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Big book brings back "Chinatown," Los Angeles and the 1930s — Review

Apr 6 2020


Hollywood Boulevard looking east from Sycamore Avenue in 1937, the year in which "Chinatown" is set. Works Progress Administration Collection / Los Angeles Public Library


We are pleased to share a review of Sam Wasson's new book "The Big Goodbye: 'Chinatown' and the Last Years of Hollywood" (Flatiron: NY, 2020), written by the Bill Lane Center’s friend and advisor Bill Lilley. Inspired by California's water wars, "Chinatown" is a film that highlights many issues central to the narrative and mythology of the American West, including water rights, lawlessness and economic booms. As such, the film is a rich source to be mined by Lane Center scholars and affiliates. In this piece, Bill Lilley explores the disorderly film-making and strange cast of characters behind the classic Hollywood neo-noir. This review is a special preview of the June 2020 edition of  The Readers Exchange, which has kindly allowed us to publish it on our site. Read more insightful reviews from The Readers Exchange here.


By William Lilley III, contributing editor to The Readers Exchange

"'The succession of booms has bred in the people of Los Angeles a rather easy code of commercial ethics,’ Carey McWilliams wrote. ‘To put it bluntly, the booms have periodically corrupted the civic virtue of the body politic.’ Thus was Los Angeles, contrary to its pretty face, vulnerable to corruption. It grew too fast…It was a good place to be Philip Marlowe." - Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Sam Wasson has written a fine book about a fine movie. From 1973-1974, four legends of Hollywood conspired to write and produce one of Hollywood’s greatest movies, "Chinatown." The big four included the gaudiest names of Hollywood lore: Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, Robert Evans, and Roman Polanski. Nicholson was the star — of the group, the production and the movie. Robert Towne was the screenwriter, and Nicholson was his buddy. Towne was fascinated with the history of his hometown, Los Angeles, and how corruption became a way of life there. He wrote a trial script about a private detective fighting corruption, and losing to it. He became obsessed with the city's old histories, using the public library to learn about local scandals, some at the turn of the century and some in the 1930s, where land developers stole water.

Robert Evans was the producer, also chief executive of Paramount Pictures, and the peacock of Hollywood in the 1970s. He was elegant, had taste, and wanted to make movies about people (as opposed to events, like catastrophes). He believed that he had imagined "Chinatown" as his signature movie which set the gold standard for dealing with human corruption, even incest, and doing it with style. Roman Polanski directed the film. He was a man of towering genius, but a man with many problems  so many that they were a story in themselves. Polanski had a horrible childhood, persecuted in Poland by the Nazis, and then his very pregnant wife (Sharon Tate) was murdered in 1969 (“butchered” the tabloids said). The Manson family were the killers. The besieged Polanski fled Los Angeles for Europe. Nicholson talked him back to Hollywood , promising the directorial freedom of a god, and the chance to make great art out of corruption in "Chinatown." 

Chinatown heavies—Robert Towne the screenwriter, Jack Nicholson the star, and Bob Evens the producer—gather at the Academy Awards 1975.  Orland Suero and Steve Schapiro / Paramount Pictures


Jack delivered. Producer Evans gave Polanski control of the budget, and a green light for casting, locales, equipment and scheduling. Thus did Hollywood’s “big four” undertake "Chinatown." It is some story. Wasson describes filmmaking so bizarre that one thinks of madmen playing with matches. Fabled wild man Jack Nicholson was the “Mr. Normal” in the group. Evans and Towne, the producer and writer, were serious cocaine addicts. Both men spent parts of the book in institutions. Polanski was equally unstable. Wired tightly for starters, Polanski slipped the bounds after his wife’s murder. He bought dangerously fast cars and drove them wildly around Los Angeles, he worked maniacal schedules, and he had sex and did drugs with a thirteen-year-old girl. Against the odds, the four misfits pulled off "Chinatown." The script had no ending until Polanski wrote one, with only two days left in the shooting. Polanski’s dark ending summed up the signature movie that Robert Evans had imagined: corruption rolled on; Jack’s detective, Jake Gittes, was compromised; Faye Dunaway was shot; and John Huston left in triumph. “Forget it, Jake,” says one of the cops, “it’s Chinatown.”



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