“What kind of ointment is that?” Elia Kazan, Sylbert’s first feature director, had asked of one of Sylbert’s sketches for Baby Doll. Sylbert had drawn a fluted column beside an old rocking chair, and on the floor a squeezed-out tube of ointment. “Gee, I don’t know,” Sylbert answered the master. “What kind of ointment is that?” “It’s pile ointment,” Kazan improvised. Lesson learned—and never forgotten. In a Sylbert film, if something was in the frame, it was either because Sylbert put it there or because he allowed it to be there. All other design departments on the picture reported to him.
THE BIG GOODBYE: CHINATOWN AND THE LAST YEARS OF HOLLYWOOD by Sam Wasson is a fascinating book. It’s been so long since I watched CHINATOWN that I frankly recall very little about it, but the story around its making, and the stories of the people who made it, range between engaging and quite riveting. It is also entirely the most sympathetic portrayal of Robert Evans I’ve ever read, and that includes his own autobiography. It sits interestingly next to Peter Biskind’s EASY RIDERS RAGING BULLS (UK) (US) on the same period, and while Biskind often has more texture and detail, Wasson is cold where Biskind is vicious, and Wasson is gentle when Biskind is pissy.
And Wasson has receipts Biskind didn’t. Chiefly, that Robert Towne isn’t Robert Towne. Robert Towne, writer, was, for forty years, Robert Towne and Edward Taylor. Unacknowledged in Taylor’s time, and, indeed, at Taylor’s funeral. I related that back to Biskind’s contention that Towne frequently experienced writing blocks and often couldn’t bring himself to get characters out of the door and into the next scene. Per Wasson, he may well have been waiting for the next scene to be generated.
In retrospect 1974 represents the final flowering of a film garden passionately tended by liberated studio executives and an unspoken agreement between audiences and filmmakers. As Towne had once observed, the American films of World War II benefited from shared beliefs; now, “there was a common assumption that something was wrong,” he said, “in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and assassinations and riots” that gave rise to “a hunger on both sides for something new” and produced a Hollywood year as powerful as 1974. But the poison was in the perfume: These films, Towne said, “did their jobs too well. There was”—presently—“nothing left to expose.”
It is an extremely well-structured story of the end of an era, giving primacy to female voices and perspectives wherever possible, and well worth a read on a number of levels.