Tony Scott: 1944-2012
Benoit Tessier/FiLES via Reuters
Tony Scott was the signature American filmmaker of the 1980s. Not the best or most prolific or influential or enduring, but the closest thing to an epitome. Scott died Sunday, an apparent suicide. He jumped from a bridge in Los Angeles. He was 68.
Making Scott’s relationship to ’80s Hollywood all the more remarkable are two facts: He wasn’t American and he released just three films during that decade. He was English, but underscored how an international-conglomerate style had begun to dominate Hollywood. No other director did so much to put forward so prominently such machine-tooled style, MTV-worthy editing, and sleek self-assurance. In other words, he and Tom Cruise were a match made in moviemaking heaven, and their love child was “Top Gun” (1986). It was one of Scott’s trio of ’80s features. “Top Gun” did as much to celebrate and define onscreen the sensibility of the Reagan years as “Saturday Night Fever” did disco or “The Grapes of Wrath” the Great Depression. “Top Gun” also provided a template for Scott’s career: gleaming technique joined to male-driven high energy and forthright mindlessness (which is very different from stupidity). Actually, that formula could describe the template for much of American filmmaking during the Sound Era. But Scott’s technical proficiency — his unashamed stylization of substance — helped set him apart. Tony Scott didn’t make any great films, but all his films looked great.
Proficiency in filmmaking is certainly related to artistry but it’s not the same thing. Scott came to movies from commercials, and there was always the sense that his films were selling a product and that he saw the audience more as consumers than moviegoers. His movies were what they were consuming. That’s one reason his films have never been taken as seriously as those of his older brother, Ridley Scott. Only one Scott brother was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and it wasn’t Tony. But their styles had much in common. And take away “Alien” (which owes so much to Dan O’Bannon’s ingenious screenplay) and “Blade Runner” (which owes even more to Syd Mead’s astonishing designs), and Ridley’s higher standing doesn’t necessarily seem all that much more deserved.
The brothers’ films differ in one crucial respect: the place of women. From Sigourney Weaver, in “Alien,” to Lorraine Bracco, in “Someone to Watch Over Me,” to Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, in “Thelma and Louise,” to Noomi Rapace, in “Prometheus,” formidable females have brought out the best in Ridley Scott. The closest a Tony Scott film has to a strong female protagonist is Keira Knightley’s bounty hunter, in “Domino” (2005). It’s almost as if he learned too well the lesson of his first feature, “The Hunger” (1983), with its verging-on-camp story of vampire Catherine Deneuve claiming Sarandon as lover-victim. Spilled red wine will never look the same to anyone who’s seen the movie, and Scott would never give another of his movies over to a woman who didn’t think like a man. Three years later, he shot and lit the jet fighters in “Top Gun” much as he did Kelly McGillis, that film’s female lead, only the planes looked sexier.
Scott was happiest with vehicles. He loved building stories around machines that moved fast and made loud noises. Besides those Navy jets, there were stock cars (“Days of Thunder,” 1990, with Cruise again), submarines (“Crimson Tide,” 1995), subway trains (“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” 2009), freight trains (“Unstoppable,” 2010). He loved star vehicles, too: building stories around male actors who moved slow and made terse noises. Beside Cruise, the other star he bonded with was Denzel Washington: “Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire” (2004), “Deja Vu” (2006), “Pelham,” “Unstoppable.” Both types of vehicles merged in “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987): Eddie Murphy, at the height of his stardom then, moved fast and made very loud noises of his own.
“Beverly Hills Cop II” was one of four movies Scott made with the producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. The others were the two Cruise titles and “Crimson Tide.” Scott also made the paranoid thriller “Enemy of the State” (1998) with Bruckheimer, after Simpson’s death. These may have been Scott’s most important collaborations. He acquired from Bruckheimer and Simpson a producer’s sensibility, and it’s a sensibility evident in nearly all of his movies. Give audiences what they want and make sure what you give them is well-made product, but also make sure it’s never anything more than just that. The aesthetic lushness of “The Hunger” is often silly, but it’s also reaching for something distinctive. Little distinctiveness, beyond highly expert craft, would be evident later on. The one exception is “True Romance” (1993). Its distinctiveness owes something to the identity of the scriptwriter, Quentin Tarantino. No one would ever call Tarantino a signature filmmaker — but that’s because he’s too distinctive.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.