Towne and City

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Some legends don't look legendary at all: They turn out to be shrimps. But you can say of the great screenwriter Robert Towne: He looks like he should. A little like King Arthur, or, say, Zeus -- gray and gray-bearded, tall and distinguished. Dressed in black, just what the fashionable magazines teach. Uninflated by collagen, untightened by surgery, honestly old, honestly handsome. You think: Maybe Odin who caught the last lightning bolt down from Valhalla and parked his hammer in the corner. Or, he could be Papa Tolstoy in his dacha, someone grand and learned and serene, or someone who's done all, seen all, suffered all, survived all.

And we're not even talking about the coupla years he spent as Jack Nicholson's roommate!

Towne's pedigree is pure royalty. He had three consecutive Oscar nominations in the mid-'70s, including his victory for the great (God, why don't they still make movies like that?) "Chinatown." But his back-alley work is also pretty impressive: He is beloved far and wide as his town's best script doctor; it seems about every other troubled pup of a big movie in the past 30 years has had a Towne tweak or two. He's the guy who fixed "The Godfather" and "Bonnie and Clyde."

Then, too, just to make sure he's not too corporate, he's a man of passion, feuds and anger: He no longer talks to Nicholson, who took over after Towne was fired from directing his own script of "The Two Jakes," the sequel to "Chinatown."

And finally, there's the always crowd-pleasing maverick thing, which (although he now pals around with Tom Cruise) keeps him from seeming too much a team suck-up. Once, when a movie made from one of his scripts displeased him, he took the screen credit under a different name. That is why you will read on the Internet Movie Database that "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" was written by one P.H. Vazak, which happens to be the name of Robert Towne's sheepdog.

It wasn't the first time he'd worked under an assumed name. His first movie -- not only did he write it, but he starred in it -- "The Last Woman on Earth." The name he hid behind was Edward Wain, not that the world noticed much. It was done for Roger Corman, the schlock maestro who gave so many their start in the business (Nicholson was one; Francis Ford Coppola was another).

So he came a long way. In fact -- this one'll send baby boomers reeling and puzzled kids to the Internet -- he was a writer for "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

But now, instead of floating on glory and Chablis and trying to pick up younger women, he's still working the scene at 72. He has remarried, has two children, is still in the game. He's even on the road, having come to Washington on an honorable journeyman's visit. He's not testifying for some screwball cause like fly-free apples or biodegradable toilet cleaners before some roll-over congressional committee. He's pushing a product, paying a debt -- doing, as always, his best.

That cause is his latest movie, which itself resembles a kind of knightly chronicle of chivalry and loyalty. "Ask the Dust" is another California story, another '30s story. But the more vivid fact of its creation is what it represents: Towne, sometime back in the '70s, told the largely unknown author John Fante that he would make a movie based on a book that many think is a quintessential California novel. Fante chalked it up to megalomania and quietly died in 1983; didn't matter. In a town famous for the tinsel quality of its given words, Towne kept his. Now, finally, 30-odd years later, the movie "Ask the Dust" and author John Fante are before the public again. (It opens Friday.)

"The novel was such a shock of recognition for me," Towne recalls over salad and bottled water in a Northwest bistro. "I was doing research for 'Chinatown' and I was unsatisfied with everything I read or saw about Hollywood in the '30s. It had nothing to do with my own memories of the town in those days; the smells were wrong, the sights were wrong. Everything seemed trite and untrue, what you would call 'a Hollywood movie.'

"I began an internal debate between myself and the screen. 'You can't do that,' I was thinking, and making small corrections. That sense of disparity -- film reality versus reality -- was very powerful to me."

Then he was in a bookstore, talking to an older writer, who pulled a title off the shelf and told him to give it a try.

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