“I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together. And til this day, the events that followed all still seems like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever.” (Alabama Whitman)
Five years ago today, I awoke to the news that Tony Scott, director of Top Gun, True Romance and Crimson Tide, had died. He had taken his own life by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, in the face of reportedly inoperable brain cancer. Now I’m not normally one to get sentimental about the death of a successful artist. My default reaction is usually one of profound respect and envy - respect for the life they’ve lived and envy that this equates to more lifetimes than I'll ever experience.
However this one did upset me. But not in the same way that I still mourn for Stanley Kubrick almost two decades on from his untimely death, for the future masterpieces we were denied. Tony Scott, while I’m most certainly a fan (I own all of his films, even the obscure ones), was different. To a creative, working-class kid from the northeast of England he represented the possibility, however remote, of living the dream.
After spending eight years in art school, Tony semi-reluctantly followed his elder brother Ridley into the then booming world of advertising. Initially, Tony would shoot the close ups of the products (loaves of bread etc.) that would appear at the end of Ridley’s commercials. These were mini-works of art in themselves, thanks to his background in fine art. He soon went on to direct his own commercials, becoming hugely successful in his own right. “I was paid to film in exotic locations and meet the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen in my life", he later told the journalist and author Sam Delaney. While Ridley had a monopoly on the arty projects, Tony cornered the market in “sexy, rock ‘n’ roll stuff”, thus laying the groundwork for his future film career.
While the aesthetics of both Scotts overlap (I doubt casual observers could tell them apart), the younger brother eschewed the muted, neo-Gothic palette and melancholic aura of the elder in favour of vivid colours, faster cutting and a more upbeat tone. But together they would go on to reinvent American film aesthetics, perfecting a radical shooting technique involving anamorphic long lenses, smoke and hard backlight that’s long since been absorbed into the mainstream and influenced such heavyweights as James Cameron, Michael Bay, Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan.
He was the local boy made good. He made the horizon and the stars feel less distant and more reachable, so for him to take his own life felt like the end of the dream in a way. But the dream was real. After all, didn’t the hero of his finest contribution to cinema insist that there's nothing more cool than "rockin' and rollin', livin' fast, dying young and leaving a good-lookin' corpse"?
Ironically, Tony Scott lacked the courage of Tarantino’s conviction in this ethos when he changed the original ending of his True Romance script so that Clarence survived the apparently fatal gunshot wound near the end of the film. Having the outlaw couple survive beyond the end credits may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but judging by the film's beloved cult status he made the correct decision, and I respect him for that. Ultimately, Tony Scott embraced the romantic rock 'n' roll myth in life, and I envy him for that.