Remembering Star Screenwriter Robert Towne: NPR

Screenwriter Robert Towne poses at The Regency Hotel in New York City on March 7, 2006.

Jim Cooper/AP


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Jim Cooper/AP

I've heard dozens of jokes about screenwriters that I can't repeat here. The punchline suggests that in the Hollywood hierarchy, screenwriters come last, after producers, directors, stars, and probably the caterer.

But Robert Towne, who died this week at age 89, was something rare: a star screenwriter.

“There are no novels or plays that I would like to write, and there never have been,” he wrote for Squire magazine in 1991.

And Townes' movie characters said things that stick with you.

In the 1974 film Chinatownfor which he won the Academy Award, an informant calls Los Angeles detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, and asks, “Are you alone?” The private investigator replies, “Isn't everyone?”

When someone calls Jake Gittes an innocent man, Towne has him say, “Well, I've been accused of a lot of things… but never that.”

In 1973 The last detailA heavy-duty professional sailor, also played by Jack Nicholson, is asked if he's ever been married. He says, not wistfully, “Yes…once…She wanted me to go to trade school and be a TV repairman. Driving around in all that smog, fixing TVs out of the back of a VW bus. I just couldn't do it.”

It is a speech that captures 'the last detail' of the dreaded boredom.

Pauline Kael, the New Yorker critic, once wrote that Towne had “an ear for unaffected dialogue” and “a gift for never forcing a point.”

He reportedly reworked the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's film The godfather where Don Corleone and his son Michael, whom he never wanted in his crime family, discuss Mafia heists and betrayals. Then Don looks up and asks, “How's your boy?” “He's good,” Michael tells him. “He's smarter than me. Three years old and he can read the funny papers.”

The transition from murderous to tender feels completely genuine.

Towne was a professional. He won Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes, but many of his scripts never became films. Or, they didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. He wrote the screenplay for a Tarzan movie, but didn’t like the final production and put the name of his dog, PH Vazak, in the credits. The Oscar audience worldwide later heard Towne’s dog’s name read out as the nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay of 1984.

As with so many other things Towne wrote, this scene couldn't have been better executed.

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