Friday, July 5, 2024

Robert Towne and Old Hollywood’s Best Alumni Association

The death of screenwriter Robert Towne on Monday made me lament the passage of time. Towne’s great era was the Seventies, when he wrote such gritty films as The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo, while also making vital (though uncredited) contributions to The Godfather and other hits. Though these were all major studio pictures, I will long associate Towne with his Roger Corman days, when he played the male lead in Corman’s 1960 cheapie, The Last Woman on Earth, while simultaneously pounding out the script on the set. This was filmmaking, Corman style: assemble some ambitious pals and get them to take on as many jobs as possible (for as little money as possible). Eventually, the idea was that they’d find out what they were really good at, and maybe move on to the big bucks. For many would-be Hollywoodites, it worked.

 Here's the opening of Chapter 8 of my independent biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller KillersRoger Corman and the Academy Awards are not usually mentioned in the same breath. But on April 8, 1975, many of the big winners had a Corman connection. Best Film and Best Director Oscars went to Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Best Supporting Actor was Robert De Niro, for his performance in the same gangster epic. Ellen Burstyn was named Best Actress for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, directed by Corman alumnus Martin Scorsese. Other nominees that year: Talia Shire and Diane Ladd, both up for Best Supporting Actress; cinematographer John Alonzo, whose very first film was Bloody Mama; and Jack Nicholson, favored to win Best Actor for his starring role in Chinatown. (The award went instead to Art Carney, for Harry and Tonto, leading Corman to joke that Nicholson’s loss had spoiled his personal sweep.) Robert Towne, who won the year’s Best Original Screenplay honors for his Chinatown script, surveyed the glittering multitudes and said, in the presence of reporter Bill Davidson from the New York Times Magazine, “This joint looks like a meeting of the Roger Corman Alumni Association.”

 For those who aren’t up on Corman’s long career, here’s the lowdown.  Coppola, straight out of UCLA’s film school, went to work as a Corman production assistant, then made his directorial debut, 1963’s Dementia 13, with money left over from Corman’s The Young Racers. In 1970, De Niro had a major role in Corman’s Bloody Mama. Corman produced Scorsese’s second film as a director, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. Talia Shire and Diane Ladd both acted in early Corman movies, as did Jack Nicholson, who first met Roger (and Robert Towne) in a Jeff Corey acting class, then went on to play in multiple Corman movies including The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, The Terror, and his 1958 film debut, The Cry-Baby Killer. Nicholson, who remains deeply appreciative of Corman’s role in his career, recalled for Roger’s own memoir working on films whose budgets were so low that the actors all had to share the same script.

 Not everyone who worked for Roger in the early days became famous. But take the case of Dick Miller, who started out as a would-be screenwriter. Roger saw potential in the short, pugnacious Miller, and cast him in leading roles of films like 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. Eventually he became a featured actor (and good-luck charm) in all the films of a later Corman alumnus, Joe Dante. Eventually he starred in That Guy Dick Miller, a 2014 documentary made by one of his fans. I remember Dick well, and I hope the world will remember Robert Towne too.



No comments:

Post a Comment