In his death as in his films, Tony Scott handed you, on the sly, little reasons to take heart. Scott, the Hollywood director, killed himself last week, jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Yet even embedded in such a dire news item there lay the speck of leavening irony. The man who gave the world (twice) Tom Cruise as an appendage to instruments of macho locomotion—the fighter jet (Top Gun) and the stock car (Days of the Thunder)—pulled up to his appointed hour in a Prius.
Several of Scott’s obits stressed that the films he made in the 1990s represented a rebound, maybe even an atonement, for the frankly exploitative work he did in the 1980s, when he was the gun-for-hire on the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer summer glib-fests. True, but incomplete: The best film he made may well have been Crimson Tide; but the most important film he made was Days of Thunder. To understand why, a bit of backstory is in order.
Standard histories of Hollywood point to a series of events at the end of the 1970s that brought a golden age of director-driven cinema to an end, in particular the failure of the film Heaven’s Gate, in 1980. United Artists had given the director Michael Cimino, fresh from his triumph with The Deer Hunter, a long leash, and with it he singlehandedly lured UA, a company founded by the legendary quartet of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, down the road to ruin. Like every morality tale, this is a massively convenient oversimplification. Nonetheless, as the 1980s dawned, studios (and their corporate owners) were in no mood to dispense unlimited amounts of money and autonomy to self-styled geniuses. Enter Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Simpson had been head of production at Paramount before being eased out for a worsening coke habit. Bruckheimer had proven himself a savvy producer, particularly on the still grossly underrated American Gigolo. Together they understood that, in more budget-wary times, the producer, not the director, might assert himself as the true author of a film. (This was not entirely fanciful: The producer was often considered to be the principal maker of the film until the auteur revolution of the ’50s and ’60s.) The full-page ad that announced their deal with Paramount, in 1985, read: “From the premise to the premiere. From the first draft to the last detail. From the first shot to the millionth cassette. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer are total filmmakers.”
Simpson and Bruckheimer conceived of their movies in radically non-narrative terms—as jangly necklaces of MTV-like rock video sequences interspersed with feats of, well, fill-in-the-blank: dancing, fighter-piloting, stock car derring-do. To make such a movie one need not hire Serge Eisenstein; and the duo preferred a director who would not interfere with their publicity-crafted images as “total filmmakers.” Enter Tony Scott.
Scott had done striking visual work on the vampire flick The Hunger. Other than that, his résumé consisted of little more than a well-regarded Saab commercial. On his first assignment for the duo, Scott delivered huge: Top Gun was the commanding box office success of 1986, and it made Tom Cruise over, from a likable rising star into a global brand that has survived, mostly undented, for a generation.