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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Robert Towne, screenwriter of ‘Chinatown’ and more, dies at 89

Screenwriter Robert Towne in 2006, in a still photo from Sarah Morris’ documentary short film “Robert Towne.” (Sarah Morris/Wikipedia).

By Bill Morris

Robert Towne, whose screenplay for Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” won an Oscar, and whose work on that and other important films established him as one of the leading screenwriters of the so-called New Hollywood, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.

His publicist, Carri McClure, confirmed his death on Tuesday. She did not cite a cause.

Towne’s Oscar 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.

Beginning in the late 1960s with cutting-edge movies like “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 like Towne and a small army of gifted actors, like Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, who did not fit the old Hollywood mold.

Towne was a particular favorite 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 actress 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 rumors 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 Nov. 23, 1934, in Los Angeles, and spent his early years in the blue-collar fishing port of San Pedro, California. When he was about 7, 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.

Robert 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 like “The Outer Limits” and “The 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 shot in Puerto Rico. 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’ 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, actress 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 movie’s closing line 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-World War II 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 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.

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