Book Review: Sam Wasson's Thoroughly Excellent 'The Big Goodbye'
It was sometime in December of 1984, and memory says it was a Friday night. The show was Nightline. Memory also says that on the aformementioned show legendary film producer Robert Evans was being interviewed. The only thing was that by 1984, and unbeknownst to yours truly, he was no longer legendary.
It had realistically been nearly a decade since Evans had been a bigger-than-life studio executive and producer, with his name or studio (Paramount Pictures) associated with classic films like The Godfather, The Godfather II, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, etc. And while he produced Urban Cowboy in 1979, the second half of the ‘70s wasn’t as kind to Evans. Once the head of Paramount, he’d been demoted to producer. In 1980 there was a cocaine arrest, there was a big budget box office failure titled Popeye, and then there was The Cotton Club.
That’s when I came to know of Evans. This most compelling of individuals was on Nightline aggressively defending a big budget film that those in the know had written off. Worse, the production had been overshadowed by the questionable money behind it, spiraling costs, and the possibility that Evans himself would have to declare bankruptcy over it. Goodness, an investor in this most star-crossed of films had been murdered. Though Evans still had enough juice to get on network television in order to desperately try and save The Cotton Club, his persuasive powers couldn't save the film.
Still, what a fascinating person. I never forgot Evans, only to eventually devour all manner of books about him or that featured him in later years, including but not limited to Peter Biskind’s all-time great history of the movie industry in the 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Brian Kellow’s Can I Go Now? (about ‘70s superagent Sue Mengers), not to mention Evans’s very own autobiography, The Kid Stays In the Picture. The latter ultimately became a cult favorite, particularly inside Hollywood, so much so that Graydon Carter later produced a documentary of the same name to visualize this most readable of memoirs.
All that’s been previously written helps explain the excitement I felt upon learning of a new book by Sam Wasson about the making of the classic 1974 film, Chinatown. Evans produced Chinatown while still running Paramount, and it’s on any film lover’s list of the best movies ever made. Indeed, it watches well to this day. Wasson’s book, The Big Goodbye, will read extraordinarily well for a very long time too as an essential snapshot of Hollywood in the 1970s. There’s nothing boring in The Big Goodbye, but so much that’s so interesting about a wildly glamourous time for the movie industry, and so much that’s instructive about business and economics more broadly. As with all my book reviews, the analysis of The Big Goodbye will focus on the economic lessons that Wasson relayed.
The Big Goodbye is primarily about the four men - Evans, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, and Roman Polanski - who made Chinatown happen. Wasson reports that Evans’s connection with the film’s director, Polanski, began in classic Evans style. One day Polanski took a call from a man with a voice “as snug and sultry as bourbon and a fireplace.” It was of course Evans, who “gushed” to Polanski that “You’re a genius.” And thus a working relationship began that led to Rosemary’s Baby, and eventually to the making of the movie that inspired this book.
It’s best to lead with Polanski mainly because his name can’t be separated from what later happened, something anyone reading this review knows about, and that led to Polanski becoming a fugitive from U.S. law. Wasson doesn’t shy away from what happened with Polanski, nor does he seem to render a verdict on the matter. He reports in fairly detailed fashion what happened. Readers are free to focus on the rape charges as little or as much as they want.
Wasson also spends time detailing Polanski’s early life in Poland, and the horrors he witnessed. In a sickening preview of what Polanksi himself would eventually endure as the husband of Sharon Tate, his pregnant mother was taken to Auschwitz when Polanski was only a child where she was murdered. Polanski also saw his father being taken away by the Nazis, only for Ryszard to pretend he didn’t know his terrified son (“Shove off”) in the hope that Roman himself wouldn’t be taken too. Ryszard thankfully survived, and son and father were reunited after the war.
The tragedy of the Holocaust rates mention for so many reasons, but for the purposes of this review the focus will be economic. All too many economists and pundits continue to promote the horrifying fiction that World War II extricated the U.S. from the Great Depression. No. War is the ultimate economic depression precisely because it exterminates the very people who drive progress. The brilliant Polanski thankfully avoided the concentration camps, Mike Nichols (born Igor Peschkowsky) escaped Berlin before his likely extermination in one, but what of all the brilliant men and women killed well before they had their chance to make their mark? Economists, including Paul Krugman, near monolithically believe that war is the path to economic revival. How embarrassing for them, but also how horrifying. Polanski lived to transform cinema for the better, but readers might consider the unseen the next time some economist obsessed with charts, equations and ludicrous measures of “growth” like GDP casually mentions that a global tragedy that exterminated over 800,000 American men alone somehow boosted economic output.
Considering people through the lens of 1970s moviemaking, Evans was what a football player would perhaps refer to as a “player’s coach.” For him it was all about the people showing up on the movie set each day. As Wasson explained it about him, Evans “was betting on talent,” or as he put it ten pages later, the “talent business was the people business.” So he cultivated the talent, and plainly knew before cocaine arguably scrambled his brain how to coax remarkable performances out of the talent. Evans’s extraordinary success born of focusing on people nearly fifty years ago needs to be remembered in consideration of how much politicians to this day stress plant and equipment over people. As this review is being written, much ink is being spilled by tax pundits about the expensing provision for tangible capital goods in the tax code. That’s so yesterday, so 100+ years ago, so very much about a time when factories symbolized economic advance.
Much the same, others in the economic space spend a great deal of time writing about energy and extraction of same. About this, nothing against oil. It’s essential to progress, but it’s also a commodity ably extracted in some of the most backward countries on earth. That Americans get excited about production stateside speaks to very backward thinking. The only closed economy is the world economy. If primitive countries can bring oil to market, that’s a pretty prominent sign that Americans would be better off importing what is plentiful globally rather than producing what is plentiful globally. All that, plus if the dollar weren’t debased relative to the ‘80s and ‘90s (when the U.S. energy industry was largely non-existent), there would be no economic basis for oil exploration in the U.S. to begin with.
Interesting about physical wealth, or wealth of the earth, is that the latter is a major theme of Chinatown as written by Towne. Fascinated by a history of southern California written by historian Carey McWilliams titled Southern California: An Island On the Land, the screenwriter aimed to write a sprawling screenplay about Los Angeles’s theoretically corrupt origins. As Wasson reports, Towne unearthed from McWilliams’s book that while Los Angeles was “home to nearly half the residents of California,” it could claim “only .06% of the state’s natural water flow.” Wasson describes the Los Angeles area as “a semi-arid desert masquerading as a paradise.” But for the “Owens Valley Tragedy” whereby the well-connected and rich in Los Angeles built “a 238-mile aqueduct from the Owens River to Los Angeles" with taxpayer funds extracted in underhanded fashion, one of the world’s most prominent cities allegedly wouldn’t be. Towne, the Brentwood-raised son of a very successful real estate developer, would write a screenplay detailing the corruption that purportedly made Los Angeles possible.
Except that there’s no economic basis for Towne’s screenplay, or McWilliams’s book. This is in no way meant to besmirch what is a brilliant movie. But it is meant to point out that the remarkably talented people of the movie industry don’t always understand basic economics. Implicit in Towne’s thesis is that absent corruption, Los Angeles would be a desert. In truth, a commodity is just that. There’s no oil in Switzerland or Japan, and not much to speak of in China, but the citizens of all three countries consume the byproducts of oil as though it first bubbled up in Zurich, Tokyo and Shanghai. They do because they import it. Phoenix is a desert, but the city just grows and grows. There aren’t any real farms to speak of in New York City, factories have left too, but New Yorkers are arguably the most prodigious consumers of food and manufactured goods of anyone in the world.
So Los Angeles had and has desert qualities? It’s of no consequence. If we accept that the accession of water by the city fathers of Los Angeles was handled in corrupt fashion, we should say that’s too bad while adding that the cheaper, more pro-growth route certainly would have been for city leadership (or private sector actors) to acquire water rights in the most above board way possible. Cities and countries that import all manner of goods, services and commodities aren’t impoverished for doing so; rather the ability to import is what frees people to focus on what they do best. The corrupt accession of water rights has made for a classic film, but the economics underlying Towne’s argument are wholly nonsensical.
For economic understanding, it remains more worthwhile to focus on Evans. Wasson asserts that “the secret to his success with friends and film was: Give. Give to get.” Amen. Evans understood Say’s Law intuitively. We can only get things insofar as we supply first. Economists who think war stimulates growth also think demand stimulates growth. No. We all have infinite wants and demands; wants and demands that we can only fulfill insofar as we supply first. Evans produced in abundance, and for quite some time he was able to consume abundantly as a consequence.
Evans gave Towne $25,000 for the option to acquire a finished Chinatown script. As Wasson goes on to write, the $25,000 “won Paramount the right to purchase Chinatown, should the script meet the studio’s approval, for the terrific sum of $210,000, a figure that” signaled “Evan’s skepticism.” In short, Evans liked the idea of Chinatown, he loved that it was a project that Jack Nicholson (a longtime colleague and friend of Towne) was attached to, but the script was a work-in-progress with all that the latter conjures up.
Crucial here is that what’s been written is in no way meant to denigrate Towne. While Polanski subsequently claimed to have wholly cleaned up and rewritten the 400+ page script that Towne initially delivered to him, Towne came up with a brilliant idea for a movie meant to bring viewers back in time to 1937 Los Angeles. Towne won an Oscar for his work.
At the same time, it’s a reminder of how much great art of the moviemaking kind is the result of endless cooperation frequently interrupted by a great deal of squabbling. Translated, Towne and Polanski didn’t get along, but without Towne there’s no Chinatown the classic film, and without Polanski there’s no Chinatown the classic film. The late Evans (he died last year) might argue that absent his hiring of music composer Jerry Goldsmith in the weeks leading up to release, the movie bombs as is. Indeed, Wasson makes plain throughout how much stress Evans put on music in movies, he surely claimed in The Kid Stays In the Picture that he saved The Godfather and Love Story with his taste in music (recounted in The Big Goodbye), and the hiring of Goldsmith transformed the feel of a film that some worried would fail right up to release. Trade and exchange, or the division of labor, improves us. Always. When politicians promise to put up barriers to the plenty produced by people in around the world, they rob Americans of the extra “hands” that help make abundant progress possible.
Notable about the days and weeks leading up to release is that after seeing what was presumed to be the final print of Chinatown, Nicholson was horrified. He got up after a screening held at Paramount to warn Evans et al that “I’ll disown this movie if this print is used.” Wasson writes that what had Nicholson furious was that the film’s “print was brighter than anyone had remembered,” thus robbing Chinatown of its noirish feel. Per Wasson “Evans consented” on the matter. There’s so much that’s so interesting in this excellent book, and one very interesting revelation (at least to this reader) is what a literate person Nicholson is, and also what a consummate moviemaker he is. He truly understands all aspects of it, and Wasson makes plain that he elevated the movie sets he was on.
Nicholson’s protest rates more discussion given all the hand wringing at the moment about China. Politicians, pundits and economists on both sides increasingly express worry that China is growing too fast economically, and that its growth will enable the country to overtake the U.S. economically and militarily if not checked. This is backwards thinking. If China gets rich, imagine how rich the U.S. will become thanks to advances in a once desperately poor country lifting living standards stateside. Trade is not war. Trade is the process whereby buyers and sellers improve one another.
Those paranoid about China justify their paranoia with shaky talk about the Chinese “stealing” intellectual property. Nicholson’s quote should give them pause. Stated simply, one of the greatest films ever made was awful right up until release. It was improved thanks to the remarkable doings of a few remarkable men. “China” couldn’t have stolen Chinatown, and to presume that it could have is to seriously insult the geniuses who turned what was a disaster into a masterpiece.
Furthermore, this notion of genius stolen ignores how very much it’s often not seen as genius until after the fact. Throughout The Big Goodbye, Wasson alerts readers to the exceedingly low expectations about Chinatown. He quotes one of Polanski’s girlfriends, actress Nandu Hinds, as saying “nobody I spoke with thought it would be any good.” Once they screened it for the Hollywood crowd, Wasson reports that one executive walked out while uttering “Evans has a bomb.” Sue Mengers, even though her client (Faye Dunaway) starred in Chinatown, asked “What kind of dreck is this shit?” Rona Barrett the gossip columnist asked “How could you make this picture?” If we ignore how difficult – or impossible - it is to steal genius to begin with, not stressed enough is how incredibly challenging it is to know what to steal! The paranoia about China is way, way overdone.
Sure enough, Towne and Nicholson eventually teamed up (Nicholson, loyal to Evans to the end, included the figuratively shrunken producer in nightly viewings of the “dailies") to create the sequel to Chinatown. Needless to say, The Two Jakes was a critical and box office bomb. What happens in Hollywood could teach the economically focused so much about economics. If only they were teachable…
Still, what a book! What an entertaining read that will thrill fans and moviemakers alike. Was there a weakness? There’s always something. It’s referenced in the title. The full title of Wasson’s book is The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Yet another book that aims to make a case that an era ended because of (insert your historical instance).” The title in mind, Wasson lamented the Hollywood that came after Evans and the rest as one defined by a “new breed” that “no longer feigned tasted and knowledge of movies, but touted knowledge, hardly feigned, of box office trends.” Oh dear, where have we heard this line before? It’s in every book about every industry seemingly: profits ruined it. The focus on the almighty dollar robbed (name the industry) of its soul. Oh please. Having grown up in Los Angeles (Pasadena specifically, where parts of Chinatown and The Two Jakes were filmed according to Wasson), I remember well having to drive great distances in the 1980s (usually to Beverly Hills) to find obscure people and dialogue driven films of the kind that Evans loved. Nowadays art houses are thankfully everywhere, and not just in and around Los Angeles and New York. If the ‘70s had Polanski, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Marting Scorsese and Woody Allen, the 21st century has geniuses like Whit Stillman, Michael Winterbottom, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh. Profits free up capital for experimentation, as opposed to suffocating it. Movies are still amazing, not to mention what television has become.
Where I might agree with the author is with the sense that the personalities have left us? And the moguls? Along these lines, I’ve long wanted to ask Michael Ovitz if there will ever be another Michael Ovitz. Much the same, where are the Robert Evans and Woodlands (the house where he lived) of today? Hollywood and the industry used to be so BIG. But now, maybe not as much? Particularly since he’s moved into venture capital, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Ovitz wouldn’t choose the movie industry if he were graduating from UCLA in May. That’s too bad. The mystery’s gone, or so it seems?
In closing, Evans once observed in more flush days that “the Hollywood film” is “America’s gift, its greatest cultural export to every country in the world.” Amen. Hollywood generates a beautiful global perception of the U.S. Let’s not mess with it. America is great for existing as America. The other stuff just shrinks us. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye is a beautiful story about the Hollywood that lifts the U.S. up so much around the world. Readers should run to get it.