When you decide to read a book about Hollywood in the 70s, you have to prepare yourself for a lot of cocaine and misogyny. And of course when you decide to specifically read a book about a movie directed by Roman Polanski, you have to prepare yourself for far worse. To answer some questions I’m sure some of you have up front, yes, the book does address at appropriate length Polanski’s rape of an underage girl and his fleeing the United States, but yes, the book also features a lot of praise for Polanski’s artistry. If the idea of reading about how Polanski is a great filmmaker is upsetting to you this is definitely a book to avoid.
Wasson centers his book around the four men primarily responsible for getting Chinatown into theaters. Polanski the director, Robert Towne the screenwriter, Robert Evans the producer, and Jack Nicholson the star. He follows Polanski from his war-torn boyhood in Poland to his early film career and his tragically shortened marriage to Sharon Tate. Towne is also haunted by the Manson murders, and in their wake he began to long for the disappearing Los Angeles of his youth. Researching the city’s past he came upon the history of the city’s water that would provide the backbone for Chinatown’s script. Evans is mostly remembered as a sort of self-parody of a Hollywood executive, but he emerges from these pages as a fascinating figure. The book finds him at the peak of his professional career, having guided Paramount through the most successful period any studio had ever had, with big hits like Love Story and The Godfather pulling in record audiences. As for Jack Nicholson, he was a star on the cusp of super-stardom coming into Chinatown, with three Oscar nominations under his belt.
Wasson spends a lot time delineating the torturous process of getting Chinatown made. The script, which Towne labored over for years with his uncredited writing partner Edward Taylor, ran to over 300 pages. Countless characters and subplots would be stripped out by Polanski, each one resulting in a war with Towne, who was perhaps too committed to his vision. Polanski’s perfectionism was an issue, as was Evans’s interference. The two men clashed seriously over the film’s score, a battle which Evans won after Polanski took an ill-timed trip to Europe.
And then there was Faye Dunaway. In our current climate it is a little distasteful to refer to an actress as “difficult” because of course such language is often gender-biased. We’re all more aware that the same behavior that gets men labeled as creative geniuses gets women tagged with the difficult label. However, it is clear that the entire crew of Chinatown, men and women alike, absolutely detested working with Faye Dunaway. Her chronic unpreparedness, frequent lateness, and screaming matches with Polanski created headaches for the crew, who in turn nicknamed her The Dread Dunaway. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, but suffice it to say that there are a couple of scenes near the end that the crew relished seeing filmed over multiple takes.
The book, fitting considering the source material, has a bummer of an ending. Polanski gets arrested and flees the country. Evans is demoted and phased out as Hollywood begins chasing blockbusters instead of great films. Towne wins the Oscar but his behavior becomes erratic, including violence directed at his partner Julie. Nicholson remained a great star, but the plan to make Chinatown the first part of a trilogy came to a disastrous end, resulting in the dissolution of the long friendships between star, writer, and producer.
It’s an ending that only reinforces how precious and rare a great movie really is. How it requires the best work out of dozens of people and even then still needs a good deal of luck. Chinatown came along at just the right time for the creative artists who worked on it and the industry that made it. Film lovers will never forget it.