The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Sam Wasson doesn’t force depth and emotion into his writing, and that’s why I love his writing. It flows naturally and vividly, it keeps you engaged, it is unpredictable yet beautifully constructed, it is accelerating and seamlessly connecting phrases even when he leaps from one idea to another, from one time to another.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood* is about the making of Chinatown, one of the best movies in the history of cinema, on the background of the lives leading up to it of the four most important men who made it possible. Screenwriter Robert Towne – “Be they dreamers or detectives, the original heroes and antiheroes of LA crime were palpably screenwriters in disguise, losers of varying degrees of honor as far from their big score or big just as were screenwriters, divested of their creative ownership, from their dream, their writing.” Jack Nicholson – “Ray’s The Music Room, Olmi’s Il Posto, Bitter Rice, Umberto D, Seven Samurai, Rififi at the Beverly Canon… Through all these permutations and youthful poetry I came to believe that the film actor was the great litterateur of his time.” Producer Robert Evans – “Luck, my friend, is where opportunity meets preparation.” And Roman Polanski – “Hollywood was just the name of the place, but it happens that this Hollywood is giving me the tools to do what I want to do.”

Robert Towne was friends with Nicholson and he wrote J.J. Gittes for him. Evans was the one who brought Roman Polanski back to Los Angeles after the tragedy that would mark his entire life – suddenly, reading more about Polanski’s life with his wife, Sharon Tate, and that fatidic day in August 1969, made me love Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and its ending – that beautiful “What if? What if Sharon Tate’s fate had been different?” ending, when you hear the “enchanting, fable-ish”, as Quentin himself described it, music, Miss Lily Langtry, by Maurice Jarre – even more. Chinatown was a teamwork, from pre-production, to the actual filming. But it was also an all-encompassing art form brought together by a director’s masterful vision. Not all films are. Reading the book, it has a dizzying, revelatory, meandering effect on you. Writing and making Chinatown wasn’t easy. Watching it, it gives you a nightmarish feeling that goes rampantly against the bright Los Angeles light, the way it uses the noir genre but evading the visual vocabulary and the defining elements of that very genre, it fascinates against all the wrong doings that you witness. Why should reading about it be any less demanding, less haunting and less rewarding?

The Big Goodbye takes us to a Los Angeles where people went because they had dreams, dreams that belonged only to California, and to a Hollywood where people went not just because they had dreams, but because they had hope. “He was not ashamed, as many of his film-school contemporaries were, of swimming in a warm bush of thrillers, musicals, westerns, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Maltese Falcon, Snow White, popular genres that were to Polanski “what cinema” – what Hollywood – “is all about”. These were not dreams, Roman didn’t understand dreams. These were hopes, as real as the people who made them, sent to Poland from a magical but non-imaginary place on an actual map fantastically far from Soviet rule.”
* For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the book, I have linked to the publishing house. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore we will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.



Picture by Lillian Ross

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