Book Review: Nicholson, Polanski, Evans and Towne make “Chinatown” in “The Big Goodbye”

Robert Towne couldn’t structure a script worth a damn, and he kept the fact that he used a collaborator and co-writer a secret from Hollywood.

So his “greatest screenplay ever” or “best script of the ’70s” reputation, based on a screenwriting textbook’s effusive praise for it at the time, is a fraud.

Roman Polanski solicited underage girls for years before Anjelica Huston caught him with the one he was charged with drugging, raping and sodomizing (at Jack Nicholson’s house) in the mid-’70s.

Pretty boy/studio chief/producer wunderkind Robert Evans “wasn’t a reader,” but he was a decent judge of talent (save for Ali McGraw), and held screenings with friends at his palatial hilltop mansion “Woodlands,” took their opinions and molded them into his own. Such a screening was where he scrapped the dissonant score Roman Polanski wanted for “Chinatown” and brought in composer Jerry Goldsmith.

Evans liked to say he “saved” pictures like “The Godfather,” but Coppola never thanked Evans in his many acceptance speeches. And Jerry Goldsmith “saved” “Chinatown” in just a couple of inspired days. Damn.

Once Jack Nicholson got his Oscar for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” right after “Chinatown,” he stopped choosing challenging material and made it all about “The doe-re-me, doll.” But we knew that.

Sam Wasson’s “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood” is an evocative, detailed account of the milieu “Chinatown” was created in, just after The Manson Family mass murders, just as cocaine was about to take over Tinseltown.

Think of “The Big Goodbye” as “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” with nothing but facts.

It’s a somewhat purple mini-biography of Nicholson’s Jack Pack, the friends he made when he came to Hollywood whom he stayed loyal to for decades, adding “the little Polack” (Polanski) to their ranks when they made what might be the best film of one of cinema’s best decades.

Towne and his lifelong sounding board/collaborator Edward Taylor, “the big mystery reader” (and Raymond Chandler fan) of the two, spent years building the untitled “Chinatown” out of memories of the LA that had mostly disappeared by 1970, but which both remembered from their youth. Towne wrote it for his longtime pal and muse Jack Nicholson, just reaching stardom after “Easy Rider.”

And then Polanski, still devastated by the Manson family murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, was lured back to a city that haunted him by Evans, whose studio made a mint off “Rosemary’s Baby.” Polanski stripped the bloated script down to its private eye basics, “made it make sense” and made damned sure “the girl dies at the end.”

“The girl” was Faye Dunaway, a diva hated on the set, bullied by Polanski, but understood by some of the other actors in the picture. She kept everybody waiting.

Jack? He had to be done by the time the Lakers were on TV. As always.

“The Big Goodbye” is a breezy, quick read — purple passages about “the eucalyptus” and everybody involved’s childhood/parent “issues” aside. Longtime Variety chief Peter Bart, Evans’ Paramount colleague/co-conspirator (the who one read and had taste) is here, very young Anjelica’s infatuation with Jack, Jack’s adoration of her dad, director and “Chinatown” co-star John Huston, all covered as Warren Beatty, Hal Ashby, Harry Dean Stanton and others drift around the edges.

Anecdotes abound, furious on-set fights, Dunaway shrieking when Polanski impatiently yanked out strands of her hair to make a prettier shot, Nicholson and Polanski squaring off over a Lakers’ game that went into overtime. But the many ways Anjelica Huston could be humiliated by her drunken dad whenever she visited the set stands out.

“So…” her father boomed across the (lunch) table to Nicholson. “I hear you’re sleeping with my daughter…Mr. Gitts!”

Wasson is astute in picking out the dates and ways Hollywood “ended” around this time, from “Billy Jack” turning the business into wide releases/make all the money the first weekend, to “Jaws” launching the blockbuster era to Jack’s selling out to play “The Joker,” which drove him, the broken outcast Evans and coke-addled Towne to finally get around to “The Two Jakes” sequel over a decade later.

The overarching theme, a loss of American innocence, connecting the “water theft” scandal of LA history from the movie to the Manson murders and Watergate, fits like a glove.

If you loved “Once Upon a Time,” here’s one of the better books about its context, built around one of the defining films of the era.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. By Sam Wasson. 334 pages, $28.95, Flatiron Books.

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