When Films Were Kings

Born of nostalgia, Chinatown today inspires a nostalgia of its own: for a Hollywood driven by creativity.

Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

Sam Wasson’s latest book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, describes the conception, production, and aftermath of the 1974 film many critics and film historians judge as one of the best of all time. The mere mention of the title recalls its musical theme, Jack Nicholson’s elegant bone structure and his marvelous hats, the dusty orange groves he races his Ford Phaeton through, the body drowned in a drought, Faye Dunaway’s alabaster complexion and mysterious standoffishness, John Huston as her incestuous millionaire father presiding over lunch at the Albacore Club. The nasty gangster played by the film’s director, Roman Polanski, slashing Nicholson’s nostril open with a stiletto. And of course, three snippets of dialogue: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” “She’s my sister and my daughter.” And above all, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” All of them have become part of the movie lover’s vernacular.

The Chinatown enterprise began when screenwriter Robert Towne declared that he wanted to “write a picture for Jack.” Jack, of course, was Nicholson, who’d had his breakout role in Easy Rider and gone on to play sundry antiheroes in films like Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and The Last Detail. He had yet to play a quintessential leading man, and Towne, who had anonymously improved scripts for The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde, among others, had not had an original screenplay produced.

When Nicholson got around to asking what the new picture would be about, Towne replied, “I don’t know.” But he corrected himself a second later with a two-syllable tantalizing clue: “Water.”

Towne’s water story became a tale of avarice, perversion, and municipal corruption revolving around the misuse of Southern California water, a topic still relevant today. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Towne nurtured a nostalgia for the city of his childhood, in the 1930s and ’40s. By 1970, the population had soared and spread. Ugly freeways expanding across the county only made things worse.

And yet it’s the author’s thesis that the ensuing era—the early 1970s—was the last vestige of a grander Hollywood. I am suspicious. One person’s nostalgia is another’s point of departure. As Henry Miller wrote, “In youth we were whole and the terror and pain of the world penetrated us through and through.… And then comes a time when suddenly all seems to be reversed.… We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets—we remember only.”

Wasson boldly violates a cardinal rule followed by serious biographers and social historians. He uses his research and interviews to enter the heads of his characters, weaving an almost novelistic narrative. He quotes Towne, who said, “I realized that I had in common with Chandler that I loved L.A. and missed the L.A. that I loved. It was gone…but so much of it was left; the ruins of it.… You could still shoot them and create the L.A. that had been lost.”

The Big Goodbye describes how Towne produced his initial, much-too-long screenplay by drawing from more than 500 pages of notes amassed through extensive research into the city’s history, water wars, groves of orange trees, and the foibles of the era’s leading families. Robert Evans, a slick operator who saw himself as the reincarnation of Irving Thalberg, bought the screenplay for Paramount and chose Polanski to direct the film. Polanski had just released the critically acclaimed and profitable Rosemary’s Baby.

Presented with Towne’s 180-page screenplay, the intense Polish-French director decided it needed to be simplified and should go for the audience’s jugular. Polanski’s parents had been herded into concentration camps. His pregnant mother had died in Auschwitz. He was orphaned and roamed the Polish countryside, where he observed one horror after another before German soldiers caught him and used him for target practice. His adulthood experience of Los Angeles was also grim. In 1969, one year after he moved to California, his pregnant wife, the beautiful Sharon Tate, and several of her friends were brutally murdered in the living room of his and Tate’s rental in the L.A. hills. It was in the wake of this atrocity that Polanski and Towne battled over the script. Wasson contends that Polanski’s darkness at work in the revised final scene, when evil triumphs, is what pushed the film into greatness.

Roman Polanski directs Dunaway and Nicholson in Chinatown. The director and both actors earned Oscar nominations for their work in the 1974 noir masterpiece. (Writer Robert Towne won the Best Original Screenplay award.)

Chinatown exemplifies how mercurial moviemaking can be and how much of a collaborative art form it is. The Big Goodbye makes clear that the film would have been a disaster if any one of the key players had gotten their way: if Towne’s rosier and overcomplicated original screenplay had prevailed, if Polanski had been granted his choice of music, if Evans’s inclination to tint the film had been followed.

In the end, all three of them saved the picture as well: Polanski’s confrontations with Towne, Evans getting the fast and adaptable cinematographer John Alonzo to replace the magnificent but old-fashioned Stanley Cortez and hiring Jerry Goldsmith at the last minute to compose the musical score. In a recent interview, I asked Wasson if he considered Chinatown to be an auteur film despite all the other strong voices that had intervened. He responded: “It’s Polanski’s film. Like every great director, he was surrounded by brilliant artists who understood that.”

Like the movie, Wasson’s book is itself an ode to Los Angeles and a long-gone, pre-streaming Hollywood. In the 1970s, talent agencies were still personalized boutique businesses. A younger crop of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, steeped in film history and enamored of European cinema, bonded and got serious projects going with like-minded producers. In a current twist on this theme, in August it was reported that actor Ben Affleck will write and direct an adaptation of Wasson’s book. Affleck, who directed Argo, will produce with Lorne Michaels, who is best known for creating and producing SNL.

Wasson describes a last moment of grandeur before the legendary studios morphed into corporate beasts—global companies that in the ’80s were thrilled to add a sexy dimension to their dull but prosperous portfolios. “As Hollywood’s energy,” he writes, describing the decline and fall after Chinatown, “shifted from filmmaking to dealmaking, its people and culture shifted from old hippies to young yuppies.” He quotes a mission statement circulated by Michael Eisner when he took over development at Paramount in 1976, the same Eisner who would later run the Walt Disney Company: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

My own career in the movie business began just a beat later, in 1982. I started working as an assistant director on a film shot in Spain, the beautiful El Sur, directed by Víctor Erice. I had been attached to the project since the scriptwriting phase and stayed all the way through its presentation at the Cannes Film Festival, a full year later. The experience led to work in New York on two Woody Allen films and then on Falling in Love with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, directed by Ulu Grosbard. I got into the Directors Guild working on one feature after another and spent almost another year on two Warren Beatty films. I also worked with John Huston, Jack Nicholson, and Anjelica Huston on Prizzi’s Honor, about 10 years after Chinatown was made.

By then, the expansive, tireless Nicholson as described in The Big Goodbye had turned into a more cautious, guarded movie star, and John Huston was directing from a wheelchair. Even so, the Hollywood of Wasson’s book was still going strong.

The industry that had adapted to the introduction of sound, color, and the beginnings of digital editing was still reinventing itself and making all kinds of interesting films. True, everything had become more expensive, with bloated budgets and pesky auditors, but the creators were still creating. I later worked with Chinatown cinematographer Alonzo on a film called Navy SEALs, which, though a forgettable movie, provided me with amazing experiences, such as dealing with Spanish navy officials and actual SEALs on leave and coordinating stunts from within a submarine at sea.

It’s what we did. We were like mercenaries, hired guns, going from one production to another, seeing old friends, making new ones, always looking for the next gig, bringing our best to each job, willing and eager to work those long days that made us feel a little bit special. Whether the finished film was judged to be great, good, or a turkey was up to editors, marketing, and the fates.

The flippant Eisner quote cited above almost convinced me of Wasson’s thesis—that the hiring of bottom-line-obsessed businessmen signified a change in priorities. But I have come to think that Eisner’s declaration was just a macho cheer, aimed at convincing investors that he was personally aligned with a new business credo. The driving force behind the studio system in all its configurations has always been to make as much money as possible.

During the year I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, assisting with postproduction for Universal, I would drive up Coldwater Canyon each day, onto Mulholland Drive, before descending to Studio City.

I fell in love with the place. I wasn’t bemoaning all that had changed since Nicholson and Towne and Polanski’s golden days. I took it as it was, with fresh eyes, and enjoyed my daily winding return trip to the little apartment I had between Wilshire and Olympic. The setting sun colored the half-wild landscape. The gunmetal Pacific in the distance painted the horizon. Grand mansions stood cheek by jowl with funky wooden houses enveloped in the scent of pepper trees and eucalyptus.

But one evening, invited to dinner by director Arthur Hiller at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison, a place Wasson describes as the eatery that marked the beginning of the end, I introduced myself to Billy Wilder, who was dining at the next table. I could not resist telling him how much I admired his work and that one of my favorite films of all time was his Love in the Afternoon. In no mood to have his dinner further interrupted by a stranger, he merely said, “Thank you, but it didn’t make any money.”

The film business is going through yet another upheaval. Even before the pandemic struck, more and more people were staying away from movie theaters, preferring to sit at home watching smaller screens, in rooms often rife with interruption. Episodic series, some of them beautifully produced, are now the equivalent of what the novel has classically been, especially in the crime genre, while today’s Hollywood features are more like short stories, or like comic books. As each generation reaches the moment when it can “no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets,” it will “always have Paris.” The confusing present, chaotic and hard to pin down, will continue to be described in two words: “It’s Chinatown.”

Filmmaker and author John J. Healey wrote “The Case Against Junípero Serra” for Alta, Winter 2018. His documentaries, one about Federico García Lorca and another about Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, have been followed by four novels, most recently The Samurai’s Daughter (Arcade Publishing, 2019).

"The Big Goodbye" by Sam Wasson


• By Sam Wasson
• Flatiron Books, 416 pages, $28.99

Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section.

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