Robert Towne obituary: Chinatown screenwriter was leading figure in the New Hollywood

The Oscar-winning writer, producer, director and actor was also nominated for The Last Detail and Shampoo

Screenwriter Robert Towne: Photograph: Jim Cooper/AP
Born: November 23, 1924
Died: July 1st, 2024

Robert Towne, who has died at the aged of 89 in Los Angeles, was one of the leading screenwriters of the so-called New Hollywood whose screenplay for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown won an Oscar.

Towne’s Academy Award was part of a phenomenal run. He was nominated for best-screenplay Oscars three years in a row; his Chinatown win, in 1974, came between nominations for The Last Detail and Shampoo, both directed by Hal Ashby. He had also worked as an uncredited script doctor on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972).

He was widely regarded as a master at writing dialogue, though he was less gifted at meeting deadlines – he was notorious for delivering long, unshapely scripts way past their due dates. Film historian David Thomson called him “a fascinating contradiction: in many ways idealistic, sentimental and very talented; in others a devout compromiser, a delayer, so insecure that he can sometimes seem devious”.

Towne later directed a few movies, and occasionally appeared on-screen, but he left his most lasting mark as a writer. And although he remained active into the 21st century, his reputation is based largely on the work he did in the 1970s.

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Beginning in the late 1960s with cutting-edge movies such as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider and running through Raging Bull in 1980, the New Hollywood was a pinnacle for American directors, who followed the French auteur model of making idiosyncratic, personal movies, and also for talented screenwriters such as Towne and a small army of gifted actors, which included Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, who did not fit the old Hollywood mould.

Towne was a particular favourite of prominent movie critic Pauline Kael, who reached the peak of her influence during the New Hollywood’s heyday. “With his ear for unaffected dialogue, and with a gift for never forcing a point,” she wrote in her review of Shampoo, “Towne may be a great new screenwriter in a structured tradition – a flaky classicist.”

But the New Hollywood was not destined to last, and neither was Towne’s prominence.

Peter Bart, then the vice-president of production at Paramount, called it “the last good time”. It was swept away by a sea of studio-generated blockbusters, special effects and superheroes – not to mention the drugs, alcohol and sexual adventurism so prevalent in the 1970s.

Towne was no stranger to the pleasures and perils of that hedonistic time. His first marriage, to actor Julie Payne, ended bitterly after he had affairs with both Patrice Donnelly and Mariel Hemingway, who co-starred as track athletes in the first film he directed, the 1982 box-office flop Personal Best. (There were also rumours of rampant cocaine use on the set.) His career began a long decline at about the same time, although he never stopped writing.

Towne was born Robert Bertram Schwartz on November 23rd, 1934, in Los Angeles, and spent his early years in the blue-collar fishing port of San Pedro, California. When he was about seven, he saw his first movie, Sergeant York. He later said he got hooked on movies that day.

His father, Lou, owned a women’s clothing store but had his eye on bigger things. He changed the family name from Schwartz to Towne, got into the real estate business, and eventually moved with his wife, Helen, and their two sons to the gated community of Rolling Hills in affluent Palos Verdes, California.

Towne attended the exclusive Chadwick School there, then studied philosophy and English at Pomona College, graduating in 1956. While taking an acting class, he met another aspiring thespian, Jack Nicholson. The two would become close friends and collaborators, although they would eventually fall out over the making of a sequel to Chinatown.

Towne began his career writing for television shows such as The Outer Limits and “he Man From U.N.C.L.E. and for Roger Corman’s B-movie factory. He both wrote and acted in The Last Woman on Earth (1960), a typically bare-bones Corman production. More prestigious work, much of it uncredited rewrites of others’ scripts, soon followed.

His Chinatown Oscar did not come without agony. The movie focuses on a private eye, Jake Gittes (Nicholson), who uncovers a complicated scheme by which power brokers in 1930s Los Angeles plan to get rich by controlling the drought-stricken city’s water supply. The movie’s dark undertow comes from Gittes’s discovery that the murdered water commissioner’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), gave birth to a daughter after being raped by her diabolical father, Noah Cross (John Huston).

In Towne’s original draft, Evelyn kills her father – what might be called a happy ending, since evil is punished. (In his book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, published in 2020, Sam Wasson maintained that Towne had an uncredited co-writer, Edward Taylor.) But Polanski, who had escaped death in his native Poland during the Holocaust and had more recently lost his pregnant wife, actor Sharon Tate, to the murderous Charles Manson family, had darker ideas. He wanted Evelyn to die, and Noah to get custody of the fruit of his incest.

Director and writer went at each other in Polanski’s rented house for two months before filming began. “Bob would fight for every word, for every line of the dialogue as if it was carved in marble,” Polanski recalled in an interview with Peter Biskind for his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998). For once, Towne agreed with him: “We fought every day, over everything.”

In the end, Polanski prevailed. Evelyn gets shot through the head and Noah makes off with their daughter, as Jake looks on helplessly. The ending is indelible, and the line spoken to Jake at the end of the movie has come to be regarded as a classic: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Towne was slated to direct his own script for a sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, built around real estate and oil deals in post-second World War Los Angeles and again starring Nicholson as Jake Gittes. But the project was plagued with problems, including bitter fights among Towne, Nicholson and producer Robert Evans, and it was finally shelved. It was eventually made, with Nicholson as director, and released in 1990, to a lukewarm response from reviewers and audiences alike.

Towne also worked for years on the script for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. But he was so disappointed with the finished film, directed by Hugh Hudson and released in 1984, that he insisted on replacing his name in the credits with “P.H. Vazak”, shorthand for the name of his beloved Hungarian sheepdog, Pannonia’s Hira Vazak. His Greystoke screenplay was nevertheless nominated for an Oscar. (It lost to Peter Shaffer’s script for Amadeus.)

Six years after the poor performance of Personal Best, Towne returned to directing with Tequila Sunrise, a suspense film starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell. Although it enjoyed some critical and box-office success, he would direct only two more movies, Without Limits (1998) and Ask the Dust (2006), which starred Irish actor Colin Farrell.

He remained active as a writer, notably contributing to the first two films in the Mission: Impossible franchise, and was credited as “consulting producer” on the 2014-15 season of Mad Men. But his glory days, like the New Hollywood itself, were long gone.

Towne is survived by his wife, Luisa Towne; two daughters: Chiara Towne, from his second marriage, and Katharine Towne, from his marriage to Payne; and his brother, Roger. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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