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Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in the 1974 movie 'Chinatown'

CHERCHEZ LA FEMME: Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in director Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie Chinatown(Paramount)

Was Chinatown the Climax of 1970s Cinema?

New book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, tells story of classic movie, born of its fleeting moment

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN      April 9, 2020  


IN THE 1970s, A COMET OF GREAT AMERICAN MOVIES burned across our culture, before vanishing in darkness. Shaken by political assassinations, cult murders, race riots, Vietnam and Watergate, the country was ready for authentic films that captured the national mood and brought catharsis, not entertainment fantasies. At the same time, movie studios were ceding control to talented young writers, directors and stars. Censorship had collapsed, allowing nudity, sex, blood and swearing to pulse across theater screens. Edgy, original, personal stories drew crowds hungry for something new.

But in fact, the golden hour of 1970s cinema had begun in 1967, with the release of Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate. In 1969, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider rode onto screens, further challenging the American public’s idea of what movies could be. By 1975 the glow was already starting to dim, as the spectacle of Jaws began a trend toward sensationalism that continues to this day. But between 1967 and 1979, Hollywood produced some of its best, riskiest films—from directors such as Sam Peckinpah, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Don Siegel, Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, Woody Allen, and others.

The 1970s started with unconventional movies such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Little Big Man, and M*A*S*H. In 1971, filmgoers could choose from The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and other fresh, exciting fare. In 1972, The Godfather arrived, along with Deliverance, and Last Tango in Paris. The hot streak continued in 1973, as The Exorcist, Mean Streets, Charley Varrick, Badlands, High Plains Drifter, and The Last Detail burst onto screens. In 1974, crowds lined up to see The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Parallax View, and other original films.

But as author and film historian Sam Wasson argues in his excellent, compulsively readable new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (Flatiron, $28.99), director Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir was the high-water mark of 1970s movies—a collaboration borne by factors that briefly combined before ebbing away. With sensuality and élan, Chinatown uncovered the corruption the public knew had been bubbling beneath the surface all along.

Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown'

LOOKING FOR TROUBLE: Detective J.J. Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, suspects this isn’t just a matrimonial case. (Paramount)

Chinatown assembled a group of exceptionally talented people, working in a rare moment that combined artistic freedom with studio support. Robert Evans, who had shepherded Polanski’s movie Rosemary’s Baby at Paramount in 1968, found himself in the unique position of being both the studio’s head of production and Chinatown’s producer.

“It was a virtually unprecedented arrangement,” writes Wasson, who declined our request for an interview. “With unfettered access to studio finances, manpower, and production and marketing resources, Evans the executive could conceivably direct unlimited assets to Evans the producer … His Chinatown would want for nothing.” Unlike other studios that were trying to compete with television by producing lavish epics with huge budgets, Evans saw an opportunity to get back to basics, a return to glamour that blended “commercial security, a whisper of art, the old genres revisited, classicism modernized.”

Polanski’s career had soared with Rosemary’s Baby, but his personal life collapsed the following year when followers of cult leader Charles Manson murdered his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child in Los Angeles. Stigmatized by the killings and what some saw as a connection to the Satanism of Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski fled to Europe, reluctant to return to Hollywood. Jack Nicholson, who would become Chinatown’s star, was friends with Evans, and together they stood by the ostracized director. “After the murders, where others abandoned him, Evans and Nicholson showed undying loyalty to Polanski,” Wasson writes. “They would surely cushion [his] horror of returning to Los Angeles.”

Chinatown’s production designer Richard Sylbert and his sister-in-law, costume designer Anthea Sylbert, were also friends of Polanski’s. The director didn’t know screenwriter Robert Towne, but Towne and Nicholson were old pals. John Huston, legendary director of such movies as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—who would play the rapacious villain Noah Cross in Chinatown—was the father of Nicholson’s girlfriend, Anjelica Huston.

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Set in Los Angeles in 1937, the detective story was Towne’s paean to the small-town L.A. of his childhood, to his memories of “the prickled scent of Santa Ana pepper trees and hay; the ocean air racing Santa Monica Boulevard as far east as Westwood,” a paradise lost to smog, bulldozers and time.

When Towne’s girlfriend Julie Payne brought home a library book about the history of Los Angeles, he learned that in 1910 big-money interests had staged a phony drought as part of a scheme to cheat farmers out of one hundred thousand acres of their land in the San Fernando Valley at low prices. The robber barons then diverted L.A.’s water to the valley and made an estimated profit of one hundred million dollars on their newly valuable real estate. The crime would become the basis of Towne’s movie.

In his screenplay, Nicholson’s character J.J. Gittes—a former L.A. policeman turned private eye, haunted by memories of an unspecified tragedy involving a woman in the city’s Chinatown district—is drawn into the water mystery. A woman posing as the wife of L.A. water commissioner Hollis Mulwray visits Gittes in his office, claiming that her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes, thinking it’s just another matrimonial case, his métier, agrees to tail Mulwray and take pictures of him with this mistress. Soon after, however, Mulwray is found dead, washed up in a reservoir with salt water in his lungs. Was his death an accident?

Jack Nicholson in the 1975 movie 'Chinatown'

HOLD IT THERE, KITTY CAT: Nicholson’s Gittes pays a price for being nosy. (Paramount)

As we later find out, Mulwray’s mistress is his wife Evelyn’s younger sister, Katherine. In the film’s most famous and dramatic scene, we learn that Evelyn—played by actress Faye Dunaway—had been impregnated by her own father, the wealthy, powerful and dangerous Noah Cross, when she was fifteen years old. Evelyn is therefore both Katherine’s mother and her sister. Knowing his remaining years are short, the old man wants to see Katherine again, and has tricked Gittes into finding her. Cross has killed Mulwray, his former business partner, over Mulwray’s objections to the land-fraud scheme, his romantic involvement with Katherine, or both. The film ends operatically, with all of its characters assembled on a dark street in Chinatown, as Evelyn attempts to rescue Katherine and kill their father, only to be shot dead herself by police. The word “Chinatown” becomes not just a location, but a metaphor for futility against power.

Did writer Robert Towne receive more credit for the Chinatown screenplay than he deserved?

Where films such as The French Connection, The Godfather, and The Exorcist were based on books, Chinatown was an original screenplay, a complex story that challenged audiences and gave them credit for having the intelligence to understand it. But one of the surprises in Wasson’s meticulously researched, sumptuously written book is that Towne—contrary to the commonly held view that he was one of the greatest screenwriters of his generation, and that Chinatown was his masterpiece—might have received more credit for the screenplay than he deserved. As The Big Goodbye reveals, Towne’s best friend Edward Taylor worked with him at every stage of the script, as an uncredited collaborator. The screenplay they wrote together was overly long, convoluted, confusing and digressive, clogged with extraneous subplots. According to Wasson’s book, Polanski pared down and rewrote the script—but like Taylor, Polanski did not receive screenwriting credit for Chinatown.

“You think this piece of shit story is bad now?” Polanski is quoted as telling Phillip Lambro, a composer hired to score the film, but whose harsh soundtrack was later replaced by the bittersweet trumpet melodies written by Jerry Goldsmith. “I’ll show you the original script,” Polanski said. “It was the biggest pile of crap you ever saw … what you see here today on the screen, I actually wrote, but I’m not taking any credit for it.”

Towne would win a shelf-full of awards for writing Chinatown, including the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. In his acceptance speeches, he did not mention his friend Edward Taylor.

After Chinatown, the people who made the film would never again match its singular achievement. Four years later, in 1978, Polanski fled the country after sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. He remains a fugitive in France to this day. Jack Nicholson would go on to play self-parodying roles and star in romantic comedies. Dunaway, whom the book describes as a brittle diva on the Chinatown set, hated by the crew, would give the best performance of her career in the 1976 movie Network, only to become an object of ridicule in the unintentionally funny 1981 melodrama Mommie Dearest. Towne, meanwhile, developed a cocaine problem and his career faltered.

Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans arrive at Academy Awards hoping for 'Chinatown' wins

SMILING IN THE RAIN: Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans arrive at the Academy Awards in 1975.

In 1975, Jaws presaged the coming decline of 1970s cinema. Thoughtful, substantive adult films would be swept away by the adolescent spectacle that exploded with Star Wars in 1977 and led to the comic book superhero franchises that dominate Hollywood today, an era of risk-averse corporate committees—not visionary, maverick artists—when marketing is more important than the movies themselves. But other remarkable films still appeared in the latter half of the 1970s, including Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Shampoo (1975); Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, Network, and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976); Annie Hall, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Straight Time (1978); Apocalypse Now, and Manhattan (1979).

Chinatown was the last great movie produced by or under Evans at Paramount, a run that had also included Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Serpico, and The Godfather Part II. Despite having rescued Paramount with a series of critically and commercially successful films, Evans was demoted at the studio. He went on to co-produce Marathon Man in 1976, but after Evans was arrested for taking part in a large cocaine purchase in 1980—and Roy Radin, his production partner on the ill-fated movie The Cotton Club was murdered by hit men in 1983—Evans’s phone stopped ringing. He lost ownership of his house, selling it for half of what he believed it was worth, and then rented the property from its new owner. Paranoid and suicidal, Evans spent time in a mental hospital. “Jack saw me shrivel in front of him,” the book quotes Evans as saying. “We cried together.”

As with the lost L.A. of Towne’s screenplay, the extraordinary moment in Hollywood history that produced Chinatown faded into the past like a minor-key trumpet melody receding down a lonely street, a time gone but cast in amber by one of the greatest films ever made.


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