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Great Scott

The legacy of a minor Hollywood legend

Like most L.A. landmarks, the Vincent Thomas Bridge — which stretches 1,500 feet across Los Angeles Harbor, connecting San Pedro to Terminal Island — has played itself in a lot of action movies, usually as a picturesquely dangerous backdrop for car chases. It’s the setting for a game of Formula One car chicken in Charlie’s Angels, and it’s where Nicolas Cage guns a 1967 Shelby GT named “Eleanor” over a police roadblock in Gone in 60 Seconds.

And if you’ve seen enough movies, you’ve probably also seen people jump off this bridge; William Petersen bungee jumps from it as the live-wire U.S. Treasury agent in To Live and Die in L.A., and the Monkees threw themselves off it in the opening sequence of their 1968 psychedelic auto-character-assassination film, Head.

On Monday — the day after a man initially described by authorities as “a ‘high-profile person’ in his mid-50s who worked in the movie industry” parked his car at the bridge’s 185-foot apex, scaled a 10-foot fence, and leapt to his death — Caltrans spokeswoman Maria Reptis told USA Today that Caltrans has “never had a real problem that I know of” with bridge jumpers. “We don’t really keep track of that category,” she said. (Maybe they don’t, and maybe they do; overseeing a bridge usually means keeping suicide statistics quiet, so as to discourage copycats.)

By then we knew that the “high-profile” person was director Tony Scott, the British-born action-movie virtuoso who defined the look and feel of Hollywood blockbusters for nearly three decades. We knew that he was actually 68, and that he’d left a message in his black Prius that led police to his office, where they found a suicide note. We’d heard that he had inoperable brain cancer, which seemed to explain everything, until Scott’s family — he left behind his third wife, Donna, and twin 12-year-old sons — told the L.A. County coroner’s office that Scott was in perfect health.

Scott was never what you’d call a personal filmmaker; even the admirers who saw him as more than just a purveyor of glib, frenetic visual crank wouldn’t have gone that far. But in a situation like this, clues have a way of turning up in the work — or seeming to, if you’re looking for them. Scott had talked for years about his plans for a Los Angeles–set remake of Walter Hill’s 1979 pulp classic The Warriors, and about restaging the movie’s opening set piece — the assassination of Gramercy Riffs leader Cyrus at a citywide gang summit — on the Vincent Thomas. “[Y]ou have a thousand gang members up there, then Cyrus goes bang,” he told Cinema Blend in 2009. “It’s almost like 9/11, bodies coming off, it just goes ballistic.”

Bodies coming off. Was it an image that haunted him? Had he location-scouted his own end? Is it insulting to his memory to assume it was that simple? Am I a creep for thinking of the scene in Man on Fire when Christopher Walken says, “Creasy’s art is death — and he’s about to paint his masterpiece”? Or for picturing that drop to the water as one of those elegiac moments Scott was so good at pulling out of the gone-ballistic chaos of his action scenes?

This seems like an odd moment to reopen public debate on the eternal, biblical question of Ridley vs. Tony, although people have. It seems obvious now that the only great movie Tony Scott’s brother has made this century is Black Hawk Down, the one that feels the most like one of Tony’s — yes, yes. Fine. This is neither the time nor the place. But that dynamic — Tony as a junior Ridley — goes way back.

Ridley and Tony grew up in England’s grim industrial northeast. Ridley went to the Royal College of Art. Ridley cast Tony in his student film Boy and Bicycle, a meditation on death and freedom Ridley would remake a few years later as a bread commercial. Tony went to the Royal College of Art a few years later to study painting, became fascinated with photography and filmmaking. Ridley gave Tony a copy of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” told Tony to beg, borrow, or steal a Bolex camera and make a film out of it. Tony graduated. Ridley had started a commercial production studio, convinced Tony to come to work with him, promising that within a year he’d be able to afford a Ferrari.

In a 1988 Spy magazine piece on the Britishization of Hollywood (“Good Weather, Bad Teeth: Why the British Love L.A., Why L.A. Loves the British”), Richard Stengel wrote this about the generation of commercial-trained English filmmakers who’d infiltrated the A-list in the mid-’80s:

They grew up in postwar England, where ambition was not, for the first time, a sin. They were youngsters in a hurry, eager young men and women attracted to the aggressive style and quick rewards of American-style business. They were street-smart and tenacious and typically went into advertising, where social background did not matter.

And before long these directors came to Hollywood, their reels full of dazzlingly pretentious ads for Pepsi and perfume and cigarettes — guys like Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker, and the future Sir Ridley Scott, followed by Tony within a few years. Tony made a Gothic-erotic vampire movie called The Hunger for MGM, art-directed within an inch of its undeath, with David Bowie as Susan Sarandon and Susan Sarandon as David Bowie. A cult would eventually accrue, but MGM gagged. Scott always enjoyed retelling the story about the studio removing his name from his parking space immediately after they saw the first cut.

The Hunger did catch one influential Hollywood player’s bleary eye. “Don Simpson saw [it] channel-surfing at 3 a.m.,” Scott told an interviewer in 2009. “I think he was high.”

Maybe it was The Hunger, maybe it was whatever Simpson was taking — and he took whatever until his heart exploded in 1996 due to an overdose of everything. Or maybe it was a car ad Scott had directed, in which a Saab 900 races a Saab-built fighter jet. Regardless: Simpson and his producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer had this idea for an air-combat movie, based on a California Magazine article about the Navy Fighter Weapons School at Miramar, California. (Based on the pictures in that article, really — mostly one shot of an F-14 reflected in the glass of a pilot’s helmet.)

They’d recruited Adrian Lyne from the British-ad-world diaspora to make Flashdance a few years earlier, and he’d given them their first hit; they offered Scott the project that would become Top Gun. He took the job, regretted it, struggled to find a way into the story.

“I wanted to make Apocalypse Now on an aircraft carrier,” he told the Sunday Times Magazine years later, “and Don and Jerry said, ‘No way.'”

It was a Bruce Weber photograph — three dudes in a convertible — that cracked it open for him. This explains a lot about Top Gun.

“It’s rock-and-roll stars in the sky, silver jets, good-looking guys … I thought, I get it. I know what I can do in the context of what these producers want. It was a challenge. It was fun. It was rock and roll.”

It was fun — problematic fun, fun you had to suspend disbelief and maybe morality to have, but fun. Guilty fun, unless you were 12. Tony Scott fun, in other words. It was a loud, fast, lovingly photographed military-hardware infomercial about high-fiving sky-bros bonding at Mach 2 and blowing their daddy issues out of the sky over the Indian Ocean. Critics were mostly not amused — James Wolcott called it a “ramrod exercise in aerial studsmanship.” But the movie went on to gross about $345 million, confirming Tom Cruise’s movie-star status and making Scott the go-to guy for what he’d later sort of derisively call “hardware action movies.”

In 1988, Spy described him as the Brit director who “seems to have cottoned to L.A. style the most thoroughly … Scott has a big, fab, modern house and rides a Harley-Davidson; he wears torn blue jeans, oversize leather jackets with padded shoulders and cowboy boots with spurs. The Cotswold cowboy.”

He slept three hours a night, smoked 12 Monte Cristos a day, collected art, relaxed by scaling mountains, they said.

In 1990, he made the underrated Kevin Costner noir film Revenge — supposedly Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Scott movie — and reunited with Simpson and Bruckheimer for the accurately rated Days of Thunder, with Cruise as Cole Trickle, a hotshot open-wheel racer drafted into NASCAR to drive a Mello Yello–sponsored stock car for Randy Quaid. Scott fought behind the scenes with screenwriter Robert Towne, Bruckheimer, and Simpson; all that craziness is up there on the screen, and in the script, supposedly rewritten right there in Daytona from day to day.

At one point — because this is the kind of movie Days of Thunder is — Nicole Kidman’s character asks Cruise, “Tell me what you love so much about racing.”

“Speed,” Cruise says. “To be able to control it. To know that I can control something that’s out of control.”

The words were Towne’s, but they might as well have been Scott’s; controlling the uncontrollable is what movie directors do, particularly at the blockbuster level on which Scott operated. Throughout his career, he returned to stories about men struggling to dominate massive, potentially deadly machinery, from Top Gun to Days of Thunder all the way to 2010’s Unstoppable. Was he drawn to those projects because — as an art-school boy who boarded Don Simpson’s crazy-train early and never really figured out how to make art outside the weird context of the blockbuster — he understood on some level what that experience felt like?

I don’t know. I do know that agreeing to rip off his own movie by making Top Gun on a racetrack just a few years after Top Gun did Scott’s reputation no favors. It took a while — and maybe the rise of a generation of critics who’d never known a pre–Tony Scott world — before he was accepted as anything but a “jackrabbity hack” (David Denby, reviewing True Romance in 1995 and getting it exactly wrong as only David Denby can.)1

Look at his ’90s run, though — after Days, he made the superb, demented The Last Boy Scout, the unimpeachable True Romance, and then Crimson Tide, a tense 12 Angry Men–style bottle drama disguised as fast-food Tom Clancy. (It was the first of five films he’d make with Denzel Washington, who seemed to relish the nervy-everyman parts Scott cast him in as a chance to shake off some accrued solemnity.) Even Enemy of the State — Will Smith under heavy surveillance, with Gene Hackman on hand to make you think of The Conversation — is a decent paranoid ’70s-style conspiracy thriller under all the Bruckheimerian brouhaha.2 (I’ve still never seen 1996’s The Fan, although this appreciation by David Roth makes me kinda want to.)

Each of these movies feels like a moment of popcorn apotheosis for its genre — the ultimate buddy-cop flick, the ultimate pseudo-indie shoot-’em-up crime film, the ultimate rogue-submarine drama. It’s not like Hollywood abandoned these setups after Scott was finished with them, but he made every film like a man determined to leave behind scorched earth. That apparent impulse to have the last word on a genre is one through line in Scott’s filmography; his eager embrace of the styles and tools of the moment is another. He never went full-on CGI; he liked human actors and real-world settings too much. But it’s hard to think of another veteran director whose later work was so thoroughly transformed by technologies like digital color grading and the find-the-movie-in-the-editing-room approach made possible by the advent of Avid editing.

This seemed like a TV-commercial auteur’s impulse, too — staying current, trying out the new stuff, forever experimenting on the client’s dime. And if you want to be cynical, you could say he was just doing what he’d always done, rolling with popular taste by giving an audience brain-wiped by attention-fracturing media what they thought they wanted. But Scott seemed genuinely excited to touch these toys and explore their expressive potential — to grow and change, even within his star-powered pop-cinema lane.

The movies he made in the 2000s were so hyperkinetic they bordered on incoherent, but they were also Scott totally unbound, freed by technology from the obligation to even pretend to care about things like classical shot structure and visual consistency. 2005’s spastic, pummeling Domino is probably the best example of how the New Jitteriness freed up Scott to make his movies that much more Tony Scott–like, and it’s thrilling, at least until it wears out your last neurotransmitter. 2004’s Man on Fire is even better, a biblical revenge flick in which Scott uses every image-destabilizing technique in his utility belt to put you right in damaged mercenary Denzel’s increasingly unhinged head space. The colors are gorgeous, too — it’s easily the most ravishingly beautiful movie ever made in which the hero kills another character by sticking an explosive device up that character’s ass.

These are great movies. Scott had become a kind of avant-garde version of himself by the end, the subject of knotty film-journal articles about how movies like Domino might represent a new approach to film narrative rather than storytelling’s death by a thousand cuts. A critical reevaluation was in progress, albeit one that Scott probably wasn’t aware of; he told people he’d stopped reading his reviews after The Hunger. Maybe that was his secret.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Tony Scott

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.