Screenplayer

Hollywood's legendary script doctor Robert Towne won an Oscar for writing Chinatown and polished films from The Godfather to Armageddon; now he helms Without Limits, a film bio of an Olympic runner

I asked Towne whether he was still obsessed with the physical life and whether that was tied to his fabled affection for the unspoiled California of his youth. (He grew up in San Pedro.) "What I've always responded to," he answered, "is movement--character is automatically expressed more quickly and eloquently through movement than through dialogue.

"When I think back on the movies I loved as a kid," he continued, "to Stewart or Cagney or Fonda, so much of the way in which they expressed themselves was simply the way they moved. You think of Fonda doing the dance on the post in My Darling Clementine. The whole movie was about Henry Fonda walking up and down the street, and it should have been."

He adds, "I think it's in The Brothers Karamazov. There's that fable of the summer fool and the winter fool. The summer fool you can see right away because he's lightly dressed and he's walking around swinging a tennis racket. The winter fool, however, comes to your door in the dead of night, he's got clothes on that obscure his form--hiding his movement--and it's only when you get him inside the house and he takes off his clothes can you see that he, too, is a fool. I think if you're a Californian, you're a summer fool.

"I went to Redondo Union High School, and I remember being in gym class, in school, and it always struck me--you always wore gray shorts and a tee shirt, you always wore the same goddamn thing. But you could look 300 yards away and immediately recognize somebody by the way they moved."

There isn't a moment when you can't follow Billy Crudup's Steve Prefontaine from 300 yards away--partly because he's usually running away from the pack. But the movie isn't only about seeing him from far away, in terms of records and accomplishments; it's about getting so close to his skin that you think you can see what's inside. Crudup plays Pre brilliantly as a surly boy-man so dedicated to willing himself toward sports Valhalla that he runs over anyone in his path.

In Without Limits, he becomes the track-and-field equivalent of a youthful poet burning with a hard, gemlike flame. His soul rising up after defeat in the '72 Olympics (he came in fourth in the 5,000 meters) gives the film its emotional crest. In fact, to hear his friend and collaborator Moore tell it, the soul of Pre is what hooked Towne; Moore spun yarns about his University of Oregon pal to cheer up Towne through the turmoil of Personal Best.

To understand the impact that the delay-plagued production of Personal Best had on Towne's career, you have to appreciate the string of artistic and financial successes he was part of in the late '60s and '70s. Towne had built an enormous reputation not simply on the screenplays that carried his name but also on a number of celebrated ones that didn't. He was listed as "special consultant" for the writing he did on Bonnie and Clyde, and Francis Ford Coppola thanked him onstage at the Oscars for the work Towne did on The Godfather. Towne has a knack for taking a script's existing strengths and bringing to them a crystalline lucidity and tension. For Coppola's and Mario Puzo's Godfather script, I asked him how he came up with the final conversation between Brando's Don and Pacino's Michael--an emotional climax that sums up everything the movie has to say about family, power and corruption.

"Well," he said, "you know that image of the puppets on the cover of the novel? That was the inspiration: I knew I had to keep the thought of the Don refusing to be 'a fool dancing on the strings of all these big shots.' The movie needed a love scene at that moment, but the only way to do it was to show the Don having trouble with the succession of power, handing this viper's nest to the one son he didn't want to have to deal with it, and apologizing for doing so. His saying 'I never wanted you to have anything to do with this' is his way of saying 'I love you.'"

The Don's implicit love for Michael becomes explicit in his sorrow over his son's criminal destiny. The speech epitomizes the power that subtext can have when it suddenly and organically erupts into the text. But what floored me about Towne's description was his ability to summon from memory every pause and phrase of the dialogue (like the way Brando repeated a fragment of a sentence about his 3-year-old grandson "reading the funny papers"), as well as the strong visual metaphor he developed and pushed further, of a puppet on a string caught in a vortex.

The Hollywood powers that were--and that be--thought (and think) Towne would make a superb writer-director. As Jerry Bruckheimer says, "You've got to understand--Robert is Hollywood royalty." But even kings in Hollywood don't get free rein, and Personal Best has a typically tangled history.

In fact, his writing-directing debut was supposed to be Greystoke, a hugely ambitious Tarzan epic, funded by Warner Bros. Towne had hoped to portray a Tarzan of the apes, by the apes, and for the apes, suffusing his script with the latest scholarship on feral children and on simian behavior. But Towne turned to Personal Best as a way for him to test his directing legs before embarking on a tricky epic. Shooting a film cast mostly with real athletes and incorporating footage of actual events proved an equally tremendous challenge. Then the Screen Actors Guild struck the major studios. Towne asked for an exception on the grounds that the bulk of his cast were athletes, but the union refused. He refinanced the film with then-independent producer David Geffen and made a separate peace with the Guild. But three weeks before the end of shooting, Geffen and Towne had a fatal battle over the budget, and Geffen shut him down.

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