Robert Towne, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Chinatown and other classics, dead at 89

Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer of ShampooThe Last Detail and other acclaimed films, whose work on Chinatown became a model of the art form and helped define the jaded allure of his native Los Angeles, died Monday surrounded by family at his home there, said publicist Carri McClure.

She declined to comment on any cause of death.

In an industry which gave birth to rueful jokes about the writer’s status, Towne for a time held prestige comparable to the actors and directors he worked with.

Through his friendships with two of the biggest stars of the 1960s and ’70s, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, he wrote or co-wrote some of the signature films of an era when artists held an unusual level of creative control.

The rare auteur among screenwriters, Towne managed to bring a highly personal and influential vision of Los Angeles onto the screen.

“It’s a city that’s so illusory,” Towne told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “It’s the westernmost west of America. It’s a sort of place of last resort. It’s a place where, in a word, people go to make their dreams come true. And they’re forever disappointed.”

Recognizable around Hollywood for his high forehead and full beard, Towne won an Academy Award for Chinatown and was nominated three other times, for The Last DetailShampoo and Greystroke. In 1997, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America.

His success came after a long stretch of working in television, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Lloyd Bridges Show, and on low-budget movies for “B” producer Roger Corman.

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In a classic show business story, he owed his breakthrough in part to his psychiatrist, through whom he met Beatty, a fellow patient. As Beatty worked on Bonnie and Clyde, he brought in Towne for revisions of the Robert Benton-David Newman script and had him on the set while the movie was filmed in Texas.

From ghostwriter to Hollywood icon

Towne’s contributions were uncredited for Bonnie and Clyde, the landmark crime film released in 1967, and for years he was a favourite ghost writer. He helped out on The Godfather and Heaven Can Wait among others and referred to himself as a “relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game.”

But Towne was credited by name for Nicholson’s macho The Last Detail and Beatty’s sex comedy Shampoo and was immortalized by Chinatown, the 1974 thriller set during the Great Depression.

Actress Faye Dunaway takes instructions from director Roman Polanski on the set of Chinatown in 1974. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private detective asked to follow the husband of Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway). The husband is chief engineer the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Gittes finds himself caught in a chaotic spiral of corruption and violence, embodied by Evelyn’s ruthless father, Noah Cross (John Huston).

Influenced by the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Towne resurrected the menace and mood of a classic Los Angeles film noir, but cast Gittes’s labyrinthine odyssey across a grander and more insidious portrait of Southern California. Clues accumulate into a timeless detective tale, and lead helplessly to tragedy, summed up by the one of the most repeated lines in movie history, words of grim fatalism a devastated Gittes receives from his partner Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell): “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Towne’s script has been a staple of film writing classes ever since, although it also serves as a lesson in how movies often get made and in the risks of crediting any film to a single viewpoint. He acknowledged working closely with Polanski as they revised and tightened the story and that he argued fiercely with the director over the film’s despairing ending — an ending Polanski pushed for and Towne later agreed was the right choice.

No one has officially been credited for writing “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

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