The Dilettante

How Days of Thunder Changed Hollywood

For the better.

Still of Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder.
Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder.

Photograph by Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films © 1990.

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.

Days of Thunder was intended to be an uncomplicated reprise—same director, same star, same producers, same deal-point treasure. (Its industry nickname was Top Car.) But where Top Gun is pleasantly goofy, Days of Thunder is aggressively incoherent. It makes no sense that Cruise’s character, the improbably named Cole Trickle, is in that expensive race car (he keeps admitting he knows nothing about cars). It makes no sense that Tom Cruise is in this expensive movie (the look on his face throughout says, “I am not a NASCAR driver; I am a best actor nominee.”)

Long, quiet, ice-toned scenes of Cruise-Trickle confessing his inability to live with his own good fortune alternate with gleefully bad scenes of stock car racing. (One anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, claims principal photography for Days of Thunder ended without a shot of Cruise’s car crossing the finish line.) The film bears all the hallmarks of a project doomed from the get-go by power struggles: In this instance, between Tom Cruise, whose celebrity had been burnished to a high polish by the critical successes of Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, and Don Simpson, whose debauchery was now raging out of control. While Cruise manipulated the script into a parable of his own success, Simpson converted the set into his own Roman playpen. He spent (so reports his biographer, Charles Fleming) $400,000 of studio money to convert his hotel suite into a private gym, kept a closetful of Donna Karan dresses for the ladies his assistants handpicked on the Daytona beaches, and commandeered a local disco for (total filmmaking in action) private parties featuring Tone Loc.

In addition to his Caligula-like exploits, Simpson got it into his head that he should act in Days of Thunder. A new character was dutifully written in, and a sin-bloated Simpson was squeezed into a NASCAR fire-suit. Had Tony Scott asserted one iota of directorial control, he would have excised Simpson completely from the film. But then again, had Tony Scott asserted one iota of directorial control, Days of Thunder might not have been the catastrophe it was. Scott didn’t, it bombed; but by bombing, it helped bring about the death of the anti-auteur era in 1990, no less than Heaven’s Gate had hastened the death of the auteur era in 1980. The films Scott made in the ’90s, principally Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, owe their relative elegance as blockbusters to the reacquired authority of the director, an authority reacquired, in no small part, thanks to the debacle of his final ’80s film.

Rewatching the film the other night, I noticed for the first time one particularly superfluous racing sequence. “God damn,” I thought, as I rewound it, thinking I’d mistaken what I just saw. But no, there it was: Simpson’s car gets love-tapped once on its rear bumper and boom, for no apparent reason, his engine blows sky high, knocking him out of the race, and the movie. “There it is,” I said, the little wink to let you know, even amid the insanity, the author was not dead.  It was like finding the lost finish line footage, only to discover a Prius sneaking across while no one was looking.