The cover art of The Big Goodbye–Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood is a reason I bought this book. It reminded me of Michael Schwab’s wonderful art of the 70’s, maybe Shepard Fairey, even Banksy—all of whom I am drawn to. (It was designed by Steven Seighman.) Another was the mention of Chinatown, and another was the Chandleresque “Big Goodbye” in the title. It all came together in a gestalt that spoke more than this volume to me. “The last years of Hollywood,” not so much. As far as I know Hollywood is still there and still magnetic, moth-drawing, Schwab Drugstore actress-discovering, mythmaking magic.
L.A. waiters and cops and clerks still have screenplays in their back pockets and auditions at 9am which make them call in sick at their day jobs.
Hollywood, chimeric as it may seem in the cold light of day in Cleveland or Kansas City, is still more substantial than Packard or Studebaker or Kodak or any number of corporeal corporations that were regarded as verities. Whether the film studios are run by bean counters or corporate philistines, the demand for product, dreams, is ravenous, good times or bad.
The Wasson book tends to epoch-ize the late sixties, early seventies as an era, a golden age that ended. Eras do end; that’s why they call them eras. And a certain period did end, but the subsequent eras were attached like boxcars, and the string of them keep on rumbling along. Golden Age after Golden Age. Ups and downs. Flops and Blockbusters. The Dream.
Things happen synchronously and legends result. Once upon a time Jack Nicholson showed up, Robert Towne poured himself into a screenplay, Roman Polanski came along with a large amount of European freight, Edward Taylor, Bob Evans, real estate became available, a studio bigwig was endowed with trust, a woman heard a Bunny Berigan tune from 1937, Faye Dunaway’s trajectory coincided, any number of things happened that no amount of muscling or straining could have made happen, although vast amounts of energy and angst and stress were expended. Jack Nicholson even lost his shit a couple of times and that man seems to have an endless stress envelope that’s hard to breach.
I liked Wasson’s book, his writing, for the most part, and his painstaking details from the various lens sizes used in a shot, to descriptions of Woodland, a character in its own right, Evans’s chateau in the hills with Mako-designed tennis courts, surrounding pool, and custom pool-house screening room. The lavish estate was home to more deals than Paramount’s offices in its Evans-owned heyday. Originally designed in 1940 by John Woolf, the favorite architect of Fanny Brice and George Cukor, Woodland personified Southern California Regency and each Evans-occupied night there involved a party or a screening of dailies or both.
At party’s end, Evans was forced to sell the estate, cocaine always exacting a toll beyond its original cash value. Roman fled to Paris for its non-extradition policy, and Towne struggled with The Two Jakes, the second Gittes film in a proposed trilogy. The third was never mentioned again. Nicholson was not unscathed; his grief over the death of John Huston was a long time healing and the buddy atmosphere of the pre-Chinatown group went the way of the third film in the series, Gittes vs. Gittes.
Chinatown, its speed bumps and construction, subtexts and metaphors, is the major player in Wasson’s The Big Goodbye; all the work that went into the film, all the work that was cut out of it, and its collateral damages and collateral gifts. Other subjects are dealt with in various depths: the dealmakers, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers, as well as Hollywood products like The Godfather, Shampoo, Jaws and The Conversation. Billy Jack’s strategic ad budget scheme and how it happened would not seem to be of great interest, but as it changed Hollywood’s entire advertising and distribution methods it becomes an intriguing sidebar. Insights into the various lives entwined with Chinatown’s pre, during, and post-production are both sobering and fascinating.
Wasson did some admirable homework on his subject, and information seekers will be glad to see a full index, Academy to Zukor, and a 50-page complement of notes with page numbers.
Edward Taylor remains a benign shadow throughout the writing of Chinatown (the screenplay) his contributions or lack of them never fully explained, in part because Taylor himself refused to acknowledge them. His name never appears on the credits, but, again, that could be due to his own wishes. The conclusion a reader is left with is that Taylor was a contributor of some importance if only for moral support, which Towne certainly seemed to need. Even so, the script was lacking coherence and remained unfinished even when shooting began. Polanski was responsible for some of the writing (and rewriting), though we don’t know how much or how little. Prior to Chinatown, Towne’s screenwriting gifts were mainly as a consultant with unusual powers of script revival. We do know that he overwrote Chinatown by a hundred or so pages, requiring a drastic slimming regimen. And Nicholson’s sharp observations also found their way into the screenplay.
This book with the handsome cover belongs on any cinephile’s shelf, as well as in the collections of film students, teachers, filmmakers and Hollywood cinema history aficionados.
I’d have welcomed it when, after my arrival in Los Angeles, I took a screenwriting story structure course under Robert McKee—one of the subjects was Chinatown. I rented it from Blockbuster Video and must have watched it a dozen times for its various meanings, both hidden and undisguised, and for the Polanski-bleached drought scenes, the dialogue and subtext, and the captivating acting.
Of McKee’s Ten Commandments, in the syllabus, number IX is “Thou shalt not write on the nose. Put a subtext under every text.” Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. Especially as massaged by Polanski. Quite possibly, the Wasson book would have been in McKee’s syllabus on page ten, Recommended Reading List.
I did a lot of walking in West L.A., San Pedro, Palos Verdes, Manhattan Beach, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Westwood, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Torrance, Culver City, glamour spots and those with nothing in particular to recommend them. I saw Polanski’s colors in all of them. I saw the colors of hand-tinted postcards from the twenties and thirties, and they were the true colors of the movie, Chinatown. I saw them through Jack Nicholson’s RayBans. I wanted to live in that little complex where Ida Sessions’s body was found. I very nearly moved to San Pedro but settled instead on Rancho Palos Verdes since it was closer to a job I had in Torrance. I saw L.A. through a Chinatown lens yet I never saw much of actual Chinatown at all. Take a look at Robert McKee’s YouTube precis of Chinatown:
I recommend reading Sam Wasson’s engaging, even poetic, book, but never believe that it chronicles “The Last Years of Hollywood.” That would be to say The Dream is finite. As Wasson, himself, says, “In Woodland, there are still roses…” And, as a businessman said, in Wasson’s book, “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paramount’s Paris. Paramount’s is better.”
Guinotte Wise writes and welds steel sculpture on a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. His short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) won publication by a university press and enough money to fix the soffits. Five more books since. A 5-time Pushcart nominee, his fiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals including Atticus, The MacGuffin, Southern Humanities Review, Rattle and The American Journal of Poetry.