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

In an arduous, six-month-long effort to get his cameras rolling again, Towne gave up the rights to Greystoke--and Warner Bros. assigned the picture to Hugh Hudson, the British director of that prettified period view of Olympic running, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. British critic Geoff Andrew wrote that Chariots of Fire "is an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals. Pap. And Greystoke is no better."

Still, back in '82, Hudson was in the catbird seat, Towne in the doghouse. Stories swirled about the writer-director's supposed eccentricities and excesses. Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls promulgates many of them anew, depicting Towne as a frantic, indecisive coke fiend often absent from the set and the editing room. Towne's friend Moore, who both acted in Personal Best and wrote a persuasive eyewitness account of its making for Sports Illustrated (ignored by Biskind), has a word for those stories: "Bullshit!" Biskind's portrait is too rigid and unforgiving to be believable. And temperamental artists often hold contradictory feelings toward their co-workers: When I interviewed Towne's director of photography, Michael Chapman, about Personal Best at the time, he spoke humorously and affectionately of the high-flown debates they had over his choice of lenses; he even gave Towne credit for pulling together a couple of the non-actors' performances in the cutting room. By contrast, Chapman's quotes in Biskind's book are cranky and accusatory and all about Towne's looniness.

Towne himself is philosophical about the bile. "It's like the whole history of theatrical art," he says. "Look at All About Eve as an example of three people beating the shit out of each other and then taking vows, or the end of The Bad and the Beautiful. It's the joy and agony of show business--as in Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock,' there's a huge bloody battle and nobody dies. And it changes day to day. One day I'll come off as a loathsome, incompetent sloth, and the next day I'll be described as brilliant."

You can't deny the stature of the finished work. Among those wowed by Personal Best at the time was an actress-playwright turned agent named Paula Wagner. "It awed me," says Wagner, "and it marked Robert as a visionary filmmaker." She would eventually become the agent for Towne and for Tom Cruise, and in 1993 left agenting to join with the producer-star on Cruise-Wagner Productions--the team behind Without Limits.

Although it was a first-run commercial failure, Personal Best immediately fell into the pop Zeitgeist. TV-commercial directors ripped off its shimmering, long-lens views of sweaty, rippling flesh as soon as it appeared. Even last year, Ellen DeGeneres, in her coming-out episode, could jokingly chalk up her lesbianism to seeing Personal Best and know that everyone would get the joke. (Towne scowled when I brought up Ellen, since he never meant the film to be a brief for lesbianism--not that there's anything wrong with it. I told him to relax and be flattered.) A small consolation may well be: Personal Best is now a household phrase. Who today thinks of Greystoke?

What's tragic about Greystoke is the waste of Towne's magnificent script. I've read it, and it's mind-blowing. The jungle scenes detail an orphan boy's maturation under the loving eyes of an ape mom named Kala; he gradually realizes that, far from being a retarded ape, he has powers simians don't have. With the hero perceived as a misfit until he discovers he can outthrow, outrun, and outthink his furry brothers, it's an anthropoid version of an ugly duckling story, and it called for the imagistic vibrancy of silent fantasies or the best cartoons. "What a pity he didn't get a chance to direct that film!" sighs cinematographer Conrad Hall.

Towne was also developing the techniques to make his wild vision take root. Hall (the acclaimed lensman of Fat City and The Professionals) went on to shoot Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits with Towne. He called me from his Tahiti home to describe the Greystoke tests he shot for Towne: "We shot a scene with an orangutan and a gymnast in a gorilla suit--like in 2001: A Space Odyssey--and they looked like a child and his mother holding hands and walking through the forest together. Robert loved what I shot. They got into some real beefs, which I caught on film. The orangutan would bite and wrestle and grab and run away and climb trees, and the 'mother' would climb after him, and together they'd go swinging through the trees. It looked very violent. There were real bites, and the gymnast had to fight for life. That's what made it real. And I was on the perimeter kicking dust up and making it look more violent."

There have been other losses along the way, but Greystoke, Towne says, "is the only one that left me inconsolable." Presumably that includes the public breakup of his Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, with studio dish again placing the blame on Towne's indecisiveness, this time over whether producer Bob Evans could return to acting and pull off the second lead. (Nicholson himself went on to direct it as a 1990 release, but only semi-coherently.)

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