The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (2020) Sam Wasson
Hardcover, 416 pages
Includes notes, index
(photos not taken from the book)
“Most people never face the fact that, in the right time, in the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
Even if you’ve never seen Chinatown (1974), you probably know how it ends, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably familiar with the film’s closing line, one of the most famous in the history of cinema, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Screenwriter Robert Towne had a cop friend who once told him, “I work vice in Chinatown doing nothing. That’s what they tell us to do, nothing. We can’t get inside that culture. We can’t tell if something is going on, whether we’re helping somebody commit a crime or preventing it.”
Chinatown has come to mean any place where you’re on unfamiliar ground. Chinatown also stands for the futility of good intentions. That holds true not only for the film, but also for the world surrounding the film. The brilliance of Chinatown is reflected in the larger picture of The Big Goodbye. Private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is initially working for a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray, who wants Gittes to find out if her husband Hollis has been stepping out on her. But things get complicated, especially after Hollis is found dead in the desert, a victim of… drowning.
I won’t get into too much of the plot, although if you’re reading this review, chances are you’ve probably seen the movie. If so, you’re aware that everything Gittes needs to know to solve the case is right in front of him. The elements of change in Hollywood - clearly or not-so-clearly - are also on display to the players in The Big Goodbye: screenwriter Towne, producer and head of Paramount Pictures Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, and the entirety of Hollywood. Things were about to change in a very big way.
Perhaps the biggest part of understanding what makes Chinatown an unforgettable movie can be found in the person of Roman Polanski. Although most movie watchers know of Polanski's deplorable personal life, including charges of rape committed against an underage girl (for which he remains outside the U.S.), writer Sam Wasson gives the reader some necessary background on Polanski’s early years in Poland. Polanski saw both of his parents taken away by the Nazis during the Holocaust and was out of town while his wife Sharon Tate was murdered at the hands of the followers of Charles Manson. Roman Polanski and the concept of “happy endings” will never be compatible, especially in this film.
“Are you alone?”
Speaking of incompatibility, we have Polanski paired up with Robert Evans, a young producer and head of Paramount who had clear ties to Hollywood’s golden era. Evans’s story by itself is worthy of study, as is that of Towne, who says that the screenwriter’s job is “to make a dream come true.” But that dream can’t come true without a producer who usually forces the writer to give up at least some creative control, often resulting in a creation very different from what the writer intended. The differences between Towne’s original script and the filmed ending of Chinatown are legendary for a reason, and the story related in The Big Goodbye might just break your heart.
Paramount was the home of high-cost, high-stakes pictures, and Polanski was hoping such a picture would also bring him high-profile recognition. He knew what he wanted and battled Evans, Towne, and others every step of the way. Period pictures always carry some element of risk, and the risks involved with Chinatown were considerable, especially since several low-budget pictures like Billy Jack (1971) began to attract audiences and make serious money. Who needed an expensive period detective story about water rights in 1937 Los Angeles?
“Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Yet the corruption displayed in Chinatown began to reflect the world and point to the inevitable restructuring of Hollywood. Polanski, watching the coverage of the war in Vietnam on television, felt he was capturing something comparable. “I was amazed sometimes,” Polanski states, “listening to the news programs, by the parallels between what I was hearing and what I was shooting.” The feelings of watching Vietnam play out on televisions and watching Chinatown were no doubt eerily similar, making viewers feel “There’s nothing I can do.”
“The future, Mr. Gitts! The Future!”
Chinatown holds up a mirror to a dark, fallen idea of America, one that would be reflected in other movies soon to follow such as Network, The Deer Hunter, Nashville, Taxi Driver, and others. Yet the era of the popular blockbuster was right around the corner with films like Jaws, Rocky, and Star Wars, making it more and more difficult - and risky - to make a film like Chinatown moving forward.
“You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
Wasson certainly does know what he’s dealing with, delivering a terrific look not only at a brilliant film, but also the times, circumstances, and players who made it happen. Chinatown marks a pivotal point in our cultural, political, and creative history, giving readers much to celebrate, and perhaps just as much to lament.
“Well, I’m judging only on the basis of one afternoon and an evening, but if this is how you go about your work, I’d say you’d be lucky to get through a whole day.”
Speaking of lamenting things, a film adaptation of The Big Goodbye is currently in production, to be directed by Ben Affleck. Apparently this not a documentary, but a dramatized version of the book. Thanks, but I’ll stick to the movie and this amazing book about the movie.
Maybe someone in authority will say, “Forget it, Ben. It’s Chinatown. In other words, don’t mess with it.” We can only hope.
We recently discussed Chinatown at one of our Great Movies virtual events. If you'd like to watch and hear that discussion, you'll find it right here:
This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!