The Big Goodbye: CHINATOWN and the Last Years of Hollywood 

Chinatown Italian Poster

From the end of the 60s until the mid-70s: a fascinating period in American movies. The wonderful book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood is in a way the story of this period. Mainly centered on the making of the film Chinatown, the work is ambitious enough to describe the big changes that went through Hollywood during this time.

The Big Goodbye is signed by Sam Wasson, who wrote one of my favorite books about a Hollywood personality, Fosse, a fascinating biography of the director of Cabaret and All that Jazz, Bob Fosse. Here Wasson nails it again.

The latest news says that Ben Affleck is going back to directing a movie by adapting this book into a film.

The Big Goodbye Cover

No Chinatown

Chinatown doesn’t take place in Chinatown.

Ok, before explaining this, let’s start by saying that, if you haven’t, you should first watch the film, which was written by Robert Towne, produced by Robert Evans, directed by Roman Polanski, and starred Jack Nicholson. Each member of this bunch of characters deserves a film for himself. They are the main characters of the show.

As far as Polanski goes, these are the times AFTER Sharon Tate got murdered but BEFORE was sent to jail for sexual charges involving a minor.

As far as Towne, this first stretch of his career made him a name as a script doctor (helping fix scripts like The Godfather -1972-, Bonnie and Clyde -1967-, and The Parallax View -1974-) and a screenwriter (The Last Detail -1973 and Shampoo -1975-).

As far a Evans, at Paramount, he was the good-looking guy that everyone hope to fail as a producer, but give birth to a string of films like Rosemary’s BabyLove StoryThe Godfather, and Chinatown.

As far as Nicholson, this is when he becomes a real star, coming from films such as Easy Rider (1969) and  Five Easy Pieces (1970), on his way to big successes like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). 

A film noir from 1974

Chinatown is a noir film about a very complicated fraud scheme that involves water (or the lack of it) in LA in the 40s. And it’s about incest and power. And it’s about a private eye and a slit nose.

Chinatown - Polanski, Nicholson and Huston
(From left) Jack Nicholson, John Huston, and Roman Polanski

What does the title of the film mean? Only the last scene takes place in Chinatown.

We’re on a metaphorical level here.

A State of Mind

(…) Chinatown is a state of mind. Not just a place on the map of Los Angeles, but a condition of total awareness almost indistinguishable from blindness. Dreaming you’re in paradise and waking up in the dark—that’s Chinatown. Thinking you’ve got it figured out and realizing you’re dead—that’s Chinatown.

Rewriting Towne

Polanski and Town didn’t see the film eye to eye. Polanski fought to simplify and clarify the overlong, overcomplicated script that Towne had written. It was a bit of a war, with Evans and Nicholson trying to ease the way.

So goodbye to his endless supporting characters, goodbye to the love story of Byron Samples and Ida Samples; goodbye to Evelyn’s affair with a mystery man and Gittes’s looming jealousy, “which I felt would have been more interesting,” Towne said; goodbye to Gittes’s and Evelyn’s protracted and suspicious courtship, her violent outbursts, his many faraway mentions of Chinatown, (…)

Everything, Polanski decreed, had to move the water mystery forward; if they could cut it, they should cut it. But when it came to certain elements—namely, the love story (Towne wanted more scenes; Polanski, certain a good sex scene would suffice, fewer) and of course the ending—Towne and Polanski had two opposing definitions of “could.”

Fighting over the script

They fought. Their arguments were painful. Each was smart enough to see the virtues in the other’s strategy; both were correct. Polanski explained he wanted Gittes and Evelyn to have satisfying sex because “it changes the rapport between them for the second part of the picture. Something serious starts between them.” But, Towne countered, if she represents Chinatown, she can’t satisfy Gittes. She’s unknowable, impossible, a mystery.

Two months after Towne and Polanski first began their revision, their arguments had reached unsustainable heights; they stopped speaking. Evans tried to referee, but the game was over. “I would never work with Roman again,” Towne explained, “nor he with me.”

Chinatown - Nicholson
Nicholson’s tongue and Polanski’s (?) cup

Evans and the talent

Evans believed in talent and Paramount was (then) on his side. Although he was unsure about the script, he thought that the people involved had talent and will make it right. So he took production out of the Paramount lot to have the feeling of an independent production.

Outside Paramount

Removed from the lot, Paramount’s offices at Canon Drive assumed the personality of an independent production company. “The minute we moved,” Bart explained, “everything changed. We lost all the committees, and it came down to a tiny group of us. We were all working faster, more closely together. Everything began to get a little sizzle, and all of a sudden good projects began to come to us.” In the summer of 1972 Bluhdorn hatched the highly improbable, almost utopian idea for the Directors Company.

Within a limited budget range, about thirty million dollars to be distributed over a dozen pictures, the three Directors Company directors, Coppola, William Friedkin, and Bogdanovich would have complete artistic autonomy and on a nonexclusive basis to the studio. The Directors Company was Paramount’s gift to star auteurs, a deal clearly and in every way biased toward filmmakers, so much so that it earned the ire of Paramount executives certain Bluhdorn was giving away the store—which he was.

Polanski in Chinatown
Polanski, the director, acting in Chinatown too

An obsessive director

The shooting of Chinatown went well, with exceptions. Polanski could be tough and obsessive, like when he placed an ant onto Jack Nicholson’s face when he was lying on the floor in a scene where his character is attacked.

He (..) let an ant crawl onto his finger and lowered it onto Jack’s face. “Roll camera, please.…” Polanski backed out of frame. “Jack, eyes closed.…” The ant crawled over Jack’s nose, along the bridge, up to the forehead.… Polanski to the operator: “Did you get it?” “Didn’t get it.” “We’ll do it again.” Polanski crouched beside Jack, scouring the dirt for another ant. “Eyes closed.…” “Jesus.” Jack chuckled. Roman found his ant and edged it onto Nicholson’s face. “Roll camera,” he said, backing out. “Rolling.” FromThe shoot out of frame, Polanski watched the ant seem to climb up Nicholson’s cheek, change its mind, and climb down off his face. “Cut.”

Polanski ducked back into the frame to adjust the ant. “So,” Jack drawled, “let me get this straight—” “Eyes closed.” “When the ant gets it right, we’ve got a take?” “That’s correct.” Jack smiled too big. “How long are you gonna hold on this shot, Roman?” “A second. Maybe two. Roll camera, please.”

Polanski stepped out, and all eyes were on the insect, the costliest ant in human history. It went on for forty minutes. Then Polanski, satisfied, thanked the crew. He had gotten what he wanted.

Nicholson and Faye Dunaway
Dunaway and Nicholson, publicity image

A difficult actress

Faye Dunaway was complicated.

She was so brittle, some said, out of some kind of Method adherence to her character, Evelyn; others sensed profound insecurity. Whatever the source, she was at this early stage already niggling Polanski to change this or that word, give her more makeup and then less, keeping the crew waiting, then interrupting takes (“Roman, I need to start over”), and even refusing, according to one teamster, to flush her own toilet. No stranger to actress pathology, Polanski tried, at first, to receive her with tendresse, but in no time found he couldn’t win.

The crew finally did turn against Dunaway, and her delusions came true. They hated her. She regarded their every creative impulse with suspicion, and in her paranoia—knowing, perhaps, that Jane Fonda was once Evans’s first choice—seemed to resist on principle. “Ugh. Here she comes.” “Fuckin’ Faye.” “The Dread Dunaway.” Polanski saw signs of an actress who hadn’t prepared. Evelyn’s nervous pauses and double-backs were Dunaway’s stalls, he suspected, to cover for not having learned her lines. “I think Jack and Roman had great patience with Faye,” Koch said. “They knew she was brilliant in the scenes, but boy, was it hard to work with her.”

Nicholson and the slitting of his nose

Up in Bel-Air, at the Stone Canyon Reservoir, Nicholson was nervous about the nostril-slitting scene. “It will be okay, Jack,” Roman kept saying, suppressing a smile. “Don’t worry.” But Jack knew Polanski. He knew he wouldn’t hedge it, that for the effect to look real the blade had to appear to actually slice his nostril, and Polanski wanted the whole thing on camera. Special-effects supervisor Logan Frazee suggested a prosthetic nose for Jack, then reconsidered—he knew in close-up the makeup would look fake. Versed in all manner of mechanics, Polanski came up with the solution.

“Okay,” he said. “I do it.” He envisioned a blade with a hinged tip. On impact the hinge would give and a hidden tube on the off-camera side of the knife would squirt a gurgle of blood onto Jack’s nose. But the hinge would have to be weak or the blood might be real. “Jack, Jack,” Polanski said. “Don’t worry.” Polanski had cast himself as Nicholson’s assailant.

The thing looked real

The thing looked so real, and despite the tests, there was no telling if the spring hinge, at the fearful moment, would respond precisely as demonstrated. Further, Nicholson knew Polanski was a daredevil on skis and raceways, and had a hunch he expected the same of others. Nicholson inspected the prop; the hinge, he saw, went only one way.

That was unexpected. Cautioning Polanski to be sure to slice in the right direction, Nicholson asked him to please be careful, but Polanski put the prop back in the actor’s hands. “Jack, please,” he said. “Before every shot, make sure the thing goes.” “You little fucking Polack. You better watch what the fuck you’re doing.” Polanski only smiled. They got the shot in the first take; the effect worked beautifully. But Polanski kept going. Koch said, “I think we ended up with about twelve or fourteen takes.”

A Hollywood change of paradigm

But those wonderfullly risky times were about to change. From a short period in Hollywood’s history when it was basically about talent and making relevant films, Hollywood evolved into making films just to make money. And not hiding it.

(Michael) Eisner’s orientation was not covert. In a memo Eisner would circulate through Paramount, he wrote: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

The Hollywood Reporter published an article about this great book.

If you are interested in “Making Of” books, please check our posts Best “Making Of” Books: The Making of CITIZEN KANEBest “Making Of” Books: EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLSBest “Making Of” Books: THE JAWS LOGBest “Making Of” Books: KING KONG ’76 and Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE and many more. Just type ” Making Of” on the searcher.

More about Making Movies? Check our posts Film Blocking, What is it?The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky,  First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?Foley Artists: Who Are They? and The World of Movie Posters, amongst many others!