14 March 2020

Review: Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye

For three decades, I have devoured every piece of information I could find about the film that set me upon a lifelong obsession with cinema. Much as I would have loved to finally see a dedicated print publication giving Chinatown its due - something along the lines of Peter Cowie's wonderful, very simply titled, The Godfather Book, which partly inspired me to start this blog - surely the story of the making of Chinatown had already been told time and time again in multiple biographies, articles and film histories.

When it was announced that an upcoming book entitled The Big Goodbye, by Sam Wasson (Fifth Avenue 5 A.M., Fosse), would tell the story of the making of Chinatown "for the first time", I was skeptical. My initial assumption was that this would just be a book collecting everything out there about the film and jamming it together in one place. The same old stuff that I'd read already, right?


While much of the ground has been covered before, The Big Goodbye reveals so much more about the creation of Chinatown, in such rich detail and depth, that sometimes you feel as if you're really there. However, this is not a run-of-the-mill account of the making of the film, rather, it is an elaborate, careful illustration of Wasson's thesis that Chinatown was a product of multiple personalities and events which converged to produce a perfect storm that is not only a cinematic masterpiece, but also the high water mark of Hollywood artistry before its decline into the 'cinema of sensation', which began with 1970s disaster movies, such as The Towering Inferno, Airport and Earthquake. A trend that was further fuelled by the blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars, and would then completely degenerate into the 'high concept' product of the 1980s, best exemplified by the Simpson/Bruckheimer team which would churn out the likes of Top Gun, Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop. 

In this, Wasson largely succeeds, initially taking a very leisurely approach to the material, weaving the personal backstories of Chinatown's four principal creators (Robert Towne, Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson) together, before presenting an intensely well-researched and fascinating look at how the film came together, then the somewhat rapid fall from grace.

Polanski's own story is given a particularly great deal of attention, and I did find myself questioning Wasson's opinion that he deserves the lion's share of credit for making the film what it is, as opposed to Robert Towne, who is almost portrayed as something of a villain by the end.

The book is somewhat heavy-handed in its attempt to posit the 1969 Manson murders as having a direct influence upon the film, but even if that's a bit of a step too far, it certainly does illustrate how closely connected so many of the people associated with Chinatown were to the victims, and how strongly they were affected by the murders, not just Roman Polanski. The oft-told story of Robert Towne buying his sheepdog from an ex-cop who once worked in LA's Chinatown and gave birth to the classic line, "As little as possible", never would have happened if Towne and his wife hadn't felt the need to buy a guard dog.

It also seems to skim over the fact that, even if 1974 was some sort of peak, many great, intelligent films continued to be made in Hollywood during the 1970s and early 1980s (Nashville, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff to name but a few), just as the populist fare started to take hold. Nor does Wasson really address the hubris and box-office failures of a number of the more influential 1970s filmmakers, which contributed just as much to the fall of 'New Hollywood' as a giant shark, Darth Vader and Don Simpson did.
To be fair, this is balanced by the fact that these matters have already been covered thoroughly by Peter Biskind's somewhat seminal account of the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Wasson, instead, pushes further than Biskind does into how the machinations of the studio executives of the late 1970s and the 1980s (Don Simpson, Michael Eisner, Barry Diller et al) crushed whatever creativity had been reawakened in Hollywood by the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider and Chinatown, then rebuilt the industry as a sausage factory.

The real pleasure to be had here is in the enormous amount of detail, much of which has never been available before. The excerpts from Towne's earliest notes and outlines for Chinatown (originally titled 'The Picture Business') are a particular delight, painting a vivid portrait of how he slowly worked to find his story. There is also a detailed account of the city corruption surrounding a development in Benedict Canyon, which was one of Towne's primary inspirations. For these, and other previously unknown gems, Wasson has Robert Towne's ex-wife, Julie Payne, to thank (sadly, Payne passed away last year). 

While The Big Goodbye largely focuses upon Towne, Polanski, Evans and Nicholson, it also gives plenty of due attention to the huge contributions so many others made to the film, such as production designer Dick Sylbert, costume designer Anthea Sylbert, and assistant director Howard Koch Jr. In particular, Wasson shines a spotlight upon the virtually unknown Edward Taylor, Towne's college room-mate, who would assist Towne with his scripts throughout his entire career, uncredited.

What the book does lack is a selection of behind-the-scenes photographs and illustrations, either throughout or in a dedicated section, which one would expect from a publication like this. To be a real nitpicking fanboy, it also would have been nice to have some information about the scenes cut from the film, which aren't touched on at all, but it's not really that sort of book. This is an actual story, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, not your typical movie tie-in packaged with a bonus sticker book and some trading cards in a plastic bag.

Needless to say, The Big Goodbye is absolutely essential reading for any fan of Chinatown, or anyone interested in the great era known as 'The New Hollywood', for that matter. Get a hold of it, put Jerry Goldsmith's timeless score to the film on (then Phillip Lambro's if you've got it), sit back, open up, and enjoy. 9/10

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