Sometimes, it’s a good thing to sit on a review.
Normally, I try to get these out right away while the book is fresh in my mind. I don’t want to forget the sensation of reading a novel, completing it, and giving my thoughts before it’s fully digested. The thrill of reading books is actually finishing the book and appreciating and/or critiquing the story I’ve just received.
However, due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasn’t able to get to this review until hours after I finished The Big Goodbye. And that’s a good thing. Because while I probably would’ve given it a reflexive 4-stars and talked about it’s high points, just a slight bit of distance made me realize how the book annoyed me and even disappointed me a little.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: while acknowledging the general awfulness that is Roman Polanski, Chinatown is my all-time favorite movie. It’s not even close. I love it’s portrayal of Los Angeles, it’s message about corruption, world class acting. I could watch it anytime, anyplace.
So I was excited for this book, mostly to get the granular detail of how it was written by Robert Towne and made by Polanski.
I got those things and to that extent, the book was supremely satisfying. But the writing was not. The writer chooses to focus on four main “characters”: Polanski (who he is largely sympathetic towards), Nicholson, Robert Evans and Robert Towne. It was interesting to delve into their lives but Wesson hardly does anything but skim the surface of each. Which is fine but he also wants you to understand the psyche of each going into the making of Chinatown and it’s impossible to do so without knowing more about these men.
Wesson is more interested in their contributions to cinema and how those exploits led to the making of this great film. I get that, but it left me wanting more investment in who they are/were. A lot of this ground was covered in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a far superior book that lays out the rise and fall of auteur cinema in the 70s in great detail.
Also, there’s simply no excuse for not giving Faye Dunaway more time. She’s instrumental to the movie and a fascinating person in her own right. Wesson portrays her as nothing more than a diva who had a fascination with Nicholson. I get she was difficult to work with but considering the way Wesson handles Polanski, I figured he would add more depth to her.
It’s a good enough book if you want to read about the making of Chinatown and what movie making was like in the 70s. But the broader aim of the novel, aside from the details of the film itself, have been better covered in other places.