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The Complicated History Of The Classic Neo-Noir Film 'Chinatown'

Paramount Pictures production chief Robert Evans talks about his film "Chinatown" in his office in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1974. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)
Paramount Pictures production chief Robert Evans talks about his film "Chinatown" in his office in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1974. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)

Forget it, Jake. A new book examines the 1974 film “Chinatown” and the colorful, complicated and compromised Hollywood figures who made the troubling classic.


Sam Wasson, writer and social historian. Author of “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.”

From The Reading List

Excerpted from “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.” Copyright © 2020 by Sam Wasson. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.   

The New York Times: “It’s ‘Chinatown,’ Jake. On Second Thought, Don’t Forget It.” — “The film ‘Chinatown’ was meticulously designed to capture a precise moment in Los Angeles’s history. Everything about its look and feel says 1937, not 1936 or 1938. In the same way, ‘The Big Goodbye,’ Sam Wasson’s deep dig into the making of the film, is a work of exquisite precision. It’s about much more than a movie. It’s about the glorious lost Hollywood in which that 1974 movie was born.

“In a scrupulously researched and reported book with a stellar cast of players, not to mention some astonishing sources, Wasson sees Roman Polanski as the genius who elevated ‘Chinatown’ from good to great. Anyone offended by that should stay away. Everyone else should come running, because Wasson — whose previous books include ‘Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,’ about ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ and the dance biography ‘Fosse’ — is one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood lore. And he has truly outdone himself this time.

“Wasson begins with four principals: Polanski, ‘Chinatown’s’ director; Robert Towne, its credited screenwriter; Jack Nicholson, its very hands-on star; and Robert Evans, the Paramount executive and producer who saw himself as more of a star than anyone who ever worked for him. Had any of them had a happy childhood, ‘Chinatown’ might not have been the masterpiece it became. And had any been born an aristocrat, it wouldn’t have trafficked in such painstaking visions of glamour.”

The Hollywood Reporter: “Book Excerpt: How Writer Robert Towne Crafted ‘Chinatown’ for Jack Nicholson” — “After tackling a biography about Oscar, Tony and Emmy award-winning Bob Fosse — the book ultimately inspired the FX series Fosse/Verdon — New York Times best-selling author Sam Wasson is ready to give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into another Hollywood story: Chinatown.

“In The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (Flatiron Books, on sale Tuesday, Feb. 4), Wasson details the story behind the production of Chinatown, which came amid the ‘New Hollywood’ era of filmmaking. Throughout the book, Wasson chronicles the stories of four influential men in 1970s Hollywood including Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne during a time when the Manson family unleashed a nightmare.

“In his nonfiction account, Wasson details Towne conceiving an idea for a detective story for his best friend, Nicholson. After the story caught the interest of Paramount head Evans, Polanski (Sharon Tate’s widower) joined the project to direct the film that would go on to receive 11 Oscar nominations and star Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film won for best original screenplay in 1975. For the book, Wasson utilized extensive reportage, existing interview material and conducted some of his own interviews with experts. Of the four men, only Evans and Polanski participated.”

Los Angeles Times: “Review: Sam Wasson takes a deep dive into ‘Chinatown’” — “‘Chinatown’ may or may not be the greatest movie of the so-called New Hollywood (I think not) but it is one of the best, and its cynical vibe — perhaps ‘realistic’ would be a better word — makes it as much a movie for our time as it was for its own, 1974. Among other things, it is a testimonial to Balzac’s famous aphorism, ‘Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.’ The great crime behind ‘Chinatown’ is the theft of water from the farmers of the Owens Valley that gave Noah Cross, the film’s villainous developer, his great fortune and Angelenos their drinking water. Cross is ‘Chinatown’s’ Donald Trump.

“Sam Wasson’s fascinating and page-turning description of the talent and ideas behind “Chinatown” is more than a mere biography of a landmark movie; it aims to flesh out the wild and woolly era that incubated it, roughly the late 1960s to the late 1970s, and in this it mostly succeeds. ‘Chinatown’s’ relative greatness is irrelevant for Wasson’s purposes, thanks to its spectacular backstory, featuring four of the most gifted and colorful figures of the era: Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Towne and Robert Evans.

“Of the Big Four, only Polanski and Evans — who was such a press whore he would talk to a tree if addressed — agreed to participate. But they are abetted by a stellar cast of players, including Nicholson’s sometime girlfriend Anjelica Huston, whose father, John, plays Cross; assistant director Hawk Koch; and costume designer Anthea Sylbert — all of whom are happy to connect the dots. Faye Dunaway, who played Cross’ daughter, Evelyn Mulwray, didn’t cooperate.”

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