BY ANDREW MOODY
Millennial audiences see 70s movies as “old movies”, there are many that have never even heard of Chinatown, let alone obsess about how this could well be the most perfect film, above all of the masterpieces New Hollywood threw up in that decade before Star Wars mega bucks and cocaine took over the film industry.
Back in the early 1970s, Hollywood was going through a revolution. Television had stolen audiences away from the big screen, and the major studios had misjudged what people wanted to see. Unlikely box office hits from the late sixties such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) had the studio heads feeling out of touch with the youth market, and willing to pass creative control onto a generation fresh from film schools who had escaped the draft to Vietnam and wanted to make a new kind of film. A year before Spielberg invented the high concept blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and a year after William Friedkin made The Exorcist (1973) which signalled the corporations that big money could be made out in Los Angeles, four men came together to make Chinatown (1974). 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 and realising you’re dead- that’s Chinatown.”
Director Roman Polanski had already suffered a life filled with unimaginable horror. Surviving the Nazi purges in Poland as a boy, a mother who died in Auschwitz, and the pregnant love of his life Sharon Tate brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969, he brought to Chinatown an apocalyptic world view, where the heroes lost, evil won, and God had died in the holocaust.
Producer Robert Evans, a mere 36 years old when he was made head of production at Paramount, had heard a pitch from screenwriter Robert Towne about a movie starring his good friend Jack Nicholson as a private detective in 1930’s Los Angeles. Intrigued, he optioned the still unfinished screenplay. Plagued with sciatica, his favourite weapon as a producer was the telephone, his second favourite was cocaine. Waking late each day, Evans would prop himself up in his king sized bed, surrounded by scripts, and go to work, calling and receiving calls throughout the day, before inviting the cream of Hollywood talent to private screenings in his pool, dailies of his latest movies. A famous non reader, Evans knew that the best producers knew when to step back and let the talent take over. With Jane Fonda as the first choice for Evelyn Mulwray, the production eventually settled for Faye Dunaway, who was notoriously difficult on set and who the crew hated by the end of filming. At one point she threw a cup of urine into Polanski’s face because he was enraged at the constant delays.
Early screenings of the movie were met with contempt, mainly based on the film score which drowned out the subtlety of the picture. Robert Evans called up composer Jerry Goldsmith who delivered a noir inspired score that captured the doom laden proceedings perfectly in time for release.
Nominated for multiple Oscars, winner of only one for Robert Towne’s screenplay (a script that had many parents) 1974 was the year of The Godfather Part Two, which won Best Picture and Best Director, beating Evans and Polanski.
In the post digital era that we currently populate, movies aren’t made the same way, with a ferocity of passion that makes the audience experience something transcendental. The Woke generation are too busy tearing down the statues and icons of the past to stop and listen to what the past has to tell us. As Peter Fonda laments at the climax of Easy Rider, now over fifty years old:
We blew it.
Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.
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