Screenwriter + Star + Producer + Director = A Great Film
Jack Nicholson gives a brilliant performance in the film noir Chinatown (1974), which often appears in lists of the best movies ever made. Robert Towne's script is considered by many to be The Great American Screenplay and is frequently studied by aspiring screenwriters. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and Towne won Best Original Screenplay. Nicholson was nominated for Best Actor, but the Academy chose to give the Oscar to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto.
The producer of Chinatown was Robert Evans when he was head of production at Paramount. Other famous films he produced include The Odd Couple, Rosemary's Baby, Love Story and The Godfather. Married and divorced seven times, with two of his ex-wives being Ali MacGraw and Phyllis George, Evans wrote a lively memoir titled The Kid Stays in the Picture, which was made into a movie.
Roman Polanski, whose best-known films include Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist, directed Chinatown. But Polanski's personal life has also made headlines. In 1969 his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered in the Hollywood Hills by followers of Charles Manson. In the late 1970s, Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with an underage girl in Los Angeles, fled the United States and became a fugitive from American law enforcement.
The Chinatown Special Collector's Edition DVD provides 54 minutes of 2007 interviews with Towne, Nicholson, Polanski and Evans.
A Complicated Private Eye Yarn With Killer Dialogue
Chinatown's protagonist is a private detective named Jake Gittes (Nicholson), and he is in every scene. Jake is hired to investigate an extramarital affair, but soon finds himself caught up in a web of deceit and violence. The world he moves through is very confusing, and at one point he's warned, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."
In the course of his investigation, Jake has his nose slit by goons, gets involved with a woman (Faye Dunaway) and meets a tycoon (John Huston) who explains he is respectable because he's old: "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
Jake finally fights his way to an understanding of what he's dealing with, but by then it's too late. He is stunned that four people have died and a fifth faces a horrifying future. He set out to make things better, but only made them worse. Jake's final words in the film indicate that he at last realizes what he should have done: "As little as possible."
Although the last six minutes of the movie take place in Chinatown, the name represents more a state of mind than a location. For Jake, Chinatown is an enigmatic place where "you can't always tell what's going on." In the film's final minute, when Jake is appalled at how miserably everything has turned out, one of his operatives tries to help him come to terms with what has happened by saying, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Water and Real Estate in a City on the Edge of a Desert
Chinatown does a marvelous job of capturing the feel of old Los Angeles, and Towne based his screenplay in part on history. But he took artistic license in creating his work of fiction: he scrambled the facts so much it would require tenacious scholarly research to sort everything out. For example, the movie is set in 1937, yet some of the film's events are more like those that actually occurred two or three decades earlier.
In Chinatown, L.A. residents are manipulated into voting for a bond issue that will bring water from far away, but that water won't be used where the voters live. Instead, it will go to an unincorporated area just outside L.A. known in the movie as the Northwest Valley. Fat cats are buying up tracts in the Valley, and they will make big bucks when land values there skyrocket. Then the fat cats plan to make even more money by getting the L.A. city limits extended so that the Valley will end up inside them. Towne has a tycoon encapsulate this mind-boggling scheme by saying, "Either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water."
The astonishing thing is that Towne based this part of his fictional tale on historical events that transpired in the early 1900s. It's essentially the real-life story of how most of the San Fernando Valley became part of the city of Los Angeles in 1915.
The Water Engineer Who Became an L.A. Celebrity
A key figure in the transformation of L.A. from a small, sleepy outpost to a sprawling, teeming metropolis was William Mulholland (1855-1935). A water engineer, he devoted himself for years to bringing into existence the extensive system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that supported L.A.'s rapid growth. His achievements gained him wide recognition, influence and financial success. There's a famous L.A. thoroughfare, Mulholland Drive, that bears his name.
In Chinatown, the relatively minor character Hollis Mulwray is a highly fictionalized version of Mulholland. But Towne presents the fictional Mulwray as a good man who always tries to do the right thing, while the real-life Mulholland was heavily involved in questionable activities that ultimately tarnished his reputation. The principal charge against Mulholland is that he turned the Owens Valley into a wasteland by draining all its water for use in the San Fernando Valley. But the tragedy of what happened to the Owens Valley and its residents lies outside the scope of Chinatown's story.
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