Oscar-winning Screenwriter Robert Towne: An Era’s End in Hollywood Cinema


Riveting the world of cinema with his masterly crafted screenplays, Oscar-winning writer Robert Towne, whose illustrious career with the films like “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail,” and above all, “Chinatown” articulated a memorable archetype of his native Los Angeles, breathed his last at the age of 89. Nestled in the warm embrace of his family, Towne’s home in the city of angels became his final haven on Monday. Carri McClure, his publicist, while sharing this somber news, refrained from divulging any cause of the death.

While the film industry’s myriad rueful jokes often highlight the writer’s peripheral status, Towne commanded a prestige that could easily parallel the actors and directors he collaborated with. His aura emanated from the lasting friendships he nurtured with two shining stars of the 1960s and ‘70s, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. Under his virtuosic pen, some of the defining films of an era where artists celebrated superior creative control came to life. Towne, a rare “auteur” among screenwriters, left an indelible imprint on the cinematic rendition of Los Angeles with his idiosyncratic vision.

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Towne once described Los Angeles in a 2006 interview as, “It’s a city that’s so illusory… It’s a sort of place of last resort. It’s a place where people go to make their dreams come true. And they’re forever disappointed.”

Sporting a high forehead and a full beard, Towne was a familiar face within the luminous Hollywood sphere. His brilliance gave him an Academy Award for “Chinatown” and three more nominations for his work on “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” and “Greystoke.” In 1997, the Writers Guild of America honored him with a lifetime achievement award.

Lee Grant, who shared the silver screen with Towne in “Shampoo,” characterized him as “incisive, iconoclastic and entirely original,” similar to the lively characters that he created.

Coming a long way from his initial days working on television projects like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show,” and low-budget movies with “B” producer Roger Corman, Towne’s success story swelled with a royal ascent. His psychiatrist played the proverbial fairy godmother guiding him to meet his fellow patient, Beatty. This led Towne to work alongside Beatty on “Bonnie and Clyde,” giving a fresh form to the Robert Benton-David Newman script.

Towne’s assistance, although uncredited, also played a vital role in shaping the milestone crime film “Bonnie and Clyde,” released in 1967. For years, he served as a favorite ghostwriter, refining films like “The Godfather,” “The Parallax View,” and “Heaven Can Wait.” He described himself as a “relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game.”

However, his stylistic signature resounded in films that carried his name. Most notable were Nicholson’s epitome of machismo “The Last Detail,” Beatty’s witty sex comedy “Shampoo,” and eventually with his crowning glory, the 1974 thriller “Chinatown,”

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, “Chinatown,” was brought to life under the direction of Roman Polanski. It starred Nicholson as the private detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes, who finds himself embroiled in a whirlpool of corruption and violence while investigating the husband of Evelyn Mulwray, portrayed by Faye Dunaway.

Building upon the style of Raymond Chandler’s fiction, Towne breathed life into the nostalgic menace and mood of classic Los Angeles film noir. As clues build up into a timeless detective tale, the hapless journey culminated in despair and tragedy, immortalized by one of the most famous lines in film history, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Over the years, the immersive narrative of “Chinatown” helped it remain a staple of film writing instruction. But it also served as a window into the complexities of movie-making and the implications of attributing a film to a singular perspective. Towne revealed how he and Polanski adjusted the storyline, even debating furiously over the grim ending.

Towne’s sphere of influence waned as the studios tightened their control after the mid-1970s. His venture as a director, most notably with “Personal Best” and “Tequila Sunrise,” produced varying outcomes. The eagerly awaited sequel to “Chinatown,” “The Two Jakes,” failed to meet expectations in 1990, leading to a brief breakdown between Towne and Nicholson.

As years passed, Towne worked on “Days of Thunder,” starring Tom Cruise, and later collaborated with him on “The Firm” and the first two “Mission: Impossible” movies. In 2006, his most recent film, “Ask the Dust,” came out. He is mourned by his two children and wife Luisa Gaule and his brother, Roger Towne, who also is a screenwriter.

Nourished by the vibrant splashes of the Warner Bros. Theater and stirred by the words of critic James Agee, Towne’s passion for writing blended with his life and was profoundly impacted by his stint working on a tuna boat. As he said to the Writers Guild Association in 2013, “I’ve identified fishing with writing in my mind. Sometimes they both involve an act of faith … because you think, ‘God damn it, nothing — not a bite today. Nothing is happening.’”.