Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (New York: Flatiron Books, 2020).
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Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye tells the irresistible tale of the making of Chinatown. Wasson’s approach to this familiar story is to focus on the contributions of four of the movie’s principal contributors: writer Robert Towne, star Jack Nicholson, producer Robert Evans, and director Roman Polanski. The first part of the book draws biographical sketches of its protagonists as their paths converge during the emergence of the New Hollywood in the late 1960s; the balance of the volume follows Chinatown through its development, production, reception, and aftermath.
Nineteen sixty-seven was the sort of year that Evans, a 37-year-old failed actor and fledgling producer, could be handed control of a major studio, the venerable but troubled Paramount Pictures. All the grand old studios were then on the ropes. Their founding titans were fading, and losing their grip on a hipper, younger audience; and as bloated, star-studded productions hemorrhaged tons of money, corporate vultures began circling over their remaining assets. Evans had a huge hit with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, and he had brought director Polanski to that production. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor – he was herded into the Krakow Ghetto as a small child, and his mother was murdered at Auschwitz – would emerge as a wunderkind of postwar Polish cinema with his celebrated Knife in the Water (1962), which was followed by the sensational Repulsion (1965), the first of three films he would make in Britain. Lured to Hollywood, Polanski’s life was upended by the gruesome murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, after which he returned to Europe. Evans was determined to bring him back to Los Angeles, for Chinatown.
Chinatown was the brainchild of Robert Towne. The native Angeleno was inspired by an actual event in his city’s history (“The Rape of Owens Valley,” a nefarious land-and-water grab that took place in 1913; Towne set the tale in 1937), and the pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Towne was a notoriously slow writer – with Warren Beatty he batted around endless drafts of Shampoo for years – and generally found more success raking in enormous fees as a sought-after script doctor for others, most famously punching up Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. But Chinatown was his magnum opus, and as with The Last Detail (1973), he wrote the script with his friend Jack Nicholson in mind to play the lead. The two first met in Jeff Corey’s acting classes, a point of intersection for many future new Hollywood notables, including Carole Eastman, who would also write Five Easy Pieces (1970) with Jack in mind. For most of the 1960s, however, Nicholson was hanging by his fingertips as an actor before his unanticipated breakout performance in Easy Rider (1969).
There is much to praise in The Big Goodbye, as well there should be – Wasson is a best-selling author, and the making of Chinatown comes ready-made with a mouthwatering feast of spicy anecdotes. One of the great productions of the second half of the twentieth century (I’m on record as calling it “the Citizen Kane of the seventies film”), the movie boasts an astonishing collection of talent on both sides of the camera, and no shortage of colorful stories. (It was Hollywood in the seventies, after all, when drugs were still fun and free love exuberantly practiced.) Wasson is particularly strong on the evolution of the screenplay, from Towne’s protracted development of the story through the saga of Towne and Polanski struggling to cut and rewrite his original, impossibly long, much too complex script – two months of 10-hour working days filled with tension and acrimony. Nevertheless, those two months (before writer and director stopped speaking to each other) were enormously productive, and The Big Goodbye does an especially fine job walking through the development of the incest theme and its revelation, and the process of puzzling through how Jake Gittes (Nicholson) would come to learn of it.
Also welcome and informative is the discussion of the transition from cinematographer Stanley Cortez (he had shot The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter, and The Naked Kiss – but just wasn’t working out on Chinatown) to John Alonzo, whose contributions to the film, as Wasson recounts, in close partnership with Polanski and production designer Richard Sylbert, were considerable. The New Hollywood is often seen as an era of auteur cinema, but Chinatown well illustrates the invariably collaborative nature of making movies, with Sylbert and Alonzo, as well as Jerry Goldsmith (who composed the memorable score), Faye Dunaway, and the larger-than-life John Huston joining Wasson’s gang of four as those who made essential and indelible contributions to the picture.
Nevertheless, it is hard to offer a full-throated endorsement of The Big Goodbye. Stylistically, it is breezy and gossipy, and, as Chinatown has been written about extensively (Michael Eaton’s slim BFI treatment remains a noteworthy contribution), many of its best stories are familiar. (Classics include Faye Dunaway freaking out after Polanski plucked a stray hair from her head that was catching the light, the awkward/amusing life-imitating-art aspect of Nicholson’s romantic relationship with Anjelica Huston, and of course Towne and Polanski clashing bitterly over the ending.) In addition, the prose is often overwrought: “Anjelica’s eyes were as deep as the richest black oil; they told of legacy, the ages of subterranean refinement preceding her actual birth,” an assessment that seems to have been made from afar, as she was not one of Wasson’s interview subjects. And the final, after-the-fact chapters feel increasingly rushed and fragmentary.
More important, the research conducted – and how The Big Goodbye assesses and presents the material gathered in that process – is unsatisfactory. For his outstanding, definitive biography of Bob Fosse, Wasson conducted over 300 interviews and took a deep dive into the relevant archives, surfacing with gems that elevated his text; The Big Goodbye draws on less than 40 interviews, a smattering of primary documents, and it leans heavily on quotes from previously published sources. Additionally, the treatment of those archival sources (with the exception of the book’s welcome engagement with Towne’s original screenplay; more here would have been even better) is perfunctory and generally disappointing. More unsatisfactory still is the skewed – and, it must be said, naïve – use of the new interview material. The voice heard most often in the book is that of producer Evans. But as The Big Goodbye gleefully and repeatedly reports, often from the subject’s mouth, Evans was a fabulist who built his entire career on mountains of lies. Similarly, interview subject and Paramount Pictures power broker Peter Bart boasts to Wasson that he told so many lies he “actually kept a notebook” so he could keep track of which lies he had told to whom. As the book illustrates, lies are a way of life for many of these players – for Bart, they are “the way to get a movie started.”
Yet Wasson rarely if ever pauses to interrogate, or even gently question, the accounts of Evans or his other interview subjects, who share their inevitably self-soothing versions of 50-year-old memories. Skewing the story still further, of the four key players Wasson focuses on, only Evans and Polanski spoke with the author. Nicholson and Towne did not (Julie Payne, Towne’s estranged former spouse, is given control of his narrative). Moreover, the absence of Faye Dunaway’s perspective is an egregious oversight (and her shabby treatment more generally reads like one side of a story). Most constructive – and least inherently suspect – are the reflections and insights of film producer and Chinatown’s costume designer Anthea Sylbert, who was also, crucially here, the sister-in-law of legendary production designer Richard Sylbert, whose contributions to the film were such that he could make a fair claim to the title of Chinatown’s “fifth Beatle.” Nevertheless, if The Big Goodbye instead only had access to Towne, Nicholson (and Dunaway), or at the very least looked at all the tall tales spun by its interlocutors with a more jaundiced eye, a very different narrative of the production of Chinatown would surely have unfolded across its pages. To take one prominent example, as is well known, Polanski and Towne clashed over aspects of the screenplay, and most famously, about the ending. (Polanski, who had final cut, was right, and over the years Towne would come to acknowledge that.) But The Big Goodbye, mostly via interviews with Polanski and unrebutted by an absent Towne, credits the final screenplay more to the director than the writer than other accounts of the production.
Polanski went so far as to tell Wasson that he could have gone to arbitration to claim credit for the screenplay. This seems a stretch, and ungenerous (and, of course unanswered), and ultimately unfair, as readers of The Big Goodbye will leave the book with this impression in their minds. But despite the vital, essential contributions that Polanski made to the script, it is hard not to see Towne as Chinatown’s principal author, of a script he nursed for years, a tale about his hometown, with a part written expressly for his friend Jack. Nor did anyone raise objections or even eyebrows when Towne subsequently published the screenplay under his own name, or question the accolades showered on him as the script became an exemplar of screenwriting excellence in film schools. As properly suggested elsewhere in The Big Goodbye, Polanski’s brilliance (working in his third or possibly fourth language), first in partnership with Towne and then later on his own, was in knowing what to cut – honing Towne’s script to the bone, and bringing discipline, focus, and clarity to a complex story (really, two complex stories), wisely insisting on real intimacy between Evelyn and Jake (thus raising the dramatic stakes in the outcome of her narrative), and, of course, imposing his necessary, bravura ending.
Getting – and trusting – one side of the story is especially problematic regarding the book’s treatment of Dunaway. Her contributions to Chinatown are given short shrift, and told mostly through the score-settling eyes of Polanski and his minions. A notoriously difficult personality – in 2019 Dunaway was fired from a one-woman show in 2019, which is a Hall of Fame move – there is little reason to doubt there were challenges. Nevertheless, the success of the picture depends on the subtlety of her performance. Polanski and Towne were purposefully manipulating audiences’ implicit expectations of the film’s steeped-in-film-noir ambiance (abetted by the period chosen and the looming presence of Maltese Falcon director Huston). Thus, as Dunaway explained in her own memoir, “I had to construct each of Evelyn’s reactions so that the audience would think at that moment that I was guilty.” The key, devastating twist in Chinatown is that although she was indeed invariably lying, first-time viewers – and, crucially, Jake – are tragically wrong in their implicit assumptions regarding what she is lying about. It is worth revisiting the restaurant scene for a clinic in this virtuosity of wordplay and performance.
By all accounts, Dunaway worked well with Nicholson and, as reported by Wasson, with James Hong, who played Evelyn’s butler. She was also extraordinary in the intense and physically demanding climactic scene with Jake, when Nicholson slapped her around, for real, in take after take. Finally, consider one legendary screaming match between Polanski and Nicholson: called to the set, Jack wanted to finish watching a basketball game; Roman, armed with a mop, destroyed the TV set in his trailer. Considerable chaos ensued and production was halted in its tracks as both men ultimately stormed from the location. In The Big Goodbye, the outburst is played for laughs – and it is funny – but had Dunaway been involved, likely the story would have been told differently.
As for the post-production, Wasson artfully dangles some suspense toward the end of his tale – the late-arriving Goldsmith score saves the day; a dispiriting test screening unnerves – but of course once Chinatown has its premiere, it is swiftly a critical and commercial success and would rack up 11 academy award nominations; Towne would win for best screenplay. The last part of the book, however, is dutifully dispiriting. Polanski’s brutal sexual encounter with a 13-year-old girl three years after Chinatown wrapped is reviewed over 10 pages of grim detail; and hints of his lecherous eye for teenage girls are unflinchingly seeded throughout the text. In 1978, he would flee the country, a fugitive from justice. As for the rest of the band, suddenly it was the ’80s out there, and the New Hollywood era was over. (Or as Wasson inscrutably phrases it, “As President Ford pardoned Nixon, so would Hollywood pardon the difficulties of the recent past.”) Evans suffered a series of ugly personal and professional catastrophes, and The Big Goodbye leaves Towne coked-up and unreliable, and Nicholson rich and lazily squandering his craft. Efforts by the three of them to collaborate on an anticipated Chinatown sequel eventually fell apart, though Nicholson would finally direct and star in The Two Jakes in 1990.
Ultimately, The Big Goodbye will find a place on bookshelves alongside Peter Biskind’s salacious, print-the-legend Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: a fun read in sensational detail, that allows readers to rub elbows with ’70s glitterati in all their excessive glory. But the uninitiated might not be aware that some of the participants – often with axes to grind – have their fingers pushing hard on the narrative scale. And those who already know the great stories, although they will surely value the discussions of Towne’s early drafts and some of the details about the long and winding evolution of the story, will ultimately be left wanting more.