“It’s set in Chinatown?”
“No. Chinatown is a state of mind.”
“A love state of mind?”
“The detective’s fucked-up state of mind.”
Screenwriter Robert Towne’s pitch to producer Robert Evans perfectly captures the essence of Chinatown. And The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson, perfectly captures the making of that extraordinary film. He recounts the on-set tensions between Faye Dunaway and the crew (“They hated her”), a melodramatic play-fight between director Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson (“They were down to their underwear, screaming at each other”), and the creation of the film’s legendary ending (“a grand crane-up evokes a lost Hollywood—most famously the last shot of Casablanca”).
Wasson’s account is bookended by two notorious scandals in Polanski’s life: the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate; and his conviction for the rape of an underage girl. As with most five-star classics, Chinatown’s production history is broadly familiar from previous memoirs and documentaries, though The Big Goodbye is already being justifiably acclaimed as one of the best making-of books ever written.