Sam Wasson's 'The Big Goodbye' Puts Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown' in Its Place
Social historian Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, is a graceful and compelling elegy to both Roman Polanski's landmark film, and the end times of old Hollywood.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood
Flatiron / MacMillan
There are several credible arguments about the true end of the Hollywood studio and star system that can serve to both confound and amplify understandings about how we got to where we are now: over-priced luxury theatrical experiences to lure patrons away from streaming services, the crumbling quality of the few remaining independent theaters, and the definitive transformation of the classic cinema star into the adrenaline-jacked and excessively-muscled Marvel superhero.
Did classic Hollywood die with the release of 1969's Easy Rider? Did 1975's Jaws chew off the last viable legs of the old system as it created the summer blockbuster? The time we spend isolating a benchmark or estimating an era through which old Hollywood passed and came out irreparably changed can be exhausting, but the decade of change is undeniable.
However we define its start, old Hollywood definitely expelled its last dying breaths in the '70s. There have been recent attempts to breath more life into it with such cinema spectacles as 2016's La La Land and 2018's A Star Is Born, but however heartfelt and sincere their motivations might have been, they were outliers in an industry that, at least for the time being, feeds more on fire, explosions, and bombastic spectacles. Social historian Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, beautifully and smoothly evokes the era (mid- to late- '60s through the '70s) while carefully weaving in the stories of the Chinatown creators: writer Robert Towne, director Roman Polanski, stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and legendary producer Robert Evans.
Save for the last two names, all these players are still with us, unofficially retired (Nicholson), apparently difficult to manage (Dunaway), reviled and exiled (Polanski), and, as of November 2019, signed with Netflix to create a prequel to the film. Who they are now cannot be fully understood unless and until we trace their origins and their contributions to the creation of this strange, confounding, brilliant, sublime cinematic masterpiece.
As with most old Hollywood stories, this one starts with the boys. There's working-class New Jersey Irish boy Jack Nicholson, living and growing up on the East Coast and dreaming about more than what is in front of his eyes. Robert Evans, the son of a dentist, sees in his father a concert pianist whose dreams never come to fruition. Robert Towne leaves San Pedro out west and never looks back. Add this to the immediately doomed story of Roman Polanski, living in his Krakow Poland neighborhood with "…two SS guards calmly patrolling the barbed wire fence."
Words from a stranger on the otherwise deserted street, looking at Polanski in flight, seem to serve as this book's conclusive mission statement: "If you know what's good for you, get lost." Wasson makes it clear that the Chinatown these artists created had its origins equally in their individual states of mind, inherited guilt, and a destiny they would be unable to avoid. Chinatown was a movie, but it was also much more than that.
There's a very careful balancing act Wasson needs to manage with these men, these distinct and notorious Hollywood characters. The best biographers know that context is everything. Start with Polanski. Tell us about his beginning as a wunderkind young Polish director in the mid-'60s, and bring us to his relationship with Sharon Tate. It's the story of a man trying to make his way a mere two decades after the horrors of Hitler's Nazis and WWII. Polanski meets Tate, and everything changes:
"For years now, the certainty of loss had corrupted his every longing…sadness summoned up the worst in him…he would make himself superior…arrogant…with women…there were many women…"
Wasson does not let Polanski off the hook, nor should he. Tate's August 1969 murder, memorialized and mythologized (most recently in Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood) haunts everything about Polanski's life. By early 1977, a few years after the brilliance of Chinatown, Polanski would be charged with rape (brutally and necessarily detailed in this book), flee the United States, and find some sort of life as an artist in exile. Prestige and awards would easily come his way (including 2003's Best Director for The Pianist), and a seemingly stable domestic family life would also be factored into his story. Wasson includes a story of Polanski putting his daughter Morgane to bed, and she asks him to tell her stories of his childhood:
"She could see her father straining, trying to guard her from certain terrible details…she began to imagine him, like Oliver Twist, cheerily scavenging the ghetto streets."
Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes (IMDB)
These images and quotes come near the end of Wasson's book. We understand he is not asking us to forgive Polanski so much as understand the context, the convergence of these men coming together to make a noir detective story that draws almost exclusively on the lure of water in California, literal incest (and a degree of figurative incest), the doomed the fate of a detective (Nicholson's Jake Gittes) trying to save his city and a femme fatale, while never understanding that final mantra. "Forget it, Jake," he's told as he surveys the devastation, "It's Chinatown." No matter how much Jake might want to fight the injustice of the water commission or the malevolence of Noah Cross (John Huston), there's no way to survive the inevitable.
The players involved and the scene that needs to be established would be overwhelming for many other writers, but Wasson seems to have steady control. The Hollywood studio system had started to dissolve in the '50s. By the early '60s, Polanski was making himself known (after eight shorts) with his creepy feature debut, Knife in the Water. He comes to Hollywood:
"This was Polanski's city of no communication, Joan Didion's car megalopolis: By the middle of the 1960s, it gave native Angelenos good reason to ask themselves: Do I still live in Los Angeles? Just as Roman Polanski asked himself -- for his dreams still depended on it -- Is Hollywood still Hollywood?"
If a reader unwilling to invest energy in this book becomes frustrated with its initial steady pace, it's their loss. Polanski starts production of Rosemary's Baby in the summer of 1967. The Mia Farrow horror film becomes a smash hit, and Polanski and Tate become the "…John and Yoko of Hollywood." By 1969, after Tate's pregnancy, and in the immediate wake after her murder, Polanski's grief becomes overwhelming:
"By night he ran amok; by day he fixated on the horn-rimmed glasses [found at the crime scene.] Bruce Lee…had casually mentioned he had lost his glasses…Could it be?"
John Huston as Noah Cross (IMDB)
Meanwhile, writer Robert Towne was making a name for himself as a TV writer and an uncredited "script doctor" for such features as 1967's Bonnie and Clyde (featuring his friend Warren Beatty and eventual Chinatown female lead Faye Dunaway) 1971's Drive, He Said (directed by and starring his friend Jack Nicholson), and his first credited script 1973's The Last Detail (starring Nicholson again and directed by Hal Ashby.) Towne was born in San Pedro, in 1934, just outside of Los Angeles, and like all the other players who would come to make Chinatown, the romance of the past was intoxicating:
"Towne could remember another Los Angeles…more sky, fewer impediments to the sun…The trees were not so tall in those days…Los Angeles, in Towne's memory, was then a haven of pastel and desert moods softly dusted in hues of Spanish rust…"
Raymond Chandler could probably be cited as the fifth player in this book. His influence as the Los Angeles detective/mystery writer of the '30s and '40s is overwhelming and a big reason why the look and tone of the movie is so distinct. Surprisingly, Towne had never read Chandler. When that happened, the match of literary minds seemed destined. Wasson writes:
"Chandler's detective novels preserved pre-war L.A. in a hardboiled poetry equal parts disgusted and in love, for while Chandler detested urban corruption, the dreaming half of his heart starved for goodness."
This seems to be the key behind Chinatown and the fuel that runs through the engine of Wasson's thesis. All the men involved have a need for artistic redemption as they come together in the mid-'70s to bid farewell to a bygone era. In the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s, Towne and Nicholson conspire to make it big in Hollywood, to break through bit parts on TV shows and B movies. Towne studies his actor friend:
"Amazed by his staggering ability to draw out the shortest line of dialogue, [his]…innate mastery of suspense…[his] monotone, rather than bore the listener, inflected the mundane with an ironic tilt."
What's amazing about the story Wasson weaves are the details about the time, energy, and heart each character invested in the production of Chinatown. Towne's spouse at the time, Julie Payne, brings him Los Angeles history books. He reads accounts of Own Valley water wars. He reads Chandler, Nathaniel West, and John Fante's Ask the Dust. In lieu of a "Suggested Books" section at the end, Wasson offers a wealth of material here for the reader interested in diving into the inspiration behind the making of Chinatown.
Part Two, "Eucalyptus", is an exhaustive, multi-chaptered narrative about the foundations of the film, what inspired it, and the reasons behind character names and motivations. A major factor in the prime message seems to come when Towne reflects on why he is undertaking this elegy for a past that will never return:
"'My interest is in the kinds of crime that society punishes-[the mother] will be punished, even crooked cops, but the business community will enjoy freedom from persecution.' "
How these men conspired to transform the initial 340-page script into something manageable, let alone understandable, would probably never happen again. Polanski continues mourning through the early years of the '70s, avoiding analysis, evading intimacy beyond one night stands here and there. Los Angeles is irrevocably changed as well after the Manson Family murders . The Godfather is a hit for Paramount head Robert Evans in 1972, with a sequel following in late 1974. The convergence of Evans summoning Polanski and Nicholson to make Chinatown seems inevitable. Wasson writes of those times, the early 1970s, Polanski's return to Los Angeles: "The spirit of communal enthusiasm those nights at Polanski's home on Sierra Mar nourished half a dozen movies." Those films include Chinatown, Hal Ashby's Shampoo (1975), and Mike Nichols' The Fortune (1975). The creative drive proves strong.
We understand from the start of this book that its focus soon becomes less about the development, production, and the reception andlegacy of Chinatown than it is about the stars who navigated the transition from old to "new" or "different" Hollywood. For Faye Dunaway, the mid-'70s seemed tenuous. Wasson notes (correctly) that the explosive response to her 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde (her third feature that year in her debut as a film star) was not adequately served in her successive features, like 1969's The Arrangement or 1970's Little Big Man:
"In the days of Jane Fonda, Dunaway's hard and porcelain face, her almost alien beauty, belonged better to Hollywood's more aestheticized past; she was born (too late) for Sternberg."
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray (IMDB)
The Sternberg in that passage was Josef Von Sternberg, who directed Marlene Dietrich's greatest femme fatale features of the 1930s, and it's an apt comparison. Wasson provides interesting moments when the clash between this reportedly difficult actress, the crew of Chinatown, and the temperamental Polanski must have made for some chilling times:
"The crew finally did turn against Dunaway, and her delusions came true. They hated her. She regarded their every creative impulse with suspicion…Polanski saw signs of an actress who hadn't prepared…A strand of Dunaway's hair caught the light [in the middle of shooting a scene], he called cut, and summoned her hairdresser to smooth [it] down…in the next take the hair popped up again and Polanski reached over and plucked it out."
This picture of the volatile Dunaway in front of the screen is counter-balanced with Anjelica Huston, daughter of the legendary director John Huston, granddaughter of Walter. Wasson writes: "[Her]…eyes were as deep as the richest black oil; they told of legacy…" That's the key, and it's an indication of how carefully and effectively Wasson uses his words. The Huston family was about legacy, and the viewer familiar with Huston's 1985 film, Prizzi's Honor, will see the Chinatown energy revived -- John directing, Anjelica in front of the camera (earning an Academy Award) and Nicholson as a Mafia wise guy. They're totally different in mood, tone, and atmosphere, but they share a lineage of creativity.
Everybody involved in the making Chinatown, as Wasson makes sure to remind us, is concerned with legacy, and tempers flare. Polanski spars with Dunaway and (apparently more in jest) with Nicholson. He casts himself as the knife-wielding guy who will take a slice at Jake Gittes' nostrils. Gittes was getting too close to finding things out, and as the director (and in his cameo as the knife-wielder) Polanski "…had all this dark stuff that you knew he was always overcoming."
If The Big Goodbye is about legacy, it's also about privilege. "Who among them hadn't realized their dreams many times over? Who hadn't lived?" We know the key scenes in Chinatown: Nicholson's J.J. Gittes slapping sense into Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray as she confesses the darkest of family secrets ("My sister! My daughter!"), Gittes getting his nostrils sliced open, and the unavoidable ending followed by the unforgettable final line.
Of that ending, Wasson carefully illustrates the life of John Huston at that time. The once esteemed director had been taking a slew of acting roles to pay off gambling debts. More great films would come for Huston after 1974, from 1975's The Man Who Would Be King to 1987's The Dead, but in on the set of Chinatown as they were shooting the finalé, it was all about the ghosts.
"[They] gathered now in John Huston; they seethed past his decades of protests and evasions, picked up shards of his own biography, and, through the tarantular Noah Cross, pushed out the real actor."
The music score was scrapped and re-written. There were questions about distribution, a bloated original running time needed to be cut, and the puzzled initial reception from test audiences and critics needed to be contended with. Robert Towne's script was the only win of the 11 nominations at the 1975 Academy Awards ceremonies. They had all met at the top of the mountain (which happens to be the name of this book's third section), but it would be an interesting fall back to the base for all concerned.
Evans's career and reputation fall to ego and cocaine. John Huston dies in 1987, Towne writes The Two Jakes, the 1990 sequel to Chinatown, directed by and starring Nicholson. Had it been made ten years earlier, it might have a clearer, better reputation. As is, it came after 1989's Batman in Nicholson's filmography. Hector Babenco's Ironweed (1987) is a masterful film worthy of re-assessment, and Nicholson attains comparable Jake Gittes status over the next 30 years in films like 1995's The Crossing Guard, 1996's Blood and Wine, 2001's The Pledge, and 2002's About Schmidt. But he would never again find the pure, volatile, impossible to contain chemistry of characters that convened to populate Chinatown.
It's basically uncouth and verboten to give away the final scenes of movies or the last lines of great books, but it's impossible to avoid them when discussing Chinatown the movie and essential to note them in a book as strong as Wasson's. The end of The Big Goodbye is a beautiful evocation of desire never fulfilled, thirst never quenched, and curiosity never satiated. We could see it from the opening pages, but it's still powerful:
"Nostalgia blurs the edges of empires, and yet it did happen, didn't it?"
It certainly did happen. The Big Goodbye is a graceful and worthwhile elegy to a time dear to those who are lucky enough to remember it. It also serves as seriously engaging text for younger generations ready and willing to expand their minds and explore the past to better understand the present. It will be hard to find a better film book published this year.
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