Chinatown: Unlocking the Mystery of a Classic

Chinatown, the 1974 mystery masterpiece, is still compelling 46 years later because of the four exceptional talents that brought the film to screen: Jack Nicholson as star, Roman Polanski as director, Robert Evans as producer, and Robert Towne as screenwriter. All four possessed outsized personalities that became an irresistible force when joined in unison to make the movie. Each also carried a certain psychological scar damage that added pathos and poignancy to the story and characters.

Sam Wasson, who has written several books on entertainment icons, such as Bob Fosse, perfectly describes the secret sauce that went into making Chinatown a special film in his new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. The LA-based author explains how the private lives of the aforementioned four informed how the movie was structured and photographed.

Based on the real-life 1930s water grab by LA’s business elites, Chinatown is also a personification of the raw emotions that haunted Polanski and, to a lesser extent, Towne, in real life.


Jack Nicholson at a water commission hearing in Chinatown.

The director was just five years removed from the graphic slaying of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family, and scene after scene in Chinatown offer subtle reminders of that grisly event.

Towne, who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1930s in a household run by an aloof wealthy businessman, used the script to exorcise some demons as well.

As for Nicholson, his character, private detective J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, is his first as a leading man and he makes the most of it with a powerful performance that belies the frailty lurking just beneath the surface of his character. Much like Jack in real life, Gittes projects a smooth confidence in public as he tries to unsort the water scandal, and the mysterious woman (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be at the center of it. But Gittes is clearly driven by insecurities triggered by unmentionable past events.

Nicholson struggled in Hollywood after coming there as a 17-year-old from New Jersey. He appeared in numerous small-budget films, and even was once forced to take a small role in The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s to keep working. He finally got a break when friend Dennis Hopper cast him in Easy Rider in 1969. He was 32 when the movie was released.

The actor’s life took on more heartache a few years after Chinatown when he learned that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. And the woman he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother.

You may think you know Jack. But you don’t know Jack.

Evans, the smooth-talking playboy producer, was a throwback to when Hollywood courted glamour and was willing to spend whatever it took to get it. Once married to Ali MacGraw (Love Story), Evans entertained Hollywood’s finest at his French Regency-style home in Beverly Hills, and often took meetings by poolside or in his personal screening room. He used his considerable charm to keep Chinatown from falling apart numerous times due to friction between Towne and Polanski, and Polanski and Dunaway. The latter conspired with her agent to get Polanski fired after he plucked a hair from her head before a shot. But Evans sweet-talked her off the ledge, saying her performance in the dailies was Oscar-worthy.

Ben Affleck says he plans to direct a film version of Wasson’s book, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a great story, almost equal to the one on screen.


Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins in Justified.

But who will play Jack? Walton Goggins would be my choice. He certainly looks the part, and has the chops. His Justified sidekick, Timothy Olyphant, would make a great Evans, and I would take Jesse Eisenberg as Polanski.

But something tells me that Affleck won’t let the Nicholson part go to anyone but himself.

Either way, it should be a fun film.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood can be purchased here at Amazon.

The above is an Amazon affiliate links; this site receives a small percentage of sales from Amazon affiliate links.

Featured image: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

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