Hair today: Warren Beatty presented an award to collaborator and friend Robert Towne at Film Society Awards Night Thursday. One of their films, 1975's "Shampoo," played Saturday. (Photo by Tommy Lau)

Nights on the Towne: Film Society Awards Night

Susan Gerhard May 4, 2008

You know a film festival is beginning to work its way into your brain when, in a landscape of intersecting ideas, you begin to witness the collisions. The diners at Film Society Awards Night this past Thursday—including Warren Beatty, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, Maria Bello, John Burton and Dede Wilsey—saw a mash-up of two opposing approaches to the art of great filmmaking in awards to Mike Leigh and Robert Towne. One shuns Hollywood, one helped create it. Leigh builds screenplays after a long collaborative process with an acting crew. Towne writes screenplay masterpieces he begrudgingly alters at the request of directors and actors, often (though certainly not always) to the detriment of his original vision. Both, of course, are keen observers of humanity, a fact that can be observed not only in their filmmaking, but also in their speechmaking.

[Editor’s note: Visit’s Blogs page for Judy Stone’s 1975 interview with Warren Beatty.]

From Leigh—along with much thanks to the San Francisco International Film Festival, the institution he credits with introducing him properly to American audiences when Peter Scarlet programmed a retrospective of his work here in 1986—came a laugh-out-loud anecdote about the art and pretension of ’80s SF nouvelle cuisine. In 1986 San Francisco, he said he met Michael Powell, who said of his films, "You set yourself a lot of traps but you don’t fall into any of them."

From Towne, a hearty thanks to the benefactor behind his screenwriter award, SKYY Vodka creator Maurice Kanbar, was followed by, "I know SKYY Vodka has meant an awful lot to an awful lot of writers." Towne answered the proverbial "What inspires you?" question before it was asked of him by declaring it was the life’s work of the characters Mickey, Donald and Goofy—whose profession-hopping impersonations created the backbone of cartoon joking in his formative years.

He expanded on the idea with SF "Czar of Noir" interviewer Eddie Muller before the screening of Shampoo on Saturday, saying that in the Depression era, a working life in a career was a dream most people couldn’t achieve. His work, he explained, has always used working lives as the prism to reveal character.

He also explained, when asked, that his frequently used star, Tom Cruise, is "energetic, bright and generous—and he’s not weird, actually. But he is hyperactive."

Of Roman Polanski, Towne remembered, "We fought all day long and played all night long" in the era of Chinatown. ÒWe had a helluva good time, which didn’t interfere with our fighting." He called him the most talented director he’d ever worked with, while also noting, "He was an impossible little shit."

Clearly comfortable with contradictions, the multitudes contained by Towne paraded onscreen in Shampoo, possibly more entertaining nearly a quarter century after its first blow-dry.

Two nights earlier, Film Society Awards Night presenter Warren Beatty, whose charm hasn’t really diminished in the decades following his high-hair satire, recalled Robert Towne as a contentious, but always close, friend, "There is no one I know more illuminating to be insulted by than Robert Towne."

Insults were fondly remembered, and praise was gushed. Mike Leigh thanked San Francisco International for "celebrating and encouraging true independence." He called his actress, friend, and award presenter Marianne Jean-Baptiste "one of the most intelligent, talented and gorgeous people in the world."

If the shoe fits…. Maria Bello took the moment to embrace her career at a crossroads, having achieved more than she could have ever imagined on a day, many many years previous, when she’d just been fired by her manager, and picked up a golden shoe ("the kind a transvestite would wear") on 23rd Street in Manhattan that she took as a miracle. She recently returned the shoe to New York in the hopes it would bring luck to the next person who stumbled upon it. Although, as in her own career, she wasn’t leaving it totally to fate: A doorman was instructed to make the judgment call that whoever took the shoe in some way deserved it.

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