I’ve had a quasi-symbiotic relationship to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown ever since I first laid eyes on it in May 1974. It was at a preview screening of the film in Santa Barbara and I may be the first person to have written a review of it for a local paper weeks before its release – meeting Polanski in the process. Moving to Los Angeles in 1978, my obsession with the city’s history led me to making my own film, L.A.X., a feature-length “essay” on memory and erasure. A few years later, on my last night in Los Angeles, I spent a surreal evening at Robert Evans’ sprawling Woodland, walking away with the uncanny feeling that I had met the true Norma Desmond.
So it was with a certain enthusiasm that I found out a new book focusing on the Chinatown was about to be published. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye: “Chinatown” and the Last Years of Hollywood is the latest addition to the voluminous literature published about the film over four decades – its portmanteau title combines Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, we’ve passed a lot of water since the release of Chinatown, but the film keeps on giving, continuously revealing hidden facets, an onion whose layers can be peeled infinitely.
While Wasson book goes over mostly well-known ground, he manages to uncover some new elements. One thing he does remarkably well is paint a picture of Los Angeles and the mood before its fall from grace, specifically before the Tate-LaBianca murders. A sort of golden moment during which everything seemed to be fine and the dream of hippie-dom was real. I felt the same wave of nostalgia recently watching Echo of the Canyon (Andrew Slater, 2019). Of course this was but an ephemeral moment. The “Summer of Love” of 1967 was soon followed by the turmoil of 1968 with the murders of Martin Luther King in Memphis and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, the escalation of the Vietnam War. Soon on its heels, the wild turbulent events of 1969: the break-up of the Beatles, Woodstock, Manson, the Moon landing, Altamont. And down the road, Nixon and Watergate: Chinatown as a product of its time.
No doubt, the most important new element Wasson brings to an analysis of the making of Chinatown is screenwriter Robert Towne’s unacknowledged and un-credited collaboration on several screenplays with Edward Taylor – a friend of Towne’s who taught at USC. This revelation comes as one of those dirty little secrets that finally comes to light. Towne did not write alone, but has always had a collaborator on films such as The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo. Why Towne has never bothered to actually credit Taylor remains unclear.
Full of juicy anecdotes, many of them already known, Wasson’s book is short on actual scholarship and at times even on basic information. For a book dedicated to the concept of the end of Hollywood, it never mentions the actual budget of the film – a mere $6 million, ridiculous by today’s standards. Wasson also fails to cite the scholarly work of Elaine Lennon who wrote a fascinating PhD dissertation on Towne’s work. This auteur approach to the screenwriter makes for great reading and was published as China-Towne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne 1960-2000.
The book’s title and its last chapters suggest that Chinatown and its production signalled the end of Hollywood (the last years of Hollywood). But can this really be? Hollywood has died and been revived many times, phoenix-like from the ashes. Hollywood has had as many “last years” as there have been “Fifth Beatles”: right before the talkies, when television appeared, when colour appeared, with the fall of the studio system in the mid-sixties and the emergence of the independents, with the advent of streaming platforms, etc. Hollywood has died at least a dozen deaths and crawled back from the grave. The process is likely to go on indefinitely.
No doubt, Wasson’s vision of Hollywood’s alleged demise is skewed by his insistence on the role played by Robert Evans, a true bigger-than-life character the writer seems to be drawn to like a moth to a flame. Evans, who died a few months ago, is a Hollywood legend. Every lie that has been told about Robert Evans is true, it is said: a consummate dealmaker, devoted to movies, a big mouth, a monumental ego, insufferable, shady and totally fascinating. No wonder Wasson is pulled in by Evans’ personality. The mistake is to take Evans as embodying Hollywood as a whole. Chinatown signals the last years of Robert Evans, but not of Hollywood.
Wasson’s book presents another blind spot: the predominantly Jewish identity of the creative core players of Chinatown: Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, Robert Towne, Richard Sylbert and Jerry Goldsmith. It’s surprising that Wasson never mentions Towne’s Jewish background. The son of second-generation Jewish immigrants, Towne’s birth name is Robert Bertram Schwarz. Which clarifies, among other things, the fact that the Jake in Two Jakes (the sequel to Chinatown originally titled The Iron Jew) is a ruthless Jewish real estate developer – like Towne’s own father. And how could one not think of this when Wasson, following Polanski’s own biography, recounts a first creative meeting about the project that takes place at Beverly Hill’s premiere deli, Nate ‘n Al’s, between Evans, Polanski, Sylbert and Towne: four Jews getting together in a deli to discuss a project about a land grab scheme by Gentiles.
The very writing process involved in Chinatown as described by Wasson extends to a particularly Jewish activity known as pilpul. The Hebrew word refers to a method of Talmudic study via intense textual analysis in attempts to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts. Pilpul is largely conducted by pairs of yeshiva students or rabbis. It is, in essence, the search for the truth that comes from a close analysis of an existing text. This leads at times to vehement disputation.
Famously, Towne’s unwieldy script of over 300 pages (later reduced to 180 pages), went through a head-to-head rewriting process with Polanski for several weeks – a process that Towne has often carped about but which did yield him an Oscar for best screenplay (without credit to Polanski).
The collaborative effort between Towne and his uncredited writing partner already feels very “Talmudic” and goes even deeper when Polanski steps in. Of course, this is not new in the collaborative writing process. This clearly argumentative back and forth process to reach a “truthful” draft is well known to screenwriters. The discussion centres around an interpretation of the material, an explanation of it, getting rid of what is superfluous and adding or becoming more precise about what is the bottom line of the story. Towne defending a story deeply anchored in Los Angeles, Polanski pulling the story towards a more universal and broader comment on capitalism and corruption. The process lasts for eight weeks at the end of which, the core of Chinatown has been found.
The very thrust of Chinatown also reflects the view of those Jewish filmmakers who focused on social issues, big and small, exploring the reality behind the façade of the American Dream, some of them paying for it dearly during the McCarthy period: Herbert Biberman (Salt of the Earth), Dalton Trumbo (Tender Comrade), Ben Barzman & Joseph Losey (The Boy with Green Hair), and Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity). Yes, Los Angeles is a golden land, but it hides a dark past. Like all of America, it is built on skeletons and its foundation is not what it claims to be. This is not cynicism, this is ripping the mask off the American dream and showing that behind it are things that are not so pretty: mass slaughter, rape, murder, corruption.
Chinatown hides yet another layer, one that is not often talked about. According to Wasson, Towne began writing the script in 1971 following a reading of Carey McWilliams’ famous “biography” of Los Angeles (Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, 1946). It is here that the so-called Water Wars are discussed at length, including the rape of the Owens Valley – the “theft” as such of the water supply for the benefit of Southern California. And McWilliams’ book tells other tales about Los Angeles, how it came to be, including one that could not fail to have caught Towne’ attention: the race riot of Chinatown in 1871.
At the time, the very title of Chinatown is an enigma to most of those involved in the project. Evans doesn’t have a clue what it means. None of it takes place in Chinatown (until the last scene which was added by Polanski), it’s not about Chinatown by any means. Towne has always explained at the time that Chinatown is a metaphor for the unknowable, a state of mind of confusion in which nothing seems like it really is, a hall full of mirrors, a shell game. The metaphor was fraught back then as it is today with racist overtones: the inscrutable East, the mysterious Orient and its denizens. Shades here of Fu Manchu, of mysterious Tong Wars, etc.
But above and beyond the metaphor lies the reality of Los Angeles’ true-life Chinatown, its population and history. It might be only coincidence, but Towne does begin writing the screenplay on the 100th anniversary of the worst race riot to have taken place in Los Angeles – some might even say a pogrom. In October 1871, a mob of 500 people descended on Chinatown, then located in the current site of Union Station, lynching 20 Chinese nationals. In 1938, Chinatown is demolished and Union Station takes its place. Ironically, the “new” Chinatown is rebuilt using sets from MGM’s production of The Good Earth – basically, a Hollywood version of a Chinatown: a dragon biting its own tail. If anything, “Chinatown” is also shorthand for America’s dark past in general and Los Angeles’ own racist murderous history. And so Chinatown and Chinatown are like so many matryoshka dolls, each concealing yet another view.
But wait, where the hell am I? It seems I’ve gone astray and fallen down the Chinatown rabbit-hole, leaving poor Sam Wasson behind. That’s the risk you take when you open the Pandora’s box of this film – roads diverge, you lose your way in a hall of mirrors with more clues, false leads and new points of view than you can shake a stick at. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye could never be a definitive work on the subject (no book could ever be). But in spite of its failings it remains a good entry point for those courageous would-be explorers searching for the true heart of Chinatown.
Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: “Chinatown” and the Last Years of Hollywood (New York: Flatiron Books, 2020)