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The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

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4.01  ·  Rating details ·  333 ratings  ·  72 reviews
From the New York Times bestselling author of Fifth Avenue, Five A.M. and Fosse comes the revelatory account of the making of a modern American masterpiece

Chinatown is the Holy Grail of 1970s cinema. Its twist ending is the most notorious in American film and its closing line of dialogue the most haunting. Here for the first time is the incredible true story of its
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Hardcover, 416 pages
Published February 4th 2020 by Flatiron Books
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Still
Feb 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all fans of Hollywood foibles; Chinatown fanatics
Recommended to Still by: Janet Maslin review
Best book about movies that I've ever read.

Damned book about broke my heart a half dozen times.
I mean ...I almost shed real tears in parts of this... Nicholson finds out who his real mother is early on during the filming of Chinatown.
Shattering.

There's a part where Jack's with his girlfriend (the stunning Anjelica Huston) during the filming of the movie and meets her legendary father.
John Huston sucker punches Jack with a line Huston has as a character in the film.
Unforgettable sequence.

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Scott
Mar 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"[Screenwriter] Robert Towne once said that 'Chinatown' is a state of mind. Not just a place on the map of Los Angeles, but a condition of total awareness almost indistinguishable from blindness. Dreaming you're in paradise and waking up in the dark - that's Chinatown. Thinking you've got it figured out and realizing you're dead - that's Chinatown." -- the author, on page 2

'Lightning in a bottle' is a descriptively great - if sometimes overused - phrase that I think fits for explaining how
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Gary
Dec 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book won't be published until February, but I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an ARC. The first half was all about the writing of "Chinatown". Anyone who aspires to write screenplays or novels will benefit from discovering the narrative challenges that a successful script doctor struggled with when writing his first original screenplay. Although Robert Towne receives sole writing credit, I was surprised to learn how much Roman Polanski contributed to the finished script, including ...more
Kevin
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fans of Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and Mark Harris's "Pictures at the Revolution" will adore Sam Wasson's ("Improv Nation") superbly written history of the making of the 1974 noir classic "Chinatown". This Oscar-winning masterpiece was created by combining the talents of Jack Nicholson (in his first romantic leading man role), screenwriter Robert Towne (suffering from writers' block after spending two years writing Warren Beatty's "Shampoo"), producer Robert Evans (the new head ...more
John
Feb 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book. It captures perfectly the era that created the movie Chinatown and brings together with a real time feel the work done by the writer, director, actor, and movie executive to create art.

The book also takes you through the creative process and the actual nuts and bolts of making a movie right down to the jewelry and the color of the nail polish chosen for Faye Dunaway to wear in her scenes. I was simply amazed by Wassons efforts in this book to leave no stone
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Jason Allison
Feb 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Astonishing and unexpected. About so much more than a single, all-time great movie, Wasson brings the reader into the homes and minds of Hollywood legends. He explores Nicholson, Towne (who takes a bit of a beating), Bob Evans, Dunaway, Huston and Polanski, bookending the story with Sharon Tates murder and Romans conviction for statutory rape. He explains how The Exorcist and Jaws ruined Hollywoods appetite to make art and how the arrival of soulless executives like Don Simpson and Michael ...more
Jake
Mar 09, 2020 rated it liked it
Sometimes, its a good thing to sit on a review.

Normally, I try to get these out right away while the book is fresh in my mind. I dont want to forget the sensation of reading a novel, completing it, and giving my thoughts before its fully digested. The thrill of reading books is actually finishing the book and appreciating and/or critiquing the story Ive just received.

However, due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasnt able to get to this review until hours after I finished The Big Goodbye.
...more
Larry Aydlette
Feb 13, 2020 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the book -- and if you love Chinatown and the golden era of '70s movies, you will too, But it has the feel of a magazine article padded out to book length. Author Sam Wasson raises, in what I think is some original reporting, the idea that screenwriter Robert Towne may have had an uncredited friend helping him craft his scripts. But where Wasson really drops the ball is figuring out what Towne wrote and what Polanski re-wrote. Maybe it's too difficult to parse at this stage, beyond ...more
Michael Ritchie
Feb 14, 2020 rated it liked it
(3-1/2 stars) This is a big, messy book. Wasson presents lots of interesting facts and anecdotes about Chinatown, and Hollywood in the first half of the 70s. But it's also wildly disjointed at times. Though mostly told chronologically, there are odd jumps in the story; after pages and pages about the writing of Chinatown, suddenly we're told that it's being shot. Same thing when the shooting is over. Of the four main "characters" here (Robert Towne, Robert Evans, Roman Polanski and Jack ...more
David Keaton
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
An interesting dark mirror version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Sharon Tate gets murdered after all and everyone gets sad and takes it out on us through their art. The narrative follows four people; future Days of Thunder writer Robert Towne, future Jade producer Robert Evans, future rapist Roman Polanski, and future President Jack Nicholson (just like his movies, he gets all the best lines and comes out looking great even when he fucks up), who all drive each other crazy as they work ...more
Paul Wilner
Mar 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Sorry, I pass. Long story, but here are some thoughts:

The author presents a gushing, extremely favorable, treatment of Roman Polanski and Robert Evans, but trashes Robert Towne, apparently on the basis that Polanski allegedly
rewrote the ending to "Chinatown.'' (Towne had the good sense not to talk with him, though he got access interviews with the other players, including Jack Nicholson and Towne's ex-wife).

I think the claim is dubious - it's a collaborative medium, but the screenplay has RT's
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Randy Wilson
Chinatown is my favorite film. I remember the moment when I heard that last line, 'Forget it Jake it's Chinatown.' My spine tingled and I felt as if everything came together. Not just the film but the meaning of life. Now forty years on, I know better than to believe that films, even great films hand you wisdom on a silver platter. Nevertheless, that provides a glimpse of what Chinatown has meant to me.

I was excited about this book before I read it. I liked the idea that it wouldn't be only a
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Ed
Feb 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Any deep dive into a movie I love is welcomed but this doubles as a piece of Hollywood history through the eyes of Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson. There are some disturbing revelations as well as a sadness I felt when the book makes clear Chinatown was the end of an era. So the 70s didnt really last to 1975. Great. Wasson pulls no punches about these mens genius nor their horrific faults (some worse than others), which makes for the best historical records. He also ...more
Kevin
Feb 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very informative though I felt the author's style was unnecessarily distracting at times. His repetitive use of key phrases, like some kind of Greek chorus, felt a bit corny and didn't make a ton of sense. But overall an excellent look into the nightmarish world of Hollywood filmmaking.
Randy
Feb 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Hold on! The books meticulousness really takes a hit on p. 274 of the hardcover. It erroneously states that Cabaret won best picture over The Godfather. What! No! If the author or his fact checkers missed this obvious error... Otherwise, a very entertaining book but now qualified by a dose of skepticism as to its factual accuracy. ...more
Max Gross
Feb 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very absorbing. One of the best illustrations of how great art is almost always a happy accident.
Niklas Pivic
Feb 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a book about a state of mind: Chinatown, not to be confused with a physical locale. It is also a book about the persons who made Chinatown, the film, and how they affected others. Additionally, the book is one big sign-o-the-times of the 1970s.

The main players are Robert Towne, scriptwriter extraordinaire, Roman Polanski, prodigal director and mess, Robert Evans, film-studio exec-cum-playboy, and Jack Nicholson, Hollywood noveau-golden-age Goose.

The book reminds me of Peter Biskinds
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Nick
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
As others have indicated, this book concerns itself with the making of the movie Chinatown as told through the trials and tribulations of Robert Towne, Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson, and Roman Polanski, both personally and professionally. It also deals with the movie business: what it was, its condition in the Seventies, and what it was to become in the future. Author Sam Wasson put in a lot of time and effort into writing this and it shows, for better and for worse. First off, theres enough name ...more
Jason Coleman
Mar 28, 2020 rated it liked it
For us Chinatown nuts, Wasson comes up with some good stuff. He provides what is in effect a mini-biography of screenwriter Robert Towne, and takes us into the conception and composition of this most acclaimed of screenplaysa torturous process that saw several drafts of crazy permutations, with the prep and detail of an 800-page noveland makes it clear that director Roman Polanski and Towne's old buddy and story nerd Ed Taylor made invaluable, game-changing contributions. There's a great bit on ...more
Adam
Mar 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I admit I am a total sucker for in-depth books on the making of a single film, but even with that caveat, Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye is fantastic. It's the perfect confluence of a nimble, stylish writer, a classic, near-perfect film, and a beloved era in cinema, right before the money became too big for the capitalists and corporations to ignore. The result is an utterly engrossing, well-researched read, packed with memorable anecdotes. The sections on the writing and production of the film ...more
Schuyler Wallace
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it


At last, I thought. Perhaps Sam Wasson in his new book, The Last Goodbye, will explain the paradoxes and controversies that have surrounded Chinatown, the 1970s movie that has divided the affection of moviegoers ever since its release. Huge in scope, magnificent in its technical aspects, and featuring characters larger than life with vivid performances from actors of astounding talent, it has never ascended to the classic movie status it tried so hard to achieve. I loved the movie and have
...more
Jeff Francis
Feb 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: film, non-fiction
Transcending what could have been a mere trivia deep-dive, Sam Wassons The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood tells not only the story of 1974s Chinatown but also a more expansive, character-driven story of a specific time and place.

The place is obviously Hollywood, but the time is more ambiguous, and not about dates at all. The Big Goodbyes power lies in a paradox: its about a kind-of countercultural Golden Age in movies, but the very point of said Golden Age is how much it
...more
Glen Helfand
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Movies seep into us differently than books. The colors, the faces of actors are actual, they are images and moments we recall as filtered through our memories. We can, of course, see Polanski's "Chinatown" streaming tonight, as I intend to do after finishing this engrossing and impressively researched telling of its making. For those who saw the film however many years ago, Wasson's book offers an illuminating, humanizing narrative, and the characters who made the movie, Roman Polanski, Jack ...more
John Spiller
Feb 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
"The Big Goodbye" explores the making of "Chinatown" from the primary perspectives of four men who are famously associated with the movie: Robert Towne (writer), Roman Polanski (director), Robert Evans (producer), and Jack Nicholson (actor). In Wasson's telling, Towne creates the source material, Evans serves as the catalyst, and Polanski and Nicholson shape and bring the creation to life.

Wasson seems to have had extensive access to Polanski, so "The Big Goodbye" provides a preponderance of the
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Alan Kaplan
Mar 12, 2020 rated it liked it
The Big Goodbye is the story of the making of Chinatown in the early 1970's, an era that I remember well. A general adage is that no one would want to watch sausages or laws being made. I guess the same can be said for movies. Wasson describes chaos bordering on anarchy during the pre production and production of Chinatown. I have seen the movie and it is OK, not the Hollywood classic that Wasson describes. While Robert Towne's script is recognized as one of the greatest scripts in Hollywood ...more
Larry
Mar 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
I have so many feelings about this book. Overall I liked it quite a bit, as can be discerned from my rating. But there are also things about it that I really didn't care for. (Primarily, the author's writing style. At times he romanticizes things with odd stylistic choices, and language.)

That being said, for fans of Hollywood, and particularly for fans of the movie Chinatown, this is a great read. The book provides fascinating insights, and not all of them favorable, into the cast of characters
...more
Lloyd Fassett
Feb 21, 2020 marked it as to-read
2/21/20 Found it through the Wall St. Journal. Absolutely loved the movie and the short piece Robert Townsend, the screenwriter, wrote about how he wrote it on Catalina Island. It was an amazing time of cinema where it was less data-driven in how investment decisions were made. Now it's all algorithm come thriller billion-dollar things that don't appeal to me. I find it interesting the Coen Brothers and movies like Parasite can be made, much less get the Best Film Oscar in 2020. Who ...more
Mauberley
An exceptional book for all who are interested in learning how a film gets made. And what a film it was. Wasson focuses on four very flawed men who created what I have no hesitation in describing as a masterpiece. Robert Townes's angry and frightened ex-wife is a key source for the author and it is perhaps not surprising that his artistic contribution is most severely called into question, particularly as regards the contributions of his late partner, Edward Taylor. (Evans also contributed to ...more
Campbell Andrews
Feb 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Catnip for Chinatown & 70s movie fans, dovetails nicely with Sharon Tate as conjured by Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. New interviews with Evans, ex-Mrs. Towne (RIP both), Polanski- but not Jack. What impresses is the alchemy of genius that produced this masterwork, how it took everyone and nobody was sure it would work. Wasson knows not to overanalyze but he can't resist digs at some of the greats' work following the period- the Shining is "fluff?" That narrative just fits too ...more
Marshall
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Big Goodbye is an elegy to US moviemaking in the early 70s, when Rosemarys Baby, The Godfather movies and others were being made. It was a time when movies were made for grownups and high school was not the seminal event chronicled in film after film. This era, which began with Easy Rider, ended as soon as it became clear that movies could once again be reduced to a banal formula.

Chinatown has the reputation of being the best screenplay and this book shows just what it takes to turn out a
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SAM WASSON is the author of the New York Times bestseller Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M .: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman and two works of film criticism. He is a visiting professor of film at Wesleyan University.

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