I blogged recently that I actually didn’t think there were that many great books on film to read. As soon as I wrote that blogpost I started to read The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson. A fabulous book on the making of Chinatown.
What can I say about this book? It’s definitely up there with The Devil’s Candy as one of the greatest film books of all time, warts and all. Beautifully written, well researched and a kind of detective novel in itself, trying to uncover what happened to Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, Robert Towne, Sharon Tate and to Jack Nicholson himself, as well as his fictional counterpart Jake Gittes.
The book, also like the film, uncovers a mystery, that involves the very fabric of a city, of California and L.A. of the movie business in the silver 70s, the last truly great age of film, which begins to slide away as the story ends, moving onto blockbusters and block booking, marketers and movies which were ‘high concept’ and sold on a trailer or a poster as well as a five minute TV spot.
Evans was as close to a 70s Thalberg as the movies ever had (he’d even played the mogul once in a film), but he ends up broken. Paramount studios was shooting the Godfather Part 2 and Chinatown at the same time. The Oscars that year included Chinatown, The Godfather 2, The Conversation. Evans was the boss of Paramount, but someone else was out for his blood, they didn’t need to try too hard to get him.
Towne was one of the last great screenwriters, with his best friend and movie star in waiting Jack by his side, they’d grown up together, but Towne couldn’t hold the centre, the plot kept unravelling. The drugs didn’t work. Towne had written Shampoo, The Last Detail all alongside Chinatown, we find out that he had a silent partner, a co-writer, a secret? And in his past, a father figure close to Noah Cross, would he become like that?
Polanski was an outsider, with a shocking past life; ready to do his best work and the happiest he’d ever been with Sharon Tate, in L.A and by his side. After her tragic murder he was a director still, but a man hurt beyond belief, and he could hurt others, it was a miracle he was still alive, and just about sane (?).
And Noah Cross himself, John Huston, a director playing an ogre, and finding his best performance, while deciding his daughter Angelica, should marry Jack, a man who would be a real movie star and actor, someone he would cast himself. Angelica herself wasn’t so sure, she could see through the act in a way nobody else could.
Faye Dunaway was the butt of abuse on the Chinatown set, and many stories spread about her and Polanski at war, but she had the support of Nicholson, and was battling her own demons. And the method. You’re going to have to really hit me, she told Jack. And he did. To find out who the father was, uncover the secret. Jack didn’t know himself, in his own real life who his own father was. The secret, again…
And the script itself, too long, too complicated, brilliant at times but even Evans didn’t understand it. There was no ending, everybody except Towne agreed on that. It was to be part of a great trilogy, the work of Towne’s life. But it was brittle, and it needed someone hard to see the horror at the heart of the story, Polanksi could more than help with that. He’d seen the horror all his life, most recently in the hills above L.A.
Finally the aftermath, the fallout, Evens no longer the studio head, royalty in exile, and then shame. Towne smashed against the coke white rocks and Jack, and Jake, and The Two Jakes, trying to help his friends, to recapture the past, trying to keep the gang together, ever loyal, but lost. I’m sure Polanski would agree that worse things have happened, but even he would agree that Jack/Jake should just ‘Forget it… it’s Chinatown…’
Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor and script doctor for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. He’s also a leading UK script consultant and freelance script writer for hire and online screenwriting expert. You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. You can get in touch with Matthew on firstname.lastname@example.org or hire him on Peopleperhour
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham will be released in 2020.