Released in 1974, Chinatown is a classic of the American neo-noir mystery cinema. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring both Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the film was inspired by the famous California Water Wars of the early 20th century. It turned out to be Polanski’s last film in the United States, and it went on to win numerous awards, receiving plenty of nominations at the Academy Awards.
Blending elements of the mystery and psychological drama genres with key aspects of film noir, Chinatown is a classic motion picture that many people look back on fondly and still re-watch to this day. The film has a fascinating origin story, an intriguing array of behind-the-scenes tales, and some amazing cast and production facts too. Read on to learn all about the story of Chinatown, from the early beginnings of how the idea came about right up to the film’s release, reception, and even sequel.
To tell the story of Chinatown, it only makes sense to start at the beginning. It was in 1970 that the film’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, said to his girlfriend at the time: “I want to write a movie for Jack.” He was speaking about Jack Nicholson, who had just burst into the spotlight with a role in 1969’s Easy Rider.
Towne wanted the film to be a detective movie and had already imagined Jane Fonda in the role of the plucky damsel in need of help, and he wanted it set in pre-war Los Angeles. Later on, when speaking with Jack Nicholson about the idea, the actor asked, “So what’s it about?” and the screenwriter responded, “I don’t know,” before adding another important word: “Water.”
The story of Chinatown, as originally seen in the mind of Robert Towne, was inspired by the California Water Wars. These were a series of political conflicts that took place between the city of LA and various farms and ranchers in the nearby Owens Valley. As the city of LA was expanding in the 19th century, it was becoming too big to cope with its existing water supply.
It needed more water, and the mayor at the time thought he could make an aqueduct to take water from the Owens Valley. Farmers and ranchers in the area resisted, but the mayor eventually got his way, with a lot of political tricks, lies, and deceit allegedly involved in the story. For Robert Towne, it was a great foundation for a film.
Robert Towne had his original idea for the film back in 1970 and worked on it gradually over time, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the movie began to grow. Film producer Robert Evans came to Towne and offered him $175,000 to write a screenplay of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby.
Towne said he loved the book and couldn’t possibly improve on it, but said he’d be happy with a smaller budget of just $25,000 to write his own story, Chinatown, with Jack Nicholson in the lead role. From that moment on, he set about writing his script and bringing his idea to life.
Robert Towne wrote Chinatown with his friend, Jack Nicholson, in mind all the way through. He always knew that Jack was destined to star in the picture and made sure that the dialogue and script cues lined up with Nicholson’s style and character. He took his story inspiration from the Water Wars and Carey McWilliams’s Southern California Country: An Island on the Land.
He said that the title of the film came from a talk he had with a vice cop who had worked in Chinatown and explained to him that the many gangs and different dialects in the area made it an almost impenetrable place for the police to get involved in.
Every film needs a director, and Chinatown needed someone special. The producer and screenwriter behind Chinatown believed that Roman Polanski would be the perfect fit for the film, able to offer a dark, sinister, cynical look at pre-war America that only a European director could provide.
However, Polanski hadn’t worked in America for several years, ever since a traumatic event in 1969 when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ cult. Since that awful incident, Polanski had been spending time in Europe, making movies like Macbeth and What? He was reluctant to go back to Hollywood, but when he saw the script for Chinatown, he decided it was worth it.
It was clear right from the start that Jack Nicholson had to play the part of J. J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, and the character was even named after one of Nicholson’s friends, Harry Gittes. For the role of Evelyn Mulwray, Robert Towne wanted Jane Fonda, but Roman Polanski had other ideas. He wanted Faye Dunaway to play the part and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Since the producer wanted Polanski on board no matter what, it was decided that Dunaway would play the part. The third major character in the film is Noah Cross, played by John Huston. Towne believed that Huston was the best-cast actor in the film after Nicholson and helped to make the character of Cross more menacing and scarier through his acting abilities.
There have been many cases of directors choosing to make little cameo appearances in their own movies. Still, Roman Polanski might be the only one to appear in his film brandishing a real knife and holding it against the nose of his leading man! Polanski played a hired goon who attacks Nicholson’s character with a knife.
He wanted to get a realistic shot, so he decided that the best thing to do was use a real knife with some fake blood in the handle. The knife has a special mechanism that allowed it to fold inwards when moved at the right angle. If Polanski had got the angle wrong, he could easily have sliced Nicholson’s face.
The screenplay for Chinatown was written by Robert Towne. Born in 1934 in Los Angeles, Towne was part of the ‘New Hollywood’ filmmaking movement. Funnily enough, Towne originally sought work as an actor and did an acting class with Roger Corman, where one of his classmates was none other than Jack Nicholson.
He originally spent a bit of time writing for shows like Breaking Point and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before becoming known as a ‘script doctor’, making small changes and edits to pre-existing scripts to tidy up the plots. He even did some work doctoring the script on The Godfather before later enjoying great success in the early 1970s with three scripts: The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo.
Hollis Mulwray, the husband of Evelyn Mulwray and chief engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, was allegedly based on Irish immigrant William Mulholland. Mullholland was the chief engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power during the construction of the first aqueduct from Owens Valley to LA.
During the film, we see Mulwray oppose Noah Cross’ plan for the construction of a dam. This part of the film seems to allude to a real-life incident, the St. Francis Dam disaster, in which a dam inspected by Mulholland collapsed and led to the deaths of up to 600 people, thereby ending the career of William Mulholland.
Roman Polanski’s direction is widely credited as being a big part of the success of Chinatown, and he used a variety of interesting techniques during the filming and making of the movie. One of those techniques was to ensure that all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through the eyes of the main character, Jake Gittes.
In one scene, when Gittes is knocked out, the film fades to black and then only fades back in when Gittes wakes back up, so we don’t get to see what happened in between, we only see Gittes’ story. Polanski says that the works of Raymond Chandler, a successful detective fiction writer, inspired him to try this technique.
There are many stories throughout Hollywood history of directors and leading ladies having some kind of friction or difficult working relationship. Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren or Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall are a couple of examples.
Roman Polanski and Faye Dunaway can be added to that list. Apparently, they had a lot of conflict on the set, with various cast and crew members, including Jack Nicholson, reporting that the director and actor had a lot of problems working together. Dunaway says that Polanski’s behavior was cruel and controlling, while the director argued that Dunaway was hysterical and had the typical behavior of a female American star of the time.
One example of how Dunaway and Polanski had a difficult time working together on Chinatown concerns a single hair! The story goes that Robert Evans flew in Ara Gallant, famed hairstylist, to streak Dunaway’s hair for the film. While filming one of the scenes, one of Dunaway’s hairs broke free from her tight blonde marcel style.
At first, Polanski tried to shoot past it, hoping that the camera wouldn’t pick it up, but because the hair had been streaked so brightly, it was glowing in the light. Polanski then decided to walk right up to Dunaway and pull the hair out of her head. She screamed in shock, burst into tears, and ran off the set to her trailer. A summit meeting then had to be held in Evans’ office to convince Dunaway to return to work.
Another extraordinary story from the set of Chinatown involves Faye Dunaway, Roman Polanski, and a cup of urine. There were many conflicts between the female star and the director, and during one particular scene, Dunaway really needed to use the bathroom but Polanski wouldn’t let her go. Instead, he demanded that she carry on filming take after take of the same scene, in which she was sitting down in a car.
When Polanski interrupted filming and walked over to the car to give Dunaway a note, she apparently rolled down the window and tossed a cup of liquid into his face. The official story says the cup was filled with some kind of drink, but rumors say that Dunaway peed in it.
Faye Dunaway wasn’t the only one who had some trouble with Roman Polanski on the set of Chinatown. The film’s leading man, Jack Nicholson, also had a couple of run-ins with the director. One day, Nicholson was watching an LA Lakers basketball game in his trailer. Polanski had finished setting up for a shoot and called for Nicholson to start filming.
Nicholson, a huge sports fan, refused to start work until the game was over, but Polanski wasn’t happy. When Nicholson finally came down to the set, the director marched up to his trailer and tried to smash the TV with a mop. He couldn’t get it to break like that, so he picked it up and tossed it right out the trailer.
Jerry Goldsmith was the man responsible for composing and recording the score for Chinatown. He managed to do the whole thing in just 10 days after the film’s producer, Robert Evans, rejected Phillip Lambro’s original efforts. Goldsmith’s score has been described as a haunting masterpiece by film critics and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The tracks mostly blended elements of jazz and mysterious noir beats, with a total running time of around 30 minutes. Jerry Goldsmith, who sadly died in 2004, was one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, playing a part in the composition of scores for such films as Alien, Poltergeist, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Gremlins.
In the original script, Robert Towne wanted the villainous Noah Cross to die and Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Cross Mulwray, to survive and escape with her illegitimate daughter. Polanski, however, had other ideas in mind and believed that Evelyn needed to die.
Polanski argued that the film wouldn’t have been such a big success without its tragic ending and the death of Evelyn. In one interview, he argued that “We wouldn’t be sitting around talking about it today” if the film had a happy ending. In the end, screenwriter Robert Towne saw things Polanski’s way and agreed that the director’s ending was the strongest possible way for the story to conclude.
The death scene and ending of the film weren’t the only things that Roman Polanski decided to change. He actually made quite a few alterations to the script, so the final film we see is quite different to the one that Robert Towne had originally intended to make. The first draft of the script was over 180 pages long.
It included a whole narration by Gittes, but Polanski decided to get rid of that. He wanted the film to play out and show Gittes unraveling the mystery piece by piece, in time with the audience. The narration would have ruined that effect, so he decided to cut it completely.
Even though Roman Polanski made many changes to the script, changed the ending entirely, and decided that Faye Dunaway should be given one of the lead roles, he didn’t get to make every single decision. For example, he offered his cinematographer friend, William A. Fraker, a job on the picture.
The pair had worked together on Rosemary’s Baby, and this worried Chinatown producer Robert Evans. Evans hadn’t been consulted about the hiring of Fraker and insisted that the job offer be rescinded as he was worried that if Polanski and Fraker were allowed to work together, they’d have too much control over the picture. In the end, John A. Alonzo was given the job.
Funnily enough, even though the film was called Chinatown, it wasn’t originally supposed to have any scenes taking place in Chinatown itself. Robert Towne used the idea of Chinatown as a symbol in his original script, saying that it represented ‘the futility of good intentions’.
It was only ever supposed to be used as a symbol, but Polanski thought that the film would be more satisfying and its title would make more sense if at least one of the scenes happened in Chinatown. He decided to stage the ending of the film there. This turned out to be a positive decision as the ending is regarded as one of the film’s strongest aspects.
We’ve spoken about Roman Polanski’s cameo appearance in the film as a knife-wielding thug. This cameo is interesting for two reasons. The first, as mentioned earlier, is that Polanski used a real knife. The second is the fact that it almost didn’t happen, and it was all because of the director’s pride in his hair.
He had very long hair at the time and liked his look, but he needed to get it cut to play a rough, tough thug in the film. He really didn’t want to cut his hair, so almost backed out of the cameo, but then decided to go through with it and got his hair trimmed right there on the set, just before shooting.
When you watch Chinatown, you’ll notice that there’s one character who always seems to say Jake Gittes’ name the wrong way. We’re talking about Noah Cross, played by John Huston. Instead of saying the name like “Git-ess,” he always says “Gits.”
Some viewers may have believed that this was an intentional decision made by the actor or director, but it was actually all down to the fact that Huston just couldn’t seem to say the name the right way. Roman Polanski noticed this but decided to leave it in the film as he thought it added to the character of Cross and made him stand out more compared to the other characters.
When asked about the film, Robert Towne says that there was one scene he always wished had made it to the final cut. The scene featured the character of Curly, a man who hires Gittes to see if his wife is cheating on him.
In the original drafts of the script, this scene was much longer, with Curly saying he’ll kill his wife and Gittes saying that he doesn’t have enough money to get away with it. Towne says that this scene could have played a valuable role in foreshadowing the events that would later occur throughout the film in terms of money, power, crime, and murder.
When you watch Chinatown, you may notice that there’s a certain visual theme that keeps popping up time and time again. At one stage, we see a pair of pocket watches side by side; one of them is working fine, while the other is broken. Later on, we see a pair of glasses with one of the lenses cracked.
We also see Gittes’ own nose with one of the nostrils sliced. He loses one of his shoes at one point, and he smashes one of the lights on Evelyn’s car. The list goes on and on of pairs of things with one of the missing, broken, or lost. Funnily enough, when asked about this, Towne said it wasn’t an intentional form of visual symbolism.
The original ending of Chinatown, as written by Robert Towne, was a relatively happy and triumphant one in which Evelyn made it away alive with her daughter, ready to start a new life. Polanski changed all of that, with Evelyn being shot and killed by the police during a dramatic climax.
There are a few theories floating around as to where the idea for this ending came from. Roman Polanski says that he was inspired by the sad ending of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, saying that the tragic ending of Lennie stayed with him for a long time. Some, however, including Towne, believe that Polanski decided Evelyn had to die after witnessing the death of his own beautiful blonde wife, Sharon Tate, in Los Angeles just a few years earlier.
During the filming of Chinatown, Jack Nicholson was actually in a relationship with the daughter of one of his co-stars, John Huston. Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, was a rising name in Hollywood at the time, working as a model and actor. She and Jack formed a happy and loving couple, but Huston wasn’t too keen on their relationship.
One day, he invited Anjelica to visit him on the set of Chinatown, and they had lunch together with Jack. At one point, Huston eyed Jack angrily and said, “I hear you are sleeping with my daughter,” before taking a long, dramatic pause and then adding, “Mr. Gittes.” At first, everyone was worried that Huston was mad at Nicholson but then they all burst out laughing.
Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where Jack Nicholson’s character slaps Faye Dunaway’s character several times in the face as he attempts to get the truth from her, and she becomes hysterical. It’s an emotional and dramatic scene, one that can be tough to watch, and it’s made even more grueling when you learn that some of those slaps were real!
During filming, Faye Dunaway felt that Nicholson’s stage slaps weren’t realistic enough and needed to be more real, so she asked him to give her a genuine slap. He went along with it, but the shot required several takes so Faye ended up getting slapped several times.
In order to get Roman Polanski on board as the director without having to commit to paying a huge fee, Chinatown’s producer, Robert Evans, tried to play a very sneaky trick. Polanski was known as a great artist, but not the best deal-maker. Evans had seen Polanski’s previous film, What? and thought it was terrible.
So he called up Polanski and said “I’ll pay you for Chinatown exactly what you make on What?” Roman agreed on the deal as he felt like What? was going to be a huge success and make him a lot of money. The very next day, Evans got an angry call from the director’s lawyers.
The late Robert Evans, producer of Chinatown, enjoyed a lot of success after the movie was released. He even bought his dream home, an estate named Woodland, with the money he’d earned and became close pals with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Henry Kissinger.
He was living a life of luxury, but that dream all came crashing down in the 1980s. A cocaine bust and a murder connected with one of Evans’ movies – The Cotton Club – sent his life spiraling out of control. He became depressed and lost his home, but Nicholson, who had been very close with Evans since Chinatown, decided to help him buy it back.
Chinatown actually had a sequel. It was called The Two Jakes and it wasn’t released until 1990, some 16 years after the original. Interestingly, Jack Nicholson came back to appear in the movie and he also decided to direct it too. Other cast members included Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, and Madeleine Stowe.
Faye Dunaway came back in a small voiceover role, and other cast members from the original Chinatown, including Joe Mantell and Perry Lopez, also came back, along with producer Robert Evans. Unfortunately, the film was not a big success and didn’t capture the vibe of the original. It was a commercial failure, losing money at the box office.
The screenwriter for Chinatown, Robert Towne, had a close friendship with the film’s leading man, Jack Nicholson. The pair had originally met at an acting class, believed to have taken place in the late 1950s. In the early 1970s, Towne did some script editing for a movie that Nicholson was directing called Drive, He Said, and then the pair reunited for Chinatown in 1974.
Their friendship was tested, however, in 1990 after the catastrophic release of Chinatown’s sequel, The Two Jakes. In one interview, Towne said that for the sake of his friendship with Nicholson, he didn’t want to talk too much about his disappointment with the film and added that it “wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of us.”
Interestingly, there were actually plans in place for a third movie in the Chinatown series to be made. The film even had a title and a plot. It was set to be called ‘Gittes vs. Gittes’ and was planned to be set in 1968, showing Gittes’ divorce and finalizing the trilogy of stories revolving around the famed private investigator.
Screenwriter Robert Towne had hoped to make all three movies and was bolstered by the success of the original Chinatown, but it took a long time for the sequel to get made and it was such a big failure that any and all plans for the third film ended up being scrapped.
Born in Paris in 1933, Roman Polanski is a Polish-French director, writer, and actor. He lived in Poland as a child and was trapped in the Krakow Ghetto with his family during World War II. His parents were taken away during Nazi raids and the young Polanski spent much time in foster homes. When he got older, he turned to movie-making.
His first ever film, Knife in the Water, received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. He had great success with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 too but suffered a tragedy in 1969 when his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of the Manson Family.
Chinatown was a very big success story for Roman Polanski, but the years that followed brought a lot of drama to his life. He was arrested and charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and then fled to Paris.
He has spent the rest of his life as a fugitive from the US criminal justice system but has continued to make movies in Europe, including some very successful pictures like Tess in 1979 and The Pianist in 2002. He has received multiple awards, including a Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, but remains a controversial figure in the world of cinema for his troubled past.
Back in the early 1970s, when Chinatown was made, Jack Nicholson had already established himself as a leading man, but many of his biggest roles in films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining were still to come. Born in 1937 in Neptune City, New Jersey, Nicholson was the son of a showgirl.
He enrolled with the military as a young man, before turning to acting, but found work hard to come by at first. At one point, he even thought he’d never make it and decided to try and become a writer/director instead. Fortunately, Nicholson got his first big break in Easy Rider as lawyer George Hanson and his career went from strength to strength from there.
Chinatown was just one of many success stories for one of Hollywood’s biggest names, Jack Nicholson. The star went on to appear in other successful motion pictures like The Shining, Reds, As Good As it Gets, and Terms of Endearment. He was successful throughout the 80s, 90s, and even into the 21st century with movies like The Departed.
Jack Nicholson has received a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations, making him the most nominated male actor in the history of cinema. He is also one of just three male actors to win three Academy Awards in total. Now in his 80s, Nicholson has mostly stopped appearing in films and TV shows.
Faye Dunaway was the female lead in Chinatown and had already established herself as an actor of great talent back when the film was made. Born in Florida in 1941, dunaway spent her childhood traveling due to her father’s status as a US Army officer. She took classes in dancing, singing, and acting while growing up and attended Boston University, before heading to Broadway.
She appeared in several Broadway shows before getting his first big break on screen in The Happening. Then, in 1967, she appeared as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde, which proved to be one of her most iconic roles. She followed that up with The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968, before having a few less successful movie roles and then bouncing back with Chinatown.
After Chinatown and her second Oscar nomination, Faye Dunaway’s career went from strength to strength. She appeared in films across various genres from the action disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, to the satirical drama, Network, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress.
As time went by, she took on various characters and mature roles in movies like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Rules of Attraction. In the 2000s, she took a bit of a break from acting for a while but has appeared in small roles in recent movies like The Bye Bye Man and Inconceivable. She rarely gives interviews and keeps much of her private life secret.
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway weren’t the only big stars of Chinatown. Several other actors appeared throughout the film and played their parts in its success. John Huston, for example, shone in his role as Noah Cross. He was also a successful director who won two Oscars before passing away in the late 80s.
Perry Lopez appeared as Lou Escobar. He was a film and TV star for four decades, appearing on shows like Star Trek and Bonanza. John Hillerman, star of Magnum PI, appeared as Russ Yelburton. Then there was Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray. Zwerling appeared in several more films and shows but retired from acting in the early 90s.
Chinatown was not only a commercial success, earning $29 million at the box office, but a critical one too. It received almost universal acclaim, with major film critics like Roger Ebert calling it a triumph. Naturally, the film subsequently received a great deal of attention from awards’ bodies like the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards in total, including some of the top categories like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It won the award for Best Original Screenplay. At the Golden Globes, it won Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Motion Picture. It also won several BAFTA awards.
These days, many years after its initial release, Chinatown is still looked on fondly and admired by film fans and Hollywood professionals. The screenplay is regarded as one of the greatest ever written, and Polanski’s direction is still seen as one of the core elements of the film’s success.
It may have only won one of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, but it’s classed as one of the best films of the 70s, if not of all time, and it helped to bring a lot of public attention to the story of the Water Wars, as well as featuring in many prestigious critics’ lists of most influential movies.