Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye celebrates the movie Chinatown and laments Hollywood

John Huston, left, and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Picture: Supplied
John Huston, left, and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Picture: Supplied
  • The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson. Faber, $39.99.

This is an excellent book on the making of a film. It's up there with classics like Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and the book that might have kicked off the genre, Lilian Ross's Picture about John Huston film's The Red Badge of Courage.

The Big Goodbye is also, like Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls , a celebration of the 1970s as a high point of Hollywood quality and a lament for what happened afterwards.

Sam Wasson's earlier subjects include the life of film and stage director-choreographer Bob Fosse. The Big Goodbye's title aptly references The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, two of the private-eye novels by Raymond Chandler, with their vivid Los Angeles flavour and melancholy air of loss.

Paramount production chief Robert Evans offered screenwriter Robert Towne (The Last Detail) the opportunity to adapt The Great Gatsby. Instead the writer pitched him a less lucrative original idea he had based on corrupt dealings in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Chinatown (1974) is one of the films that helped give 1970s cinema its high reputation. It's a "neo-noir" set in 1930s Los Angeles. Private investigator J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) meets Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) and becomes embroiled in a case involving corruption, murder and dark family secrets. Veteran writer, director and occasional actor Huston,whose directorial debut was The Maltese Falcon (1941), plays Evelyn's father, Noah Cross.

Wasson focuses initially on key figures Nicholson, Polanski, Towne and Evans. Polanski's mother died in the Holocaust and his wife Sharon Tate was killed in the Manson murders. Wasson theorises this contributed to the darkness of his world view and made him crucial to the success of Chinatown.

Books like this can be shaped, or skewed, by who takes part. Wasson spoke with Polanski and the late Evans and Towne's ex-wife. According to Wasson in a Vanity Fair interview, Towne and Nicholson declined to participate (though there was plenty of earlier material from them on which to draw) and Dunaway wanted money.This might be one reason why Dunaway comes off badly, despite praise of her talent. Stories of her difficult behaviour on film sets are many (one anonymous crew member cited here said Dunaway refused to flush her own toilet). Nicholson, by contrast, comes off as well-liked, loyal and unpretentious.

Wasson also appears to accept Polanski's claim that he wrote much of Chinatown, not just his acknowledged alteration of the ending to make it darker. Granted, Towne's screenplay was overlong and too complicated and Polanski worked with him to cut and shape it, a common writer-director relationship. But it was Towne who received sole credit and won an Oscar (the only one the film received out of 11 nominations). Whatever the truth, it's the film that matters.

One interesting thing we learn about Towne is he had a longtime, uncredited writing partner, though the extent of the latter's contribution to Chinatown is unclear. Another important figure Wasson highlights is production designer Richard Sylbert, who had worked with Polanski on Rosemary's Baby. Sylbert's influence was extensive and he was Evans' anointed successor as production chief at Paramount.

There are some oft-told tales here, like Polanski abruptly plucking an errant hair from Dunaway's head before a shot, further damaging an already fraught relationship. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez began the film but was soon replaced by John Alonzo. Veteran Jerry Goldsmith composed and recorded a new score in 10 days after the first was dumped.

Wasson thinks Chinatown represented the pinnacle of Hollywood cinema of the 1970s before things declined. Nicholson would often succumb to lazy acting and inflated salary demands. Evans left Paramount and Sylbert only lasted a few years. Polanski fled to Europe permanently after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Towne never wrote a film as good. Chinatown's belated sequel, The Two Jakes, co-produced by Evans, written by Towne and directed by and starring Nicholson, was a flop.

He's overstating things: Hollywood has always been about money and in the 1970s there was a lot of rubbish, like the star-studded disaster movies. There were still plenty of excellent Hollywood movies after Chinatown like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (for which Nicholson won his first Oscar) and Network (for which Dunaway won her Oscar). But Wasson is right that studios increasingly sought megahits.

Wasson indulges in some overwrought prose and there's at least one glaring error (Cabaret did not win the 1972 best picture Oscar). But this doesn't detract from his achievement. This is a book worthy of its subject.

This story Celebrating a 1970s film classic first appeared on The Canberra Times.