The tragic suicide of British-born filmmaker Tony Scott, 68, in Los Angeles on Sunday August 19, brings into focus his successful career as a Hollywood A-list director. What legacy does his body of work leave?
Though his most successful film became a pop-culture benchmark from my most formative movie-going years, I never considered Tony Scott a ‘great director’.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy his films, many of which were slick, solidly-crafted commercial works. He just always seemed more concerned with the technical over the emotional; with how his films looked and sounded rather than how they felt.
It is a theory that goes some way to explaining why Tony Scott (pictured, above, with his trademark red cap and 'stoogie') came to prominence in the 1980’s, when the style-over-substance aesthetic dominated American studio films. More than ever, movies had become key elements in profit-driven forecasts; the great studios of yesteryear were being seized by corporations and projects were being greenlit based upon their merchandising potential. It was no wonder that the LA suits should have sought talent from the advertising industry. And at that point, the hottest ad directors were coming out of Britain (below, Scott's Saab commercial).
Tony’s older brother, Ridley, was super-hot after Alien; Adrian Lyne had impressed with the little-seen Jodie Foster film Foxes then hit big with Flashdance. The likes of Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners) and Bernard Rose (Paperhouse) were players in a ‘new wave’ of art-school brats sourced not from TV work or live-theatre prowess, but from ads for Audi and Nike (as well as the booming music-video scene). Even some of the old-school Brits were finding new critical and commercial favour – Alan Parker with Fame, for example, or Hugh Hudson with Chariots of Fire.
Tony Scott had developed a small but passionate following based upon his arty 1983 vampire flick, The Hunger. Despite the marketable combustibility of Catherine Deneuve and then-ingenue Susan Sarandon in a bloodsucking lesbian tryst, the film was largely dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences. It reeked of artifice, every frame filled with smoky atmospherics and billowing curtains, the menace entirely implied but never conveyed (though a guilty pleasure of mine, for all those reasons).
Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer saw something in Scott’s work that intrigued them (the TVC featured above was their first impression of Scott's work). Richard Gere had passed on the sequel to An Officer and A Gentleman, so Paramount had a fighter-pilot school drama prepped but no momentum. Simpson and Bruckheimer reworked the script into an original story then, with their ultra-commercial instincts in overdrive, took a meeting with Tony Scott….
Top Gun would be one of the biggest hits in Hollywood history. Its combination of 80s Reagan-era nationalism, testosterone-fuelled brio and head-spinning action sent the film into the blockbuster stratosphere. During its initial run, it would sell nearly US$350million in tickets, spawn a #1 soundtrack and drive sales of Ray-ban sunglasses through the roof. Tony Scott the director had delivered in spades; Tony Scott the adman, ditto (pictured, right, on-set with Tom Cruise).
Though shimmery and shallow, Top Gun also reflected a ballsy take on blokey relationships that would become part of Scott’s film signature. In 2012, nobody talks about the central romance, but everybody still talks about the locker-room/volleyball court dynamics of the Maverick/Ice/Goose triangle. Scott next paid some bills with Beverly Hills Cop II, before leaping into a series of films that would feature strong men riffing against each other – Revenge (Kevin Costner, Anthony Quinn); Days of Thunder (Cruise again, Michael Rooker); The Last Boy Scout (Bruce Willis, Daman Wayans); Crimson Tide (Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman). His best film, the Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance, features one of the great man-to-man face-offs in modern cinema – Christopher Walken’s gangster and Dennis Hopper’s damaged but decent everyman (“I haven’t killed anybody, since 1984”).
A quick glance down his list of proficient recent works indicates he never fully moved away from examining male conflict in a genre setting – The Fan (Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes); Unstoppable (Denzel again, Chris Pine), Spy Game (Robert Redford, Brad Pitt), Enemy of the State (Will Smith, Hakman again), The Taking of Pelham 123 (Denzel, John Travolta), Deja Vu (Denzel, Jim Caviezel).
Two works of Scott’s are worthy of deeper consideration in the context of his career. As Creasy in Man on Fire, Denzel was a soulless shell of a man until he grows close to Dakota Fanning, the wise-beyond-her-years little girl he bodyguards. In Domino, Keira Knightley (pictured, right, with her director) plays a hardened bounty hunter who stands alone in the face of a brutal, man-centric world. Fanning and Knightley are Scott’s most fascinating female leads because they represent the yin and yang of how he viewed his men – imposingly smart and physically brave. They are as close as Scott got to fully-rounded female leads. He wasn’t good with women characters in his movies (a directorial trait he recognised and tried to redress by producing the Cameron Diaz/Toni Collette drama, In Her Shoes, and the current TV hit, The Good Wife).
Frankly, Tony Scott had little time for the coarseness of reality. His style – jittery hand-held shots, split-second jump-cuts, garish colours, a general sense of ultra-heightened super-realism – existed to acknowledge and celebrate a view that film was the greatest visual medium and our world was a more interesting place when viewed through a spool-&-sprocket prism. That made it hard for real people to exist in his films or, more precisely, for audiences to become emotionally invested. The world as Tony Scott saw it was a tough, confused, cluttered battlefield of right versus wrong conflicts played out with vivid intensity, yet not altogether coherently.
Contemporaries like brother Ridley had more blockbuster hits and Oscar glory and Adrian Lyne followed a deeper path reflecting less commercial European sensibilities. Tony Scott would make a good living (for a lot of people) by directing palatable studio hits that exhibited little narrative ambition but tremendous prowess. He exhibited far greater storytelling warmth as a producer, most recently shepherding the YouTube humanitarian project Life in a Day to fruition. The directorial role he played will be replaced, but those he entertained will ensure his work won’t be forgotten.