Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Class: Chinatown

Shrimp & Watercress Steamed Wontons w/Orange-Soy Dipping Sauce
Chinese Seaweed & Pork Soup
Soy, Honey & Coriander Grilled Tuna w/Jasmine Rice
Orange-Ginger Chinese Broccoli
Chinese Toffee Apples w/Ice Cream

Well, I'm back from Montreal and having a great time with my 4-month old kitten, Miles. And this is part one of a Chinese dim sum double bill.

When I was living in Los Angeles - over 15 years ago now - almost any wannabe or successful screenwriter (and more significantly any screenwriting teacher) would say without hesitation that Chinatown was the perfect screenplay. In fact, the Writers Guild of America named it the third greatest screenplay ever in a survey in 2005 of its members. (And two of those top three - Chinatown and The Godfather were produced by Robert Evans And, just to keep it all connected, Chinatown scribe Robert Towne also did some polishing on the script of The Godfather.) Even today, almost 35 years since its release, Chinatown is still considered to be one of the great screenplays ever.

But what usually isn't mentioned in these praises is that the screenplay went through a very difficult birth process. Even though Towne gets full credit as the author of the script, director Roman Polanski's incredible input is rarely considered by writers and their teachers. Yes, it suits our writers' egos (which is the butt of many jokes - "How many screenwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "Why does it 'have' to be changed?"), but I wish they'd teach this to writers on the first day of school. That's just the way it is, kids. Hopefully I'll not mangle this quote too much (because it was in one of several Charlie Rose interviews he did and I'm not going to listen to all of them to find it), but I once heard writer Richard Price describe what being a Hollywood screenwriter is like: "Screenwriting is like the Pony Express and the screenwriter is the horse. If the horse goes lame, you shoot it and get another one. Because the idea is to get the thing out to Los Angeles." Even Towne himself, who has script doctored many others' work, has said, "'Doctoring' is kind of misleading because all scripts are rewritten. Every script has to be rewritten;, it's just a question of whether or not it's going to be rewritten well."

In another interview, Towne perfectly put it, "My grandmother was a Gypsy. She was sold to my grandfather, it was his second marriage. She used to read tea leaves and tell the future. Well, screenwriters, in writing a screenplay, have that in common with Gypsies. They're trying to predict the future. What's going to happen at some unnamed timed and place when people are going to expend upwards of $50 million, with actors they don't know, with settings and climactic conditions that nobody knows, and what's going to happen when that product is finished and goes into a theater before audiences which may or may not show up. And in that screenplay you're saying that this will be an effective tale, one that will make the investment profitable. That's a level of arrogance that on the face of it is foolish."

In other words, with all the people who have the power and all the situations which may lead to changing a word, a scene, a location from the writer's original conception, changes will almost certainly occur. It's out of your hands at some point (because you got paid for it and it's called a collaborative art, for better or worse) and you should understand that going in. That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight for what you think is right, but if you're not going to direct and produce the thing yourself, you better accept the fact that you're not going to win all those fights. And, more importantly, allow yourself to be open to the fact that sometimes those lost battles, in the end, may actually benefit the film.

As we'll see below, Towne had something really great in his initial screenplay, but he was definitely wrong about the ending (in mine and most folks' opinions). And in the passing years, he's apparently come to realize and make peace with it.

And that's how it is, sometimes, in general, too. Sometimes it takes a while for us to see that what we might think of as a bad idea, a mistake, a failure, or just any life choice made (either our own or another's), which at the end of the day has lead to something generally regarded as a masterpiece - it may just need time to for us to make peace and just accept that we misjudged things at the time. Yet sometimes we haven't a clue as to what it's all about. Like JJ Gittes (Nicholson) who finds himself having to learn more than once that sometimes you can't tell if you're helping or making things worse. Chinatown. Forget it. That's all you can do. Let it go. “Chinatown as a notion," said Towne, "begins to stand for the futility of good intentions.”

It's a fine line to stand on where you must simultaneously fight for what you believe in, see which things aren't worth fighting for, and admit sometimes you're just plain wrong. So it goes.

In this case, it was the collaborative experience, two egos with good intentions, barking and fighting each other, from which the final result of Polanski's and Towne's mind-melding and -clashing, ultimately made this film the work of art and genius it is. So there's another life lesson, kitty kat. Not all good intentions lead to futility.

Chinatown is available for streaming @ Netflix, and for streaming, download & purchase @ Amazon.


"'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

By 1972, Bob Evans had worked his way through Hollywood to its upper echelon. He had been discovered by actress Norma Shearer in 1956 while sitting at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and helped him get the part of her late husband, producer Irving Thalberg in Man of a Thousand Faces, a bio-pic on actor Lon Chaney, starring James Cagney. Ten years later, he was head of production at Paramount Studios. A few years later, he struck an unheard of deal with the studio in which he would remain head of production but, in addition, have his own independent producing deal. The first film he wanted to make under this deal was an adaptation of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which was to star his then wife Ali MacGraw (who would shortly thereafter leave Evans for actor Steve McQueen). He sought out a young hot script doctor named Robert Towne (whom he had met when Towne had done some polishing on The Godfather script).

"Before I could get into Gatsby," Evans recalled, "Towne began telling me about an original screenplay he was working on."

"It's about how Los Angeles became a boomtown - incest and water," Towne said, according to Evans. "It's set in the thirties. A second-rate shamus gets eighty-sixed by a mysterious broad. Instead of solving a case for her, he's the pigeon. I'm writing it for Nicholson."

Jack Nicholson was a young actor on his way up. He'd had some successes, but no one was sold on him being a big star. He and Towne had been roommates at one time and remained tight friends and collaborators.

Evans asked him what the title was, Towne told him "Chinatown," which was the title he had finally settled on after discarding another title, "Water and Power."

"What's that got to do with it? You mean it's set in Chinatown?" asked Evans.

"No. Chinatown is a state of mind - Jake Gittes's f**ked-up state of mind," replied Towne.

"'I see,' I said, not seeing it at all," wrote Evans. After another hour of Towne explaining the story, Evans claimed, he understood the story even less except that Towne was willing to take $25,000 to deliver Chinatown rather than $175,000 to write Gatsby (Towne would get $250K plus points when it went into production). This convinced Evans he should give Towne the benefit of the doubt that he would deliver something impressive. Plus, he was hot to work with Nicholson. "It's hard to fathom," Evans wrote, "but at the time, I was alone at Paramount in my belief that the Irishman had a billion dollar presence." And so, Chinatown would be the first film under the banner of Evans' new deal with Paramount.

The idea for Chinatown first formed in Towne's mind in 1969 when he saw a magazine spread entitled Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles which featured (then) present day photographs recreating 1930's LA. He thought one could make a film using existing locations but set back then and immediately thought "detective story." Nicholson thought it a good idea too.

Now we'll jump to April 1971. Towne was in Oregon helping rewrite Nicholson's first directorial effort Drive, He Said. While poking around the local library in Eugene looking for Raymond Chandler books, he stumbled upon the book Southern California Country: Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams.

"In it was a chapter called 'Water, water, water,' which was a revelation to me," Towne said. "And I thought ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that.' And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous."

"When I returned to LA from Eugene, I began to work on 'Chinatown' and began by searching for the story in the streets," Towne wrote. "I would take to driving around the city at night, through Silverlake, Echo Park, down Temple, where the streetlamps were low and yellow and nippled and the palm trees were high with scrawny fronds like broken pinwheels, and now and then on top of one of the precipitous and sandy hillsides of corner lots high concrete retaining walls cracked and droopy ice plants could never quite hold the earth and clapboard in place and you could still see an oil derrick looking like a rusty praying mantis, trying to suck the last few barrels out of the dying crab grass in the backyard.... [Y]ou could still see the city McWilliams and Chandler wrote about and I remembered in those last moments before sunset."

But there was so much there Towne wanted to tell... Too much. "No script ever drove me nuttier," he stated. After losing and finding his way, 10 months later, he had a draft.

I guess at this point I should let Towne reveal the answer to what Evans had first asked about. "Why Chinatown?"

"The title had come from a Hungarian vice cop. He had said that he had worked vice and worked in Chinatown," Towne explained. "And I asked him what he did . And he said, 'As little as possible.' And I said, 'What kind of law enforcement is that?' And he said, 'Hey man, when you're down there with the Tongs and the different dialects, you can't tell who's doing what to whom and you can't tell whether you're being asked to help prevent a crime or you're inadvertently lending the color of the law to help commit a crime. So we've decided that that best thing to do when you're in Chinatown is as little as possible.'"

Even if Evans was unclear as to what this screenplay was all about ("Just like the title, it was pure Chinese," he wrote), he knew he wanted Roman Polanski to direct it. They had successfully worked together a few years earlier on Rosemary's Baby and Evans believed the direction needed "a European's vision, not an American vision of it, because Europeans see America differently."

"I'd always wanted to make a detective film," recalled Polanski. "Just like everyone who loves cinema, I adore Hollywood detective films and Chandler and Hammett books, which are better than the movies adapted from them. But I hesitated for a long time before returning to Hollywood because basically I wasn't prepared for it, because – well, you know what happened there. But then I realized I absolutely wanted to make Chinatown and I just got over myself."

As well, he was in need of both money and a hit after his last two films bombed.

"On my arrival in Hollywood," Polanski wrote in his memoir, "Bob Evans gave me a bulky script to read. Brimming with ideas, great dialogue, and masterful characterization, it suffered from an excessively convoluted plot that veered off in all directions. Called Chinatown despite its total absence of Oriental locations or characters, it simply couldn't have been filmed as it stood, though buried somewhere in its 180-plus pages was a marvelous movie.... The screenplay required massive cuts, drastic simplification, and the pruning of several subsidiary characters, all of them beautifully drawn but contributing nothing to the action.

"Bob Towne had worked on Chinatown for two years and rightly regarded it as the best thing he'd ever done, but I knew him well enough not to pull any punches. I told him what I thought of his script over lunch at Nate 'n Al's, the Beverly Hills delicatessen. He was naturally disappointed by my qualified enthusiasm." Towne agreed to write a shorter draft while Polanski returned to Europe. "Towne's revised script, when he finally completed it, was almost as long as before and even more difficult to follow," Polanski continued. "If Chinatown were ever to become a movie, it would mean two months of really intensive collaboration, pulling the screenplay apart and putting it together again."

"I’ll tell you my favorite story about Roman," Towne recalled, laughing. "[W]hen we started working on the re-write of Chinatown, Roman presented me with a book, a gift, called 'How to Write a Screenplay.' He inscribed it “To my dear partner, with fond hope,'" But Towne wasn't laughing during the first half of 1973 when he and Polanski struggled to get the script in shape. "We fought, every day, over everything," Towne complained.

The worst problem for Polanski seemed not to be Towne, but rather his dog. "Two brutal months of preparations with Roman not knowing whom to kill first; Towne or Hira, Towne's white, shaggy and shedding, giant hunk of a sheepdog," recalled Evans. He added that Polanski would constantly call to complain: "'Hira, Hira,' Roman moaned. 'Wherever I go there's hair. I'm scratching where I shouldn't. His script stinks, his dog smells. I should have stayed in Paris. Wherever I go, there's dog shit.'" Polanski himself wrote, "[A]t times I got the impression they [Towne and his sheepdog] were ganging up on me."

Take a minute to remind yourself we're discussing grown men here. The two of them seemed to revel in whining incessantly about their time working together on the script. It only got nastier before it got better.

"After working eight hours a day for eight weeks, I felt we'd hammered out a marvelous shooting script – marvelous except in two respects: I was alone in wanting Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray to go to bed together, and Towne and I couldn't agree on an ending," wrote Polanski. "Towne wanted the evil tycoon to die and his daughter, Evelyn, to live. He wanted a happy ending; all would turn out okay for her after a short spell in jail. I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die. Its dramatic impact would be lost unless audiences left their seats with a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all. The right ending was important for several reasons. Chinatown was a great title, but unless we set at least one scene in LA's real-life Chinatown, we'd be cheating – pulling in the public under false pretenses."

"The ending," which Towne said he had envisioned, "was bittersweet in that one person at least – the child – wasn't tainted. The one thing the woman had been trying to do – the purest motive in the while film – was to protect her daughter. When she carried out this motive by killing her father, she was acting out of motherly love. You knew she was going to stand trial, that she wouldn't tell why she did it, and that she would be punished. But the larger crime – the crime against the whole community – would go unpunished. And in a sense that was the point. 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... there's really nothing to do but put their names on plaques and make them pillars of the community. It was this balance that I was looking for... my own feeling is if a scene is relentlessly bleak – as the revised end is – it isn't as powerful as it can be if there's a little light there to underscore the bleakness.”

"Roman's argument," Towne said elsewhere, "was, 'That's life. Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had.'"

"I thought it was a serious movie, not an adventure story for the kids," countered Polanski.

They never came to a resolution on those two major hurdles, the ending and the love scene, while working on the screenplay. Polanski wound up writing both scenes shortly before they were shot.

"I wrote [the ending], literally, like a couple of nights before we shot it," Polanski said. "I walked into Jack's trailer with the scene and I said, 'Jack, rearrange the dialogue into your style.' Jack took my dialogue and he started changing words and crossing [out things] and that is what you have now in the film."

Elsewhere Polanski elaborated, "I just had the feeling that the finale had to take place in Chinatown – a real setting – in order to lead all the allusions to some kind of conclusion, otherwise the whole thing would have been intellectual and contrived game playing. Chinatown, whether when it refers to the place or the woman, represents Nicholson's fate, something he keeps having to face up to."

For years it seems, Towne would tell anyone who asked how unhappy with Polanski's ending he was. At one time he referred to the ending as a “ghoulishly bleak climax.” But, as I noted above, time often has a way of smoothing and soothing the ego. In a 1998 interview, Towne looked back on the entire affair and noted: "Roman and I have been much misunderstood about [our debate over the ending]. We agreed that it ended darkly. The only difference was I felt it was too melodramatic to end it his way. The way I had it figured it was just about as dark, but Roman felt it needed that finale. I was wrong, and he was right. Roman is one of the most gifted filmmakers of all time. As the years have gone by I see that he taught me more than anybody. The best working relationship I ever had was with Roman. By far. He's a f**king giant."

But Polanski was certainly not creatively infallible himself. Originally, he'd hired veteran cinematographer Stanley Cortez, but he hadn't worked in a few years, wasn't up on the latest equipment, and was painstakingly slow. After just ten days, Polanski replaced him with John Alonzo. Polanski had also picked Phillip Lambro to compose the score, but after their first test screening of the picture it was decided to have Jerry Goldsmith write a new soundtrack, which he did in a record 10 days. (You can still hear Lambro's original score in the original trailer above.)

But while the script was being reworked, casting began. Nicholson, of course, was a sure thing. Polanski wanted and got John Huston to play Noah Cross. Both Polanski and Nicholson wanted Faye Dunaway for the part of Evelyn Mulwray. But while Evans really wanted Jane Fonda for the role, according to Evans, "Fonda was hedging, not sure she wanted to play the part. Understandably, she didn't understand the script."

One night Nicholson telephoned Dunaway who was in England working on The Three Musketeers. They talked for hours, "with Jack trying to explain what this movie was about and why I should do it," she wrote. (It is what it is. I'm sorry, Mr. Towne - apparently everyone needed help to decipher your earlier draft.) "I finally said, 'Jack, why should I wait for something that might not be real?' He told me, 'Dunaway, it's real, and it's worth waiting for.'"

Dunaway, according to Polanski, was known "unofficially" around Hollywood as "the Dreaded Dunaway" because she was regarded to be "difficult." (In her autobiography, she has Nicholson lovingly calling her "Dread.") But early on Polanski wasn't concerned about her reputation. "I really saw Faye in this role," he wrote. "And I remember my mother of that pre-war period, she did what was fashionable in those times, that is to pluck the eyebrows and draw that thin line and to put the lipstick in a cupid bow here and that's how I wanted Faye to look in the film." But... "[S]he indeed applied the makeup systematically – as a matter of fact so systematically that it finally drove me nuts, because not only after every shot but every take, she was back in front of the mirror redoing her lips and eyebrows and the powder."

"No one talks about my work with Kazan, Lumet, Pollack, Jewison, McQueen, Nicholson, Chayefsky, all the great experiences I've had. But my falling out with Roman, I am always asked to explain," Dunaway has complained. While I wish the lady no ill will (see my reminiscence in The Snack section below), the following story bears repeating since it has become so much a part of the lore of this film.

I'll be as brief as possible. Basically, Polanski was trying to get a shot during the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant sequence. "The camera was over her shoulder," wrote Polanski, "and one strand of her hair was catching the light. It was one of those freak situations where, if nothing were done, the audience's attention would be focused on a single illuminated hair." He had the hair makeup person try to get it to stay down, but "[n]o amount of lacquer seemed to do the trick. Faye, being the only person on the set unable to see what was wrong, couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. At last, hoping she might not even notice, I took the hair and plucked it out."

Letting Dunaway continue: "Roman dropped the hair he had jerked out, his mouth curled into a smirk, and he began to walk away. I was furious. "Don't you dare ever do that sort of thing to me again!" I told him. "Don't even touch me, much less pull a hair out of my head." It was not the hair, it was the incessant cruelty that I felt, the constant sarcasm, the never-ending need to humiliate me. I felt the time had come to draw a line that Roman would never dare cross again.... I was not going to do another scene until I had aired my grievance with Bob Evans, the producer.... I deserved respect - I had earned it by that point in my career, and I was due it as a human being." And so, she drove off.

"That one little hair provoked the kind of crisis directors dread and producers and agents secretly revel in," wrote Polanski. "Before [the meeting] started, Bob Evans reminded me that he hadn't wanted 'that meshuga' in the first place.... The meeting opened with Freddy Fields, Faye's agent, looking uncomfortable and Faye herself still mad as hell. Fields started enumerating her many grievances against me. I'd been cast in the now familiar role of monster. 'I was wrong to do it,' I said, 'but that doesn't alter the fact that she's nuts and a menace.'" You can imagine how Dunaway responded to that.

And to finish the story, let's turn to Robert Evans - who appears to be the only one who ends the story this way in their books - so you may choose whether to believe it or not - but it makes for a great finish. Here goes....

"Then came an offer hard to refuse: 'An Oscar nod or a Rolls Corniche - one of the two I personally guarantee is yours,'" Evans told Dunaway. "By then Coppola's Mercedes was a legend. How could she refuse?" (Evans was referring to the deal he had made with Coppola that if The Godfather hit $50 million in box office, Evans would buy him a new Mercedes 600... and he did!)

She agreed.

Next, Evans went to work on Polanski and said, "What you're getting from Dunaway makes Svengali look like a peasant.' A balk ... a shout ... a Polish moan of despair. 'An Oscar nod, or a Rolls Corniche," I offered. "Without one, the other is yours courtesy of yours truly.' A Polanski look. A Polanski laugh. 'Make it a Bentley and you can bring Dunaway back to the set,' [Polanski replied.] Luckily for me, they were both nominated for Oscars, and everything else you could name."

With all that said, in an interview shortly after the film was released, Polanski declared, "Faye and I [were friends] before we started the picture. And we are now. But throughout the production it was fire and water." (Though both are on record saying they only met once, briefly, before Chinatown.)

I don't want to end without mentioned the work of the great John Huston in the film. His performance as Noah Cross stands as one of the greatest movie villains of all time.

Dunaway wrote of being on set when Polanski was filming a scene with Nicholson and Huston, noting that Huston kept mispronouncing "Gittes" as "Gitts." She recalled, "I came away from those scenes most often convinced that Huston just didn't understand how to pronounce the man's name; that's how good he was. But once, in a flash of his eye, I saw that he knew it, knew exactly what he was doing." Huston had improvised it.

As well, we should note the scene where Noah Cross asks Gittes if he's sleeping with his daughter. That wasn't entirely fiction. For Nicholson had recently begun dating Huston's real life daughter, Anjelica. "I remember Anjelica walking up when John and I were rehearsing that scene where we talk about my character's involvement with his character's daughter. I'll never forget that particular moment of synchronicity," said Nicholson.

Nicholson gets very little air time here because everyone loved him and for the most part he and Polanski saw eye to eye on the both the conception and direction of the film.

Dunaway had a cute story about Nicholson, though. "Once Jack and I were having one of our heart-to-hearts. I was talking about Polanski and how I was having a real difficult time getting the performance to the level of aliveness that it had to have, because I felt like Roman was thwarting me and not supporting me. And he turned to me and said, 'You think you've got troubles, Dread? You realize this is the first time I'm playing a leading man, and I'm spending three-quarters of the movie with a bandage covering half my face?' He gave me that famous Jack Nicholson look through the darkness of the trailer, and the irony of the situation was not lost on either one of us."

So Evans was lucky and the film came in with 11 Oscar nominations, including ones for Dunaway and Polanski, so he didn't have to buy any cars. But, as Evans wrote, "To Roman's chagrin, the one Oscar for Chinatown went to Shakespeare himself, Robert Towne."

Let's note that Towne had originally intended to make Chinatown, as the first part of a trilogy. The second installment, The Two Jakes, was produced after seven years of being tossed around Hollywood, and is set in 1948, eleven years after Chinatown. The Two Jakes is worth viewing, but is hardly as memorable as Chinatown. Even Towne has said, "In the case of Chinatown, I knew in every respect what the film was going to be like. I watched the dailies. I fought with Roman every day and ate dinner with him every night. We even agreed about where we disagreed. Here I didn't have the same sense. The most truthful answer is that I don't know how I feel about The Two Jakes."

The third chapter, which would have been set in 1959, has yet to see the light of day, and probably never will.

I'll close with this from Polanski: "I didn't set out to say anything in particular about America, but the film does mirror something of the condition of the United States with all its intrigues and scandals, though you find these things in any country where money and power matter. A film that doesn't make any statement at all about society – and ourselves – would be completely empty. If Chinatown didn't have certain moral and critical qualities under the surface, I wouldn't have made the film. It's also about the difficulty of learning the truth, whether about politics or the relationship between a man and a woman."


People, a little too often, take a narrative film's historical inaccuracies, as fact - when it's not. For dramatic purposes, Chinatown plays fast and loose with the timeline and history of Los Angeles and many historians have had to reckon with the film's "dramatic truth" versus fact, at least as they perceive it.

"The brilliant film is probably responsible for misinforming the public about the chronology of events and promoting the lingering widespread belief in an aqueduct conspiracy," wrote my dear former dotcom co-editor Margaret Leslie Davis in her book Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles.

"Chinatown is a roman à clef transposing characters and issues from a generation earlier into the 1930's. Such dramatic license is not necessarily incompatible with capturing a deeper truth than period details," Steven P. Erie noted in Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California. "Yet the one question of fundamental importance is the accuracy of its underlying thesis: that the great motor that enabled fledgling, semiarid Los Angeles to bloom and boom into a global metropolis was the prostitution of the public good to private greed and ambition...."

"I think a movie like Chinatown is an easy out," said William Mulholland's granddaughter Catherine in the documentary film Cadillac Desert: Mulholland's Dream (Water and the Transformation of Nature). "It oversimplifies, it's melodramatic, it's not true - I mean it's literally not true. But it proves a rather easy explanation of events. And for people who like to bash LA, it's perfect. The New York Times likes to hold it up as a piece of history."

There's no way I'm going to have space to go through all the facts and fiction of Chinatown and the California Water Wars, but the above three sources I've quoted from are a good place to start if you are interested in the facts.

The most major fictionalization, as Erie mentioned above, is that the water dealings depicted in the movie transpired around the turn of the century and not the 1930's. Erie looks at many of the discrepancies between Chinatown and history, and here are a few, in his opinion:

"First, the movie makes it look like the shift from private to public control of the municipal water supply changed little in terms of who wielded power. In fact, the buyout of the LA City Water Company and end of the reign of "the water ring" marked the emergence of a newly energized 'local state' committed to accelerated urban and regional development by public means and resources.

"Second, the repeated - and now discredited - charge in Chinatown that the Water Department engaged in dumping water to create an artificial water famine derive from LA's conspiratorial folklore - not from known history.

"Third, rife real-estate speculation was the result, not the cause, of the Owens Valley aqueduct project.

"A fourth serious distortion in Chinatown relates to the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, which cost at least 400 lives and fatally wounded the career of... William Mulholland. In the movie, Hollis Mulray regrets having succumbed to political pressure to build the flawed Van der Lip Dam. In reality, Mulholland overly relied on the fatally defective St. Francis Dam as part of a strategy to store emergency water south of the San Andreas earthquake fault line in the face of rampant population growth and drought conditions in the early 1920's.

"Whereas the movie Chinatown centers on a ruthless campaign to secure a fictional $10 million bond issue, [the Los Angeles Department of Water] quickly recovered from the 1928 St. Francis Dam debacle.... [w]ith overwhelming backing of the Los Angeles electorate....

But to repeat what Erie considers: "Such dramatic license is not necessarily incompatible with capturing a deeper truth than period details." One of the reasons the film has continued to affect audiences so deeply, I believe, is that it reminds us we live in a world in which our stewards and politicians more often than not act only for the public good if there's personal profit in it for them.

And finally, as the world gets more and more populated, our water resources continue to become scarcer and scarcer. This time on a global scale. And if we don't learn the lessons of Chinatown, we will surely see more of us dying of thirst in the near future.


While both Polanski and Towne understood that the title "Chinatown" was meant to be a metaphor, as I've noted above many were confused by the script. At one point, a Paramount executive suggested maybe the title is because Evelyn's character liked to eat Chinese food. Both Polanski and Towne agreed this was a ridiculous notion.

Even though I knew I wanted to pair the film with a Chinese food menu, there are so many restaurant references both in the film and in the story of the making of the film that I could have easily tossed together a meal with recipes from Dominick's (where Evans first met with Towne), Nate n' Al's delicatessen (where Towne and Polanski first met to discuss the script), El Cholo Mexican restaurnt (where Dunaway and Nicholson used to go after a day's work), to the Hollywood Brown Derby (where Gittes and Evelyn meet to discuss the case), and the Pig n' Whistle is also mentioned in the movie. But I didn't.

Since we're on the subject of famous Hollywood restaurants, let me reminisce for a moment about a particular evening, a long time ago. I was having dinnner at Musso & Frank's. Two tables over were a group of six including Mike Nichols, Charles Bukowski, and Faye Dunaway. At some point, Ms. Dunaway spotted me checking her out and slightly smiled, held her eyes to mine for a moment, then turned back to her table-mates. But, yeah. Let me tell you there are times in my life when that memory has gotten me through a dark and lonely night. That's why they're movie stars.

But, ahem, back to our story.... So, Noah Cross was a member of the Albacore Club which is misheard twice in the film as "apple core." The Albacore Club is based on the real life Tuna Club on Catalina Island. "The old saying was that the Tuna Club ran LA," said Towne. "They ran the city, like an oligarchy."

And so, the menu has both tuna and apples.

Seaweed soup. We all know, thanks to Chinatown, that salt water is "bad for grass." Hollis was always fascinated by tide pools. You know what he used to say? "That's where life begins, tide pools."

Then, of course, there are the orange groves that need watering. So, we have oranges in both the dipping sauce for the won tons, and with the Chinese broccoli side dish.

The appetizer featured below, I got from Tommy Barrata, once Jack Nicholson's private chef.

"One of the things I like about Tommy," Nicholson wrote in the book's introduction, "is that he doesn't call himself a chef. He's cook, plain and simple, and it's this distinction that I think is emblematic of his entire approach to food."

"Until you've seen the wistful looks directed at my trailer door from hungry Hollywood professionals all hoping that Tommy's prepared enough extra food to rescue them from the caterer's table," he added, "you just don't know the power of this man's cooking."

And finally, Nicholson passed along this: "While my own mother may not have passed along as extensive a culinary legacy to her son, she did have some sage advice when it came to cooking, and which I, in closing, now passing along to you: 'Clean as you go.'"

So, as always cook, watch, eat, (clean as you go), and enjoy!

Shrimp & Watercress Steamed Wontons w/ Orange-Soy Dipping Sauce
Adapted from a recipe by Tommy Baratta in his book Cooking for Jack
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes about 20

Vegetable oil cooking spray
4 scallions, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound shrimp, rinsed, peeled & deveined, and finely chopped
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 dash Tabasco (optional)
1 cup trimmed and chopped watercress leaves
1 package thin wonton wrappers

For Sauce:
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 scallions, cut into thin rings
1/8 cup orange juice, fresh squeezed (juice of 1/2 an orange)
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sugar

For Sauce: Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate until ready to serve.

For Wontons:

Combine cornstarch and water in a small bowl.

Spray nonstick skillet with cooking spray and bring to high heat.

Add scallions, ginger, garlic, and shrimp to skillet. Cook, stirring for about 3 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture to skillet. Stir to combine. Add soy sauce, Tabasco (if using) and watercress to skillet. Continue to cook and stir for additional 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place 1 teaspoon of shrimp mixture in the center of each wonton wrapper. Moisten two edges of the wrapper with cold water. Fold wrapper into a half-moon shape and seal by pressing edges together. Repeat until shrimp mixture is gone.

To cook, steam wontons for 10 minutes and serve with dipping sauce.

Chinatown - Screenplay
Talking to Robert Towne about Chinatown, by Philip Martin (audio)
‘Chinatown’ screenwriter Robert Towne talks about movies, history and Los Angeles,
By Jonathan Crow @ Yahoo! Movies
Through the Eyes of Faye Dunaway (Interview) @ MovieLine
Roman Polanski on Chinatown, Penthouse 1974
Jack Nicholson Talks! @ MTVnews
Either You Bring the Water to L.A. or You Bring L.A. to the Water: Chinatown, by Mark R. Gould @ Your Library

Chinatown DVD, BluRay, Streaming
Chinatown OST CD/MP3
Chinatown and The Last Detail: Two Screenplays, by Robert Towne
Chinatown (BFI Film Classics), by Michael Eaton
Roman Polanski: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series), edited by Paul Cronin
Roman, by Roman Polanski
The Kid Stays in the Picture, by Robert Evans
Faye Dunaway, by Allan Hunter
Looking for Gatsby, by Faye Dunaway
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of LA, by Margaret Leslie Davis
Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California, by Steven P Erie
Cadillac Desert: Mulholland's Dream (Water and the Transformation of Nature) VHS
Southern California: An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams
Cooking for Jack, by Tommy Baratta


  1. I love it. In addition to food blogging, I'm a professional writer so I love it even more. And did you mean the joke about the script having a hard birth, given the final reveal in the film?

    Chef Dad

  2. It wasn't consciously made... blame Dr. Freud.