The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson

Scribbling the 500 pages of notes he produced while laboring on the script that would soon be celebrated as one of the greatest ever to emerge from Hollywood, Robert Towne occasionally paused to jot down ideas for a title: Lost in the Sun; Deal Me Out; Last Chance; Jake’s Limit; The Third Coming. Some were even worse than those.

Even though what became Chinatown is really about greed, incest, and—truly—water rights; even though it has little to do with to do with Chinese-American culture, or politics, or people; and despite the fact that its action doesn’t arrive in the eponymous neighborhood until the last six minutes, both the title and the film itself turned out to be just about perfect. And the movie’s closing line—“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”—makes the indirection in the title worth it. Sam Wasson’s book about Chinatown, with its equally opaque, entirely Chandlerian title, is awfully good, too. Regarding The Big Goodbye, you’ll just have to trust me: having read it thoroughly and enthusiastically, I still have no idea what the title means—but the book is as fine an unwrapping of the moviemaking process as I’ve read.

Getting the Picture

Wasson’s book, which tells how Towne, Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, and Jack Nicholson came together to make their unforgettable film, is an expertly synthesized model of superb reporting. In one paragraph, Wasson can make it seem as if a handful of different sources were all in the same room, engaged in a five-way conversation, when in fact each quote was drawn from a different television interview or magazine article, or Towne’s scratchings on a yellow legal pad, or, in many cases, interviews conducted by the author himself.

From left: Robert Towne, Nicholson, and Robert Evans arrive at the 47th Academy Awards, in 1975.

Producer Evans (who died last fall) cooperated with Wasson, and Polanski cooperated to a degree, but because Towne and Nicholson apparently did not, Wasson tracked down every pertinent bit that either of them has ever said in public, and then deepened their testimony with direct quotations from ex-girlfriends, co-stars, crew members—anyone with firsthand knowledge of the filmmakers and how the film was made.

Jack Nicholson apparently didn’t cooperate, so the author tracked down every pertinent bit he has ever said in public.

I have to say that, early on, Wasson’s occasionally overripe prose threatened to activate my gag reflex: “This is what he was now, surly and ecstatic, giant and decreased, less a man than an idea lost on a dreaming sea”; or, much later in the book, “Released from the past, something’s ghost heavied the waiting with bad comings, wrongs, and the vertiginous air of summer thunder.” But when he’s not writing bad Chandlerese, Wasson generally keeps his storytelling straight and sleek, and is gifted enough to redeem himself with expertly delivered, shapely insights: “As the writer, Towne had to dream out a script; as the director, Polanski had to wake him up.”

Indeed. Wasson makes it clear that as imaginative as Towne’s script was, it was Polanski’s reconception of the work that made Chinatown great—chiefly, placing Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, at the center of the film’s every scene (guaranteeing that the audience never knows anything that Jake doesn’t know), and crafting the famous, soul-emptying ending. Towne originally had Faye Dunaway’s character kill her titanically malign father (played by John Huston); Polanski preferred, he said, to have him “get away clean … just like most bad guys really do.”

Devil in the Detail

While Towne kept re-writing during the production process, Polanski dived into every aspect of the filmmaking—acting, lighting, cinematography, set design, even selecting the color of Dunaway’s fingernail polish. Shooting the scene where Nicholson is knocked to the ground in a fight with some farmhands in an orange grove, Polanski spent a full 40 minutes on takes and retakes as the camera traced the passage of an ant across the actor’s face. Nicholson: “How long are you gonna hold on this shot, Roman?” Polanski: “A second. Maybe two. Roll camera, please.” Wasson: “All eyes were on the insect, the costliest ant in human history.”

Polanski preferred to have the film’s antagonist “get away clean … just like most bad guys really do.”

Dunaway, like Nicholson and Towne, isn’t mentioned in Wasson’s acknowledgments, nor does an interview with the author show up. That might explain why she’s represented as somewhat peripheral to the filmmaking process. But despite his own apparent non-cooperation with Wasson, it’s clear that Nicholson—who’d been a pal of Towne’s since they’d taken acting lessons together as young men—was involved in the film from the outset. Dunaway is also shown to be, shall we say, difficult. Howard Koch Jr., Polanski’s assistant director and himself minor Hollywood royalty (his father was the well-loved producer of The Manchurian Candidate and other films), said Nicholson’s cooperation during filming was “total and complete.” Dunaway’s less so; after she’d been away from the set for a few days suffering from the flu, Koch called her to ask how she was doing. “I don’t talk to assistant directors,” she said.

From left: Dunaway, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, and Evans attend the Golden Globes, 1975.

Nicholson had his moments of bad behavior, too, even though Polanski has called him “one of the easiest actors I ever worked with.” As Wasson relates in amusing detail, at one point a raging, equipment-throwing, screaming doozy of a fight ensued when, at filming time, Nicholson insisted on staying in his trailer to watch an especially tense Lakers game. Koch to Polanski, trying to explain: “Roman, it’s double overtime.” Polanski to Koch, enraged: “What the fuck is double overtime?” Fireworks followed.

Star Quality

But when the cameras were rolling, when everything was in place—the exquisite sets and locations that resuscitated 1937 Los Angeles, the lighting and camerawork that sharpened the knife-edge of foreboding that propels the film forward—both of the stars were sublime. Dunaway’s concentration, a cast member said, “was so intense you wouldn’t want to talk to her.” Shooting the famous “My daughter! My sister! My daughter!” scene, she insisted that Nicholson actually slap her, in take after bruising take.

Nicholson, Lakers notwithstanding, delivered the performance that elevated him to his 40-year reign at the very top of his profession. Towne became celebrated for the great screenplay that wasn’t entirely his, and Polanski … well, Wasson addresses Polanski’s off-screen story, both before and after Chinatown, at some length. It doesn’t directly bear on the picture (Towne thought otherwise: “I think it was impossible for Roman to come back to Los Angeles, and not end his movie with an attractive blond lady being murdered”), but there would have been a gaping hole in Wasson’s book if he hadn’t attempted to fill it.

Shooting the famous “My sister! My daughter! My sister!” scene, Dunaway insisted that Nicholson actually slap her.

The late producer Evans’s presence as one of the protagonists in The Big Goodbye is palpable and essential. (One of the book’s great delights is his hilarious recounting of negotiations with Dunaway’s agent, Sue Mengers. Evans told Mengers the studio wanted Jane Fonda. Mengers told Evans that director Arthur Penn wanted Dunaway for his Night Moves. Both, of course, were lying. And, of course, they made the deal.) Evans put the principals together, he ran interference with the money men in Paramount’s New York office, and he secured a budget that gave everyone room to do their best work. At a time when Hollywood was obsessed with disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake), Evans sought to make art.

During the filming of Chinatown: “I think it was impossible for Roman to come back to Los Angeles, and not end his movie with an attractive blond lady being murdered,” said Towne.

But despite the film’s success, Chinatown left no footprints at the studio. A new generation of producers and managers was coming in, among them the 34-year-old Michael Eisner, who assumed responsibility for most of the company’s filmmaking in the mid-70s. “We have no obligation to make history,” he told his colleagues in a memo. “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Forget it, Jake—it’s Hollywood.

Daniel Okrent is the author of several books including, most recently, The Guarded Gate