne's decision to alter the ending so that Buddusky does not die makes him a lonely survivor rather than a martyr. Like J. J. Gittes, he ends up wrapped in solitude. Towne's heroes are characters for whom neat dramatic resolutions do not exist. Tarzan remains a "wild man." George, the notorious ladies' man, is the odd man out at the conclusion of Shampoo . Tory, who got Chris a place on the track team and gave her support, love, and consolation, is left far behind at the end of Personal Best .

Towne gained fame in Hollywood as a consummate "script doctor," a writer who could fix ailing scripts of films already in production. Among his most noted house calls is an on-the-set revision of Bonnie and Clyde . But his most famous doctoring is the patio scene he wrote for The Godfather . The scene, between the retired Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Al

Robert Towne (right) with Mel Gibson
Robert Towne (right) with Mel Gibson
Pacino), who has taken over the family business, is a key one in the film. Technically, it was a difficult scene to write (there was no comparable scene in the book) because it had to do two things at once. As an exposition scene, it had to provide the audience with crucial information about an upcoming betrayal and attempt on Michael's life. Moreover, director Francis Ford Coppola wanted a scene where, as he put it, father and son "say they love each other." Towne's solution was brilliant. He placed the scene's hard information—who the Corleones' enemies were, how and when they would try to assassinate Michael—at the beginning and end. In between he wrote a tender encounter between father and son, as touching as it was universal. It subtly showed the transfer of power and hinted at the Don's senility and Michael's self-doubt. More importantly, it gave Don Corleone the opportunity to speak about his failed dreams. As powerful as he is, Don Corleone is a father who like many fathers has regrets about how his children's lives turned out. "There wasn't enough time, Michael," Don Corleone says, thinking of things that will never be and expressing feelings any parent could sympathize with, "there just wasn't enough time."

In Robert Towne's screenwriting career, The Godfather 's patio scene is one in a series of telling, bittersweet moments. Towne's is a dark, uncaring world, but one of the things that makes his vision so penetrating is that it is so complete. In the Towne universe, life may be mostly hopeless, but not completely so. The scenes that stand out in relief amidst the bleakness are those in which a glimmer of hope shines through, where one character shows another some warmth and kindness. In The Last Detail it is the glance exchanged by Buddusky and Mulhall when they almost let Meadows escape. In Personal Best it is Chris's encouragement of Tory at the climactic Olympic trials. In Chinatown it is Mrs. Mulwray's attempt to get her sister-daughter out of the clutches of her father and Gittes's fumbling attempts to help. In Shampoo it is Jack Warden's puffed-up character of Lester forgiving, accepting, and proposing to his mistress (Julie Christie). And it is George's awkward but moving explanation of his philandering to Jill (Goldie Hawn) when he says, "I go into an elevator or walk down the street and see a pretty girl, and that's it: It makes my day. I can't help it. I feel like I'm gonna live forever. Maybe it means I don't love them, and maybe it means I don't love you, but nobody's gonna tell me I don't like them very much." In Greystoke it is Tarzan's grandfather (Ralph Richardson) embracing his long-lost heir.

Towne's outsiders are not allowed in, but, ultimately, they never really wanted in—they adhere to a code society will not honor. That the outsider-insider gulf cannot be bridged, that person-to-person goodness is so rare, is not the result of evil in Towne's screenplays; it is the very root of evil. But along the way his characters do encounter some goodness, and the fact that it is present at all is considerable consolation. Towne's characters exist to bear witness to the ongoing—but all too fleeting—presence of goodness.

—Charles Ramírez Berg

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: