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. His preference for granting directors an unusual degree of creative autonomy bore fruit in a string of classic films, including The Godfather, on which Towne worked uncredited, and Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror, Rosemary’s Baby.
The films of the early 1970s, made in that brief window after censorship had eased and the theme parks had not yet taken over, have a resonance which still speaks to the viewer when any amount of On Golden Pond sentimentality has fallen by the wayside. Chinatown, with its bleak conclusion, has a key place among them, and a director whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz and whose wife was murdered by Charles Manson’s psychotic hippie followers was never likely to believe in conventional Hollywood endings.
In a scrupulously researched and reported book with a stellar cast of players, not to mention some astonishing sources, Wasson sees Roman Polanski as the genius who elevated “Chinatown” from good to great. Anyone offended by that should stay away. Everyone else should come running, because Wasson — whose previous books include “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the dance biography “Fosse” — is one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood lore. And he has truly outdone himself this time... There are layers upon layers to this account, just as there are to the film, and it flags only when Wasson violates the color scheme with purple prose. Say what you will about Polanski, as long as it’s not “memory was a despot that lived in his house and banged his pots and pans.”
This is a densely textured, well-researched, lushly overwritten portrait of a time when Hollywood film-makers behaved with passionate individualism and artistic boldness — and of all the massive rows, betrayals, sexual excesses and general badassery that entailed. 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.