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The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood Hardcover – February 4, 2020
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A New York Times bestselling book
"The wondrous thing about Sam Wasson’s new book is that it feels both necessary and inevitable - as if Chinatown couldn’t (or shouldn’t) exist without it. Reading The Big Goodbye, something strange happens: it acquires the historical, dizzying, incestuous gravitas of the film itself. Wasson has a habit of making vividly thematic, compassionately revelatory art." - Bruce Wagner, author of Force Majeure and I Met Someone
"Sam Wasson has written a smart, human and utterly engaging book about an iconic American movie. With its rich depiction of 1970s Hollywood, The Big Goodbye is grounded in marvelous reportorial detail and moves with novelistic urgency." - Julie Salamon, author of The Devil's Candy and An Innocent Bystander
“A fascinating dive into Hollywood”
―Maureen Dowd, New York Times
“Chinatown (1974) was a watershed moment in a colorful era of American filmmaking. Wasson looks past the myth to tell the true story of its making.”
―USA Today, “Winter Reading Guide: This Season’s Must-Read Books”
“If you love Chinatown, then you’ll love The Big Goodbye―and it’s good reading for any American cinema buff.”
“Inimitable Wasson…argues convincingly that Chinatown was one of the last great Hollywood films… this portrait of a neonoir classic will cast a spell over cinephiles.”
―Library Journal, starred review
"Wasson…is one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood lore. And he has truly outdone himself this time." – The New York Times
“Wasson’s fascinating and page-turning description of the talent and ideas behind “Chinatown” is more than a mere biography of a landmark movie.” – Los Angeles Times
"It’s impossible not to fall for this love letter to a love letter that pastes together the often sticky collage of how talent plus perseverance can equal a classic film." – The Associated Press
"It’s the definitive book on Chinatown." – Vanity Fair
“[THE BIG GOODBYE] is as fine an unwrapping of the moviemaking process as I’ve read.” – Airmail
The Big Goodbye is a graceful and worthwhile elegy to a time dear to those who are lucky enough to remember it…It will be hard to find a better film book published this year. – PopMatters.com
The Big Goodbye is a fun and insightful read about the business of Hollywood and the complex, creative process. – Coachella Valley Weekly
An absorbing account of the making of ‘Chinatown’…Wasson is a stylish chronicler of Hollywood politics…”The Big Goodbye” evokes the care that went into every frame. – The Economist
“densely textured, well-researched… …Film fans will love the behind-the-scenes access to movie town legends, and buffs will relish the details. If you need to know the typewriter brand used by Towne, the reason Nicholson was called “The Weaver” when young, or the designer frock worn by Anjelica Huston at the Oscars, this is the book for you.” – The Sunday Times
"Cultural historian Sam Wasson swims in the muddy making of the 1974 film, the messy lives of its four main players, and the murky chronicles of L.A.’s studio system and the municipal water wars to produce a page-turner as suspenseful and spellbinding as the Raymond Chandler novel from which the book takes its name." – The AV Club
“Hollywood stories are hardly in short supply, but Sam Wasson can be trusted for some juicy, compelling discoveries. His latest investigates the making of Chinatown…his innovative approach: and assembly of mini-biographies of Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, and more, each packed with intriguing revelations.” – Entertainment Weekly
"Sam Wasson does a wonderful job with this book... beautiful [and] meticulously researched." - CBS This Weekend
"Wasson’s book, which is compellingly told and meticulously researched, tells the story of the origins and making of Chinatown, and of the studio that produced it, Paramount, which was saved from collapse by the dynamism of its young head of production, Robert Evans. " - the Irish Times
"Sam Wasson's forensic account of Hollywood history in transition offers good reasons to revisit Chinatown's oft-visited depths...his insights are sharp enough to slit your nose...Wasson crystallizes a fleeting filmmaking moment at its departure point and leaves us marvelling anew that is ever came to be." - Total Film
"This is an exceptional film book, far more than the production history of Chinatown, and so vividly written you will want to seek out the work of Wasson's previous studies...Wasson writing about Los Angeles with the same love and diligence Towne brought to the script...I exclaimed aloud more than once, and even welled up over the final page. The Big Goodbye is worthy of Chinatown, this unforgettable movie―high praise indeed. - Sight and Sound
"This scrupulously researched and reported book is about not just a cinematic masterpiece but the glorious lost Hollywood in which that movie was born." - The New York Times, 10 Books We Recommend This Week
"In author Sam Wasson's meticulous new book "The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood," the film historian ("Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.") turns his eye to the minds behind one of the greatest, bleakest films ever to come out of the studio system. Delving into the lives of screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, star Jack Nicholson and director Polanski, he reveals the inspirations behind the film, as well as the aftershocks it left. And he makes it clear why "Chinatown's" themes of corruption and abuse of power have never seemed more painfully topical."- Salon.com
"A big, chewy read, with talented, larger-than-life rogues stalking its pages ― men with names like Nicholson, Evans, Towne, Polanski. It evokes nostalgia for a movie that used nostalgia as a weapon, and it reminds a reader, once again, of how the works we take for classics came close to never happening." - Boston Globe
"The hottest new book about the movie business... [it]presents a vivid picture of a key moment in Hollywood history as well as the gripping odyssey of a writer struggling to convert his vision into great cinema." - Deadline
"There is no greater treat than Sam Wasson's new book... a completely fascinating account, filed with intriguing new information of the making of one of the undeniably great films of the modern era." - LA Times
USA Today “5 Books Not to Miss” and “Must-Read Books of Winter 2020”
Entertainment Weekly “20 Books to Read in February” and “50 Most Anticipated Books of 2020”
DailyBreak.com “These 10 Books of February are Like a Box of Premium Chocolates”
Houston Chronicle “Eagerly Anticipated Reads of 2020”
Financial Times “2020 Vision: The Year Ahead in Books”
Kirkus Reviews “New Year’s Reading Resolution List”
The Criterion Collection’s The Current “November Books Roundup”
Connecticut Post "Sit, stay and Read"
Minneapolis Star-Tribune's "10 Books For At-Home Entertainment During Quarantine."
About the Author
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The next night, I did it again.
Be warned: you may also get lost in Sam Wasson’s book — it is that good. Yes, I’m a sometime screenwriter, and “Chinatown” is one of my favorite movies, and I taught it to my NYU students every year, and I interviewed the reclusive Robert Towne for New York Magazine, so I come with a bias. I’m not alone: Francis Ford Coppola called it “the de facto blueprint for aspiring screenwriters, a platonic ideal of both structure and style taught as a template around the world.” Wearing my screenwriter’s hat, I can knowledgeably report that this is the best film book any film lover is likely to read this year. For others? Maybe one of the best non-fiction books of the year.
“The Big Goodbye” is much, much more than the inside, untold story of that 1974 classic.
Chinatown, for those who know the film, is a metaphor. For Los Angeles, once a desert, now an irrigated suburbia. For power, which makes gods of the rich. And for a moral fog overhanging a city that advertises its virtues and conceals its vices. It’s a great book about LA in 1937, and a great book about us right now — as Towne has written, “There are some crimes for which you get punished, and there are some crimes that our society isn’t equipped to punish, and so we reward the criminals” — and it has a lot more to feed your head than most of the punditry now passing for wisdom. In case you don’t totally understand the end of the movie (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”), 331 pages will hammer that sorry truth home.
Yes, but what about the stories — the dish on Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, producer Robert Evans, and the film’s creator, screenwriter Robert Towne? The book is a blow by blow account — literally: cocaine is a minor character here — of the genesis of the film, the shooting, the post-production, and the studio machinations. Like: Towne, who ever since he was 18, took a small dose of amphetamines every morning to give himself a “jump start.” (A solitary genius? Towne had a uncredited partner who worked with him almost every day.) Like, on the first day of shooting, Bob Evans showed up on a stretcher, and Polanski, usually supremely confident, threw up. Like the film score that was so wrong it was scrapped ten days before the premiere. And a million details, so interwoven that you feel Wasson talked to everyone; in fact, Nicholson and Dunaway gave no interviews. [You can understand why when you read this about Dunaway: “The crew finally did turn against Dunaway, and her delusions came true. They hated her. She regarded their every creative impulse with suspicion… Polanski saw signs of an actress who hadn’t prepared… A strand of Dunaway’s hair caught the light in the middle of shooting a scene, he called cut, and summoned her hairdresser to smooth it down… in the next take the hair popped up again and Polanski reached over and plucked it out.”]
All that is riveting. But the writing! The writing!
The premise is straightforward. This great film project brought together four individuals, the producer (Robert Evans), the writer (Robert Towne), the director (Roman Polanski) and the lead actor (Jack Nicholson). Each was at the top of his game and the film cemented their positions in the Hollywood firmament.
It was not easy. Towne's script was diffuse, convoluted and had a semi-happy ending. Polanski reworked it entirely (though he didn't take any credit for it). The score was a disaster and Jerry Goldsmith was brought in in the final moments to correct it. Faye Dunaway was difficult on the set and the principals were succumbing to various demons, some of them pharmaceutical.
The author argues that this is a marker on the Hollywood timeline—an art film in a world about to be taken over by blockbusters (event pictures rather than relationship pictures). On the horizon: executives more comfortable with television schlock than silver screen art and ultimately focused on the bottom line (Diller, Eisner, et al.).
Both the city and the industry were on the brink of a precipice. Eden (including its Babylonian elements) was about to be shredded. Directorial control would be sacrificed to the gods of the box office. A single personality, largely detached from the 'mountain'—Paramount Inc.—would no longer make decisions from his bedroom and strike deals with friends. Art was not yet replaced by CAA and ICM dealmaking, where the purpose of the exercise was the employment of clients rather than the creation of films, the latter operation becoming secondary or even tertiary.
The book is filled with gossip—personal, marital, pharmaceutical, medical—but it is primarily concerned with the creation of one of history's great films, the assembling of talent, the stages of the script, the stages of the screenings, the awards received, even down to the discussion of Nicholson and his agent in the limo after the academy awards, going over the details of what 12.5% of the gross actually would mean after the studio did its own math.
This is what I call a 'carry around' book. You read it until some commitment or obligation forces you to stop. Then you carry it with you on the off chance that you might be able to capture a minute here or a minute there to keep on reading.
One of my college teachers asked us if we had read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Anyone who said 'no' was directed to leave class and read it immediately, lest they die suddenly without having read it. I would not be quite that insistent with regard to THE BIG GOODBYE, but I would say that if you like great film and you are interested in cultural and art history, stop what you are doing and read this book.
Despite one or two lapses (singled out by a NY Times reviewer) the book is exquisitely written. Don't trust that reviewer; trust me. This is beautiful stuff.
Top international reviews
Forget it Jake....