Stylish non-fic­tion book in­ves­ti­gates ‘Chinatown’ and lost Hol­ly­wood

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Read - BY DOU­GLASS K. DANIEL

Quentin Tarantino’s ha­gio­graphic “Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood” keeps 1960s Los An­ge­les swing­ing by wish­ing away the bru­tal mur­der of ac­tress Sharon Tate. In the real world, the trauma to the close-knit film com­mu­nity sig­ni­fied the end of an era both per­son­ally and cul­tur­ally.

With great style and lyri­cism, Sam Was­son’s non­fic­tion ac­count of the mak­ing of the neo-noir classic “Chinatown” (1974) fo­cuses on four of Tin­sel­town’s denizens on the cusp of re­al­iz­ing their Cal­i­for­nia dreams when the Man­son fam­ily un­leashed its night­mare.

As neigh­bors armed them­selves with guns and dogs, screen­writer Robert Towne cast a nos­tal­gic eye on the pre­war L.A. of his youth as he con­ceived a de­tec­tive story for his best friend, Jack Nicholson, in his first star­ring ro­man­tic role. The idea of a throw­back mys­tery even­tu­ally cap­tured the in­ter­est of Para­mount’s brash pro­duc­tion head, Robert Evans, af­firmed by the suc­cess of “The God­fa­ther.” In turn, Evans brought in his di­rec­tor from an­other hit, “Rose­mary’s Baby,” Roman Polan­ski, also Tate’s wid­ower.

If the Os­car-win­ning “Chinatown” is in­deed “the best Amer­i­can screen­play writ­ten dur­ing the ’70s,” Was­son does it justice by fol­low­ing Towne’s method of con­struct­ing finely de­tailed, lively back­sto­ries of all char­ac­ters, ma­jor and mi­nor.

The four main an­tag­o­nists are vividly portrayed: Evans, the schmoozer with taste; Towne, the down­trod­den writer; Nicholson, the charmer lead­ing a charmed life; and Polan­ski, the au­teur cursed to lose his preg­nant mother to the Nazis and his preg­nant wife to the Man­son fam­ily. By com­par­i­son, short shrift is given to Faye Du­n­away, bril­liant as the femme fa­tale but high main­te­nance be­hind the cam­eras.

Was­son’s book con­cludes with a slog through the per­sonal and pro­fes­sional de­clines of those who achieved ca­reer peaks with “Chinatown.” He should have em­u­lated its noir cli­max: The truth is re­vealed, the vic­tim pun­ished, the cor­rupt ab­solved, the hero chas­tened. The cam­era pulls up and away in an end­ing crane shot as we trudge into the dark­ness to pon­der a story well told and fraught with mean­ing. Roll cred­its.

The Big Good­bye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hol­ly­wood

By Sam Was­son, Flat­iron, 416 pages, $28.99

Flat­iron via AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.