Deeper into Cocaine

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood BY Sam Wasson. New York: Flatiron Books. 416 pages. $29.

The cover of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Howard Koch Jr., assistant director on Chinatown and the son of the former head of production at Paramount Pictures, had always thought of cocaine as “elite,” according to Sam Wasson in The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. But by 1975, coke had trickled down. “The fucking craft service guy had it . . . the prop guy had it. It was everywhere,” Koch Jr. noticed.

For this son of Hollywood, the prevalence of cocaine was a portent, like the time in the late 1920s when a shoeshine boy offered Joseph P. Kennedy a stock market tip. A crash was coming. Wasson’s book, a production history of the making of Chinatown, laments that crash, crying big tears over the rise and fall of New Hollywood, an era that, for him, begins with Easy Rider in 1969 and ends with Chinatown in 1974, ground that has been covered by Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood in 1998 and in countless other popular histories of Hollywood in the 1970s.

Wasson traces the infiltration of both coke and corporate executives into director-centric filmmaking, pitting vicious, mean-spirited businessmen like Paramount’s Frank Yablans against the actual artists who make movies, from production designers to editors. The book bemoans lovers of the bottom line while offering glowing portraits of the four men most responsible for Chinatown’s success—screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, and Jack Nicholson, who, in his performance as Los Angeles detective J. J. Gittes, reached a new high as the defining actor of American cinema in the 1970s.

Roman Polanski, Chinatown, 1974. J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Paramount Pictures
Roman Polanski, Chinatown, 1974. J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Paramount Pictures

Wasson fudges the history of Nicholson’s career to make his achievement in Chinatown into a sudden apotheosis, a strategy he employs with the other three principals too. In fact, by 1974, Nicholson, after a rough decade in low-budget drive-in fare, had already been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Easy Rider, had played the lead in four now-classic films (Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail), and had been chosen by a European arthouse eminence, Michelangelo Antonioni, to star in The Passenger, a role that Nicholson had just completed shooting when he arrived back in Hollywood to be in Chinatown. For Wasson, author of a book on the filming of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the biography of Bob Fosse that became last year’s TV mini-series Fosse/Verdon, those other Jack Nicholson movies aren’t iconic enough for current pop-culture legibility.

Nicholson was a magnetic screen presence, fully established as a star, and was doing so well by 1974 that he gave out “little vials” of cocaine as Christmas gifts and kept “an opulent cocaine pyramid, pointing skyward in a help-yourself bowl” in his foyer. Nicholson, we learn, also had a bowl of cash on his coffee table he left out for less fortunate friends. Later in the book it becomes a bowl of “ripped-up fifty-dollar bills” Nicholson describes as “a work of art.”

A river runs through The Big Goodbye, a river of white powder like the LA River in Chinatown that in key scenes starts with a trickle and becomes a torrent. Cocaine floods Wasson’s book, delivered like the water in the film, the source of the story’s corruption. By the end, Robert Towne becomes a fiend for it, destroying his family and spending his residuals $10,000 at a time on blow.

Wasson goes deep on Towne, a man he describes as “less a man than an idea lost on a dreaming sea.” He reveals, for instance, that Towne did not write the screenplay alone—a significant disclosure, as Chinatown’s screenplay has been considered the best ever written in Hollywood since Syd Field said so in his 1979 screenwriting manual. Towne worked with Edward Taylor, his closest friend since college, a man he had on his personal payroll. Towne’s wife, Julie Payne, born and bred in the Hollywood studio system, provided early inspiration and research, and Polanski helped cut down Towne’s 340-page monster to a filmable 130. These revelations aside, Wasson’s portrait of Towne is deeply respectful, even though he is, in a way, the worst person in the book. And that is saying something when one of the other main characters is a child rapist who lives in exile to avoid prosecution.

Both The Godfather Part II and Chinatown began shooting at Paramount in October 1973. Eve Babitz, in advance of Wasson, was already describing a film industry in decline when she wrote her essay “All This and The Godfather Too” in 1975. She explained what it was like to be a big actor on a big production in Los Angeles in the first half of the ’70s. “All of a sudden, out you step onto the lot at Paramount where huge empty soundstages testify to the glory that once was Hollywood—probably the glory that made you become an actor in the first place.” It is unclear why people like Babitz, Francis Ford Coppola, and the makers of Chinatown were so nostalgic when several major productions were filming on the Paramount lot at the time. The mid-to-late 1960s had been hard on Hollywood, and these filmmakers were reviving it. But they were part of a new generation dependent on venerating a “greatest generation” that came before them and whom they would supplant, in this case the studio filmmakers of Hollywood’s early sound era. The New Hollywood directors were perhaps the last generation who experienced any guilt pangs over their own success.

The Hollywood of the 1960s and early ’70s was steeped in nostalgia for the 1930s—films like 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover had already shown that. Now a hipper group of filmmakers had emerged to rewrite Hollywood history by putting into films all the sordid aspects of American life filmmakers could not include while working under the Hays Code, which was enforced between 1934 and 1968. Chinatown takes place in 1937, the year Nicholson was born, and in its mirror year 1973 things had begun to take on a hazy Depression-era cast in American pop culture. The looks of ’30s stars like Jean Harlow were a component of rock ’n’ roll glam and Hollywood style. In Chinatown, Nicholson’s costar Faye Dunaway is made to resemble Harlow, but a high-class version, part Katharine Hepburn (Katherine is the name of Dunaway’s daughter-sister in the film). Next door on the Paramount lot, John Schlesinger was shooting another ’30s period piece, an adaptation of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, the novel that is the ur-text of “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.” Such revisionist productions, steeped in glamour, sought to expose the way earlier Hollywood genre movies had for decades lied about the realities of American life.

Unlike its subjects, Wasson’s book indulges in a less inventive kind of nostalgia. It attempts to stop time the way Jake Gittes stops it in the movie when he places a pocket watch under a car’s tire so it will break when the car pulls away, freezing the hands in place under cracked glass. Wasson quotes Towne as remembering his youth in Southern California as a time “when one story spoke for everyone . . . sitting together at those sun-cooked redwood tables, cooling themselves with fresh-squeezed orange juice, all breathing the same salt air.” By the early ’70s, however, Wasson notes that “something had changed. A golden age had ended.” “Why?” he asks. While Wasson is too young to be pandering to baby boomers this way, he nevertheless lays it on thick, in slabs of poetic twilight. The book is written like the lyrics to the Roy Orbison song “It’s Over,” with a distinct tremolo that sings, like Orbison, of “golden days before they end” and “setting suns before they fall.”

Wasson has the film’s costume designer Anthea Sylbert muse to herself: “Can anyone say, with precision and certainty, when a golden age begins and ends?” It’s an impossible question to answer, so Wasson chooses instead to mourn a precious era that he claims has been lost, even though it never quite really existed. Here’s how he describes Polanski and Sharon Tate and their circle of friends: “They were golden, their friends were golden, and with so much gold to go around, all were happy at one another’s shine.” The prose often gets even more florid, and weirder, taking on a sicker hue when those who can’t share Wasson’s rosy view of Hollywood are invoked. Polanski, for instance, when thinking of Tate’s murder: “Where others saw crimson sunsets fade to pink, he could not stop her bleeding flesh from rotting to darkness.” While Chinatown was shooting and being cut, the Watergate hearings were broadcast on TV every day in an attempt to expose corruption in the White House. Wasson leaves it to Koch to note the coincidence in the zeitgeist. “We were making Chinatown the movie,” he says, “and America was becoming Chinatown the country.”

Wasson’s deep, abiding nostalgia seeks to replicate Chinatown’s noirish feel, but without any of the film’s revisionist approach to genre. Wasson sometimes goes for the California gothic of Ross Macdonald’s detective novels, but the way he writes is the opposite of hard-boiled. He’s too in love with soft focus. In one quote Wasson digs up, Polanski mentions Disney’s 1937 Snow White, a fitting title here. “What is it, corny or something?” Polanski asks. “But I just love this movie.” Similarly, Wasson’s book is corny. His grand elegy for the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s elides the more bitter truths found in similar revisionist films being made at the time. Robert Altman’s updated Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Long Goodbye, came out the year before Chinatown, and presumably that’s where Wasson got the title for his book, but the film is never mentioned.

A letter from Chandler, however, provides the book’s epigraph: “We still have dreams, but we know now that most of them will come to nothing. And we also most fortunately know that it really doesn’t matter.” This is the dead end of nostalgia that The Big Goodbye succumbs to and revels in. Appearing less than a year after Quentin Tarantino’s movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which also uses the murder of Sharon Tate as a springboard, Wasson’s book in 2020 is a doubly dated product. Tarantino, by making his film an imaginative rewrite of history, proved that there are ways to reinvent Hollywood filmmaking that go beyond its end, that don’t write the current cinema out of existence. He imagines a world where filmmaking continues to move forward, even when looking back at the past. For Wasson things are fixed in place: permanent, unchangeable, broken. Chinatown appeals to him for the same reasons. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” the famous last line of the film, explains what Towne, in an interview, called “the futility of good intentions.” This is Wasson’s overarching view, and beginning his book with the Chandler quote implies a “why bother?” attitude, as if nothing can be done about anything.

By the mid-1970s, the blockbuster cinema that began, according to Wasson, with Billy Jack, The Exorcist, and Jaws had taken over the film industry. After Chinatown, the post–Robert Evans regime at Paramount declined to make One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Nicholson when new executives like Don Simpson and Michael Eisner came to power, leaving it to the independent producer Saul Zaentz instead. Wasson explains that “Simpson didn’t believe in the auteur theory; he believed in cocaine.” Eisner, later head of Disney, sent everybody at Paramount a memo that read: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Wasson describes them as TV people, and quotes Nicholson on that medium. Television is “the cancer of film . . . the death instrument of our times.” Wasson implies that Nicholson is right, but he doesn’t go so far as to say whether we should accept his verdict. That is curious, because now that the existence of books like Wasson’s Fosse biography is a necessary precondition to the making of miniseries like Fosse/Verdon, we can probably expect a series based on The Big Goodbye. The book seems written for that purpose, with scads of descriptions of interiors that can function like lists for set decorators—Evans’s Georgian silver, his Etruscan art, his nudes by Jean Negulesco, Porthault bedsheets, Rigaud candles, on and on. Whole paragraphs are like screenplay scene descriptions, involving “smooth oak wainscoting, rose-print drapes around diamond-shaped windows, cherry-red carpeting.” It’s like watching an episode of Falcon Crest.

This extends to the action. A throwaway paragraph about Evans’s sometime houseguest Henry Kissinger, then the secretary of state, sitting in the living room as Evans’s butler serves him a drink reads: “Gilruth swoops in to light pine-scented candles and slip a coaster under Kissinger’s drink. Kissinger nods his thanks. Gilruth nods back. They’ve done this before.” Much of the book is written in short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs that seem pulled from the kind of teleplays Towne used to write before he wrote Chinatown: “Sharon Tate looked like California.” “He had sex. He partied.” “The present was the crime. The past was the clue.” This is like the evocation of TV shows in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but without Tarantino’s self-awareness.

As it turns out, some of Wasson’s subjects turned sour themselves, losing faith in the movies and hardening into sellouts and nostalgists. After Chinatown came out, Robert Towne felt that Hollywood cinema had reached a dead end because there was “nothing left to expose”—every corruption had now been seen in movies. At the same time, Nicholson, the smartest person in this book, a life force and an endless source of wry remarks, complained about a 1980s America gone bland. “Our country is becoming corrupted little by little by conglomeration and conglomerative thinking,” he pointed out, mentioning how every landscape along the highway was beginning to be dotted with the same restaurants and stores.

By that time he didn’t see any hope. “Baby, you or I ain’t going to change it,” he said. Here’s another place where Chinatown’s tragedy extends into the career of its star, the same way it did when a reporter in 1974 revealed to Nicholson that the woman he thought was his sister was really his mother, nearly replicating the film’s plot. By the end of the ’80s, Nicholson was playing the Joker in Batman, a film that producer Julia Phillips described as “the Trump Tower of movies.” He made a fortune off it, in addition to his multimillion-dollar salary, because he had points, which he did not have on Chinatown. He took the money, big heaping piles of it. Whether he was laughing or crying all the way to the bank Wasson doesn’t say. Crane up, fade out. Forget it, Jack. It’s comic books.

A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1
Books, 2018).