Going to the Movies: Why "Chinatown," and Its Creators, Matter
"The Big Goodbye" explores the end of an era in Hollywood and describes the making of "Chinatown."
The Use and Appeal of “the Making of” Narratives
Sam Wasson’s book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, is an intricate and powerful portrait of an era (Hollywood as the studio system winds down,) talented and idiosyncratic people (screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski and actor Jack Nicholson) and the creation of their masterpiece, Chinatown (1974.)
At their best, “making of” books and films enhance our interest in their subjects and cause us to revisit them. “Making of” examinations of collaborative performed works, for example, plays or movies, can be especially interesting because of the different disciplines and perspectives of their creators. Wasson’s extensive sources (including Polanski and Evans) shed new light on Chinatown.
A “making of” book or movie on, for example, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, relying on sources present at the creation is impossible. However, there are still enough witnesses to what happened in the creation of enduring movies over the last 50 or so years to make informative accounts possible. The voices of the people who made Chinatown make Wasson’s book a valuable history of Hollywood moving away from long-established ways of doing business. The book also provides a renewed look at a movie that has earned its reputation as a classic.
A Very Particular Time and Place
Wasson’s book portrays Hollywood in the early 1970’s as an environment not totally beholden to the bottom line. Artistic concerns were not just tolerated, but encouraged. Wasson notes:
The budgets of most Hollywood films weren’t yet high enough to require exorbitant advertising campaigns to earn back their exorbitant costs (Chinatown came in at just around three million dollars), providing the studios a supple climate of acceptable risk both for the artists and the executives. Said executive Alan Ladd Jr: “What’s a couple-million-dollar movie to a corporation?" In 1973 he could have been speaking for all of Hollywood. (p.240)
Everything began to change in December 1972 when Warner Brothers released The Exorcist with a “four-wall” promotion strategy. To “four-wall” a movie was to oversaturate the market with promotion and widespread theatrical release, “to generate quick returns before potentially bad word of mouth cut them short.” (p.241) The movie grossed a then-staggering $160 million and the studios ceased to be an economic afterthought for their corporate owners. Gulf & Western, a conglomerate, owned Paramount and was no exception.
Wasson quotes a studio executive saying to another, “Kid, the fun is over…There are guys in New York looking at these figures, saying ‘This is the kind of money you can make in the movie business?” We’ve been having a good time out here and been very successful, but it’s gonna get real serious after this.” (p. 242)
The dominance of money over art in Hollywood accelerated with the four-walled release of Jaws (1975) which kicked off the era of the summer blockbuster and brought in $465 million. The revenue potential for movies changed traditional moviemaking approaches forever.
The Big Goodbye places the start of Hollywood’s twin addictions, to box office grosses and cocaine, at around 1972. The book details the consolidation of talent agents into super agencies such as Michael Ovitz’s CAA and the increasing power of agencies to package as many of their clients as possible into increasingly high concept movies, for example, The Towering Inferno, the highest grossing movie of 1974. Deal making became the primary skill set in making movies.
Who’s Who in the Cast
Robert Towne, Screenwriter. In the early 1970’s, Towne had a legendary screenwriting hot streak. His reputation in ascended rapidly when he was asked to make late changes to a key scene in The Godfather (1972) in which the elderly Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) counsels the young Michael (Al Pacino.) Towne’s screenplays for The Last Detail, Shampoo and Chinatown put him firmly in Hollywood’s screenwriting elite.
Screenwriting—writing for a visual medium—is very difficult. Inevitably means that a screenwriter sacrifices control of his work to the director (and possibly others) before the final product, a movie, is realized. Wasson describes Towne’s world:
It’s always the same story. The screenwriter, Towne said, begins “dreaming a dream. The job is to make a dream come true.” As long as he keeps the dream to himself, it stays his own, as pure it was intended. But for that dream to come true, the writer must sell the script to a producer, giving over creative control, and in most cases, standing by, hands tied, as the new owner of the material hires additional writers to alter the script. Considerations of script, location—any element deemed integral to the production—all necessitate amendments to the original. (p.118)
Towne and his writing partner, Edward Taylor, (and later, Roman Polanski) repeatedly cut and refined the original 340-page Chinatown script. Towne said, “The only way a screenplay can be evaluated, almost by definition, is not on the page, but by viewing the movie it caused to be made…you’re stuck with the inescapable fact that it was written to be seen.”
Towne, for all his imaginative ability, is shown as distant, imperious and, after Chinatown’s release, as abusing his wife, Julie Payne.
Robert Evans, Producer. Evans, a handsome former actor, exemplified a vanishing breed of studio executives who made high stakes movie decisions on the basis of personal taste and intuition. He turned his home, Woodland, with its 32 telephones—an average of two per room—into an artistic salon where Nicholson, Towne and others gathered to talk and scheme endlessly about movies.
Wasson writes, “Writers had the blank page, Robert Evans had the dial tone. All his imagining—his multilayered consideration of scripts and how to get them into movies—began here, on the phone, with slightly more than nothing, just seven digits and a hunch.” Evans, a one-man focus group, was:
A gambler, he bet on his taste, his talent for talent. The filmmakers were free to do the rest—almost…Evans—though he made an exception for Polanski—rarely gave away final cut. ‘Unlike many of my counterparts,’ he said, ‘I don’t get involved in the executive end of the business. I get involved in the making of the film, which annoys a lot of people.’ But it wasn’t power Evans was after; he wanted some small say in the dream he got off the ground. As producer, midwife, and Medici, he wanted to stay close. (p. 147)
Evans had a short but successful run at Paramount during the period the studio was owned by the Gulf & Western conglomerate. Studio and corporate politics ultimately took their toll and Evans transitioned from running the studio to being an independent producer.
Roman Polanski, Director. Few artists present the challenge of distinguishing character from artistic achievement quite like Polanski. The Big Goodbye does not redeem Polanski but it provides new understanding. As a child in Poland, Polanski lost numerous family members to the Nazis. He later endured the death of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in the Manson Family’s brutal murders that traumatized Los Angeles and horrified America.
Polanski was an obsessive who mastered everything there was to know about making movies. He was adept not just in direction, but also in lighting, set design, and sound and he could operate any piece of equipment on a set. Wasson describes Polanski’s achievements:
In 1977 he admitted to having unlawful sex with a minor and fled America, never to return. He also made Knife in the Water, Repulson, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, Tess, Frantic, Death and the Maiden, and The Pianist. He won Golden Globes, Cesars, BAFTAs, the Golden Bear, the Palme d’Or, the Academy Award, the Zurich Film Festival’s Golden Icon Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema.
Jack Nicholson, Actor. Nicholson rose to prominence by nearly stealing Easy Rider (1969) in a supporting role and following up with Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Detail (1973.) By 1974, he was positioned for the male lead in Chinatown.
Nicholson’s portrayal of rebels or counter culture characters disguised his professionalism and attention to detail. He spent hours in wardrobe consultations to get exactly the right look for his character, private investigator Jake Gittes. He wears a succession of immaculately tailored suits that gradually get darker as the movie becomes increasingly sinister.
Wasson shows that Nicholson understood not just acting, but stardom, in ways consistent with earlier Hollywood eras. He never appeared on television as himself—he made no guest appearances on, for example, The Tonight Show—because he thought that if audiences saw him as himself they would find him less believable in his next movie role.
Nicholson saw movie making as a team sport and himself as a captain. Instead of retreating to his trailer, Nicholson, who had learned all his lines, would stay on the set to encourage others in scenes he was not in.
The Big Goodbye contains numerous examples of Nicholson’s exceptional loyalty to his friends, including Towne, Evans and Polanski. Nicholson will probably be remembered for an extraordinary group of 14 movies that he made over 6 years in the 1970’s.
Nicholson also demanded to be paid the going rate for the top tier of leading men. He adapted easily to the evolving movie-by-movie transactional environment in Hollywood.
Nicholson’s personal life was a different story and an odd one. In his 30’s he learned that the woman he knew as his sister, June, was actually his mother. He was the object of a decades-long deception by the women in his family. Others may assess whether this contributed to his chaotic relationships with the women, notably Anjelica Huston, in his life.
Chinatown Seen Through Fresh Eyes
Chinatown succeeds because of its exquisite fidelity in appearance and mood to Los Angeles in 1937 and the compelling portrayal of the interlocking crimes, private and public, that draw in Jake and us. The crimes include murder, incest and the crucial diversion of water hundreds of miles from California’s rural Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The Owens Valley water enabled the city’s expansion into the San Fernando Valley.
Nicholson plays opposite Faye Dunaway as the doomed Evelyn Mulwray. Her lacquered appearance, particularly around the eyes, aids her transformation from ice maiden to woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Nicholson spends an inordinate amount of time in the movie with his back to us. Polanksi places the camera just behind Nicholson’s shoulder with his finely tailored suit, dress shirt and razor cut hair in the foreground. We adopt his perspective and unravel events with him. Nicholson also displays his manic intensity and explosive physicality, but he loses almost every fight. His great gift, which brought him the Academy Award for Best Actor for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975,) is portraying characters of conscience who rail against corrupt systems.
Chinatown is filled with incorrect assumptions by Jake, Evelyn and the police. Only John Huston as the avuncularly evil Noah Cross sees all parts of the puzzle.
The stately pacing of the movie gives us the time to consider the mystery and the changing motives of Jake and Evelyn. Nothing is rushed, but nothing is skipped.
The acclaim for Towne’s script has justifiably risen over the years. An opening sequence which seems to be just an introduction to Jake and his world is essential to a critical plot twist immediately before the movie’s climactic, and traumatic, events.
Chinatown’s images include repeated depictions of broken glass—watches, a window, spectacles. Glass, once broken, cannot be reassembled. Jake has two exchanges with an Asian gardener who says that salt water is, “Bad for the glass,” meaning grass. This appears at first to be an unpleasant mocking of the gardener’s difficulty pronouncing “r” sounds but actually describes what Los Angeles is becoming—the glass is broken.
The broken glass imagery supports the idea that the movie not about a place (Los Angeles’ Chinatown appears only briefly and in almost total darkness) but is rather a state of mind: people, including Jake and Evelyn, are caught in a web of corruption that is too strong to resist. The glass is broken and cannot be put back together. 
In 1974, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam the glass was breaking in American institutions as belief in the government declined. The movie mirrors its time and ours. 
1) If additional proof is necessary that commercial success and artistic merit are not automatically linked, The Towering Inferno may suffice. Chinatown was profitable and brought in a respectable $29.2 million. The Towering Inferno, essentially a check-cashing exercise for the studio and others involved, grossed over $200 million. The probability that anyone will bother with a “making of” analysis of The Towering Inferno seems remote.
2) If broken glass as an analogy for shattered or degraded social institutions seems like a reach, consider that in November 1938 the Nazis unleased a coordinated rampage of destruction on Jewish communities, including the relocation of 30,000 men to concentration camps, in Kristallnacht or “the night of broken glass.”
3) The recent announcement that Ben Affleck and Lorne Michaels have teamed up to film an adaptation of The Big Goodbye shows that the wheel keeps on turning. More information is available about this
Special thanks to Trice Koopman for assistance with this post.
Thanks for reading About Alexandria! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.