Review: ‘The Big Goodbye’ by Sam Wasson

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(The following review contains spoilers of the movie “Chinatown.”)

In the 1974 film “Chinatown,” Chinatown is symbolic of a case that went wrong for private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a situation in which the bad guys won. The movie, of course, ends on a similar downbeat note, with Gittes’ lover dead, her father’s crime unpunished, and the overall swindle portrayed in the movie – city moguls getting rich by stealing water and real estate from the edges of the Los Angeles Basin – essentially covered up. Justice is not done.

As Gittes’ colleague tells him, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Sam Wasson’s book about the film, “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood,” suffers from its own issues. The middle section, in which Wasson chronicles the making of the film itself, is terrific, rich with details about Roman Polanski’s direction, Robert Towne’s wrestling with the script (and with Polanski), and Jack Nicholson’s rise to leading man.

But Wasson’s attempt to frame the film as the heart of a book about the “last years of Hollywood” – in other words, putting it in the context of the ‘70s golden age – falls flat amid his purple prose. It’s as if he’s trying to shoehorn a story about the rise and fall of artistic Hollywood – a story already better told (if, perhaps, embellished) in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” – into a nuts-and-bolts tale about “Chinatown.”

Is the context necessary? Absolutely. But not to this extent.

Wasson builds his book around four men – Polanski, Towne, Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans. Polanski was a European wunderkind who’d had great success with “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), produced by Evans. But he was also a tragic figure: A Holocaust survivor only a year into his marriage with Sharon Tate when she was killed by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969. The horrific murder made Polanski paranoid and caused him to flee America for a time. “Chinatown” was a chance to make a comeback in the Hollywood system.

Towne was a known screenwriter but mainly considered a script doctor – good for punching up others’ works, painfully slow with his own. “Chinatown” had been inspired by 1930s mysteries and a history of Los Angeles he’d stumbled upon while procrastinating. Though the finished script is now considered a model of the form, Wasson reveals that a good deal of it was, perhaps, crafted by Polanski, or an unsung pal of Towne’s, Edward Taylor.

Nicholson was an old friend of Towne’s and, thanks to his early-‘70s stardom, was instrumental in getting Towne’s script for “The Last Detail” (1973) made, which helped smooth the way for “Chinatown” itself. And Evans was the head of Paramount Pictures, a bon vivant who loved the movies and was riding a hot streak that had rescued the studio from bankruptcy.

All this background is interesting, but Wasson spends too much time getting it going, particularly with his miniature biography of Polanski.

More interesting are the supporting characters, as supporting characters often are: Taylor, a mysterious academic who never asked for credit; twin brother designers Richard and Paul Sylbert, and Paul’s wife, costume designer Anthea Sylbert; the bombastic Charles Bluhdorn, head of Paramount parent Gulf + Western (one of these days I’ll have to read a bio of Bluhdorn, profane and vicious and hilarious); and Julie Payne, Towne’s wife. It’s obvious that Wasson couldn’t get an interview with Towne or Nicholson, so he relies heavily on clips and others to paint their pictures. The portrayals are fair-minded, but Wasson sometimes seems to be papering over what he’s missing.

The making of “Chinatown” itself, once it gets going, is a fascinating tug-of-war between Polanski – who wants a darker, more menacing film – and Towne, who prefers something more romantic and elegiac. Wasson credits Polanski with streamlining Towne’s story, which was close to 400 pages in its original form. (Scripts usually run a minute per page.)

He also offers some nice moments, such as explaining how Polanski had a prop knife for the Nicholson nose-cutting scene (rumors that he really cut Nicholson are false, though Polanski did do several takes – a trademark of his that drove actors crazy); how Evans would host friends at his prized mansion to talk movies and deals; and how composer Jerry Goldsmith came in at the 11th hour to rescue the film with his score.

Up to release, insiders still thought the film would fail – it was too dense, too different. But it managed to capture the zeitgeist, with the doom of the gas crisis and Watergate, and became a big hit.

Wasson could have ended the book here, with perhaps a chapter about the principals’ post-“Chinatown” lives, but again, he’s determined to gild the lily, taking his time with stories about their downfalls, until by the time he gets to “The Two Jakes” – “Chinatown’s” much-anticipated 1990 sequel – even he seems bored by his theme.

Wasson also falters with some occasional details. The Bee Gees were nowhere near disco in 1973, certainly not symbolic of a post-hippie America. And he practically paints Nicholson as someone going through the motions between the late ‘70s and the late ‘80s, a period when Nicholson made “Reds,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” and “Broadcast News.” If Nicholson occasionally engaged in self-parody – Wasson is critical of “The Shining” – it wasn’t for lack of trying something different.

But still, what’s most disappointing about “The Big Goodbye” is that there’s a terrific story about “Chinatown” amid a lot of exposition about its makers. Too bad, because it could have been a tight, less sprawling work that still would have made its point. Perhaps he needed someone to streamline it.

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Review: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by Charles L. Granata

Wouldn’t it Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s this word, “serviceable.” It means adequate; OK; decent; unremarkable.

That’s pretty much Charles L. Granata’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” about the making of the 1966 Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds.”

Granata did his research. He either interviewed many of the notables of the era — particularly lyricist Tony Asher, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, drummer Hal Blaine and songwriter Jimmy Webb — or dug into old interviews with Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Capitol Records’ Nik Venet. He’s obviously listened to the album — need I mention it’s one of the all-time classics? — and its raw tapes dozens of times. He knows his Beach Boys history and his pop history and, when necessary, his Southern California history.

But the book, while informative, doesn’t sing. And I have to admit that disappoints me, because if it’s one thing “Pet Sounds” does, it’s sing.

I love the Beatles and I adore the Kinks, but I don’t know if any person’s music transports me like Brian Wilson’s. I actually keep a list of songs I want played at my funeral, which I hope is many years from now; the only group with more than one song on it is the Beach Boys. (“God Only Knows” and “Surf’s Up,” if you’re wondering.) His songs have a vulnerability, a delicacy, a fragility that resonates in my heart like nobody else’s music.

What’s that line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Writing about Brian Wilson’s music is like trying to describe Fallingwater by sitting on a brick. Perhaps there are writers lyrical enough to pull it off — I’m assuredly not one of them — but Granata’s style is a journalistic collection of quotes and facts. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not like listening to “God Only Knows.”

I did that while reading, of course.

And that’s where I appreciate Granata’s straightforward style. I could hear the song, but I didn’t know about the particular instrumental arrangements, or how the group worked out their vocal harmonies, or how Gold Star Studios sounded different from Columbia. Granata also took the time to track down the French horn player and the Theremin guy (in fact, Granata pointed out the difference between the original Theremin and the instrument played on “Pet Sounds,” which is the Electro-Theremin). For that, I’m thankful.

So read “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” for the information. Then grab a copy of “Pet Sounds” — you do own one, don’t you? — and listen. Listen. Listen.

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