February Books

Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)

More or less by accident, a theme runs through much of this month’s overview of new and notable books: Europeans and Brits in Hollywood. The most notorious of this round’s lot is Roman Polanski, who at eighty-six, was in the news again just last week when all twenty-one members of the board that oversees the César Academy announced that they would be resigning immediately after the presentation of this year’s César awards on February 28. Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy leads the nominations for France’s rough equivalent to the Oscars, and as Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione reports, nine feminist organizations have issued an open call to academy members to deny Polanski and his film their votes. “If rape is an art,” reads the title of the open letter, “give Polanski all the Césars.”

In 1978, Polanski, having pled guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor,” fled the United States when it became clear that the judge presiding over his case was going to ignore the plea bargain he’d approved and sentence the director to fifty years. The scandal has persistently shadowed a life already riven with tragedy. Polanski’s mother was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, and in 1969, followers of Charles Manson murdered his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four others at their home in Los Angeles. “Nostalgia, in the wake of the Tate-LaBianca murders, redolent of a greener, guileless city, paled Robert Towne’s vision,” begins an excerpt at CrimeReads from Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.

Towne won an Oscar for his screenplay for Chinatown (1974), his only one so far, and the only Oscar to go to a movie that Steven Soderbergh has argued is “as good [as] or even better than we all think it is.” The big revelation in The Big Goodbye is that for more than forty years, Towne paid an old college friend, Edward Taylor, to work as his writing partner and to keep quiet about it.

The liveliest review of the latest book by Wasson, whose 2013 biography of Bob Fosse became the basis for last year’s FX series Fosse/Verdon, comes from A. S. Hamrah in Bookforum. Hamrah finds this “grand elegy for the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s” steeped in yearning for the days before the blockbuster era. “Wasson’s deep, abiding nostalgia seeks to replicate Chinatown’s noirish feel, but without any of the film’s revisionist approach to genre,” he writes. “Wasson sometimes goes for the California gothic of Ross Macdonald’s detective novels, but the way he writes is the opposite of hard-boiled.” Hamrah pulls an example from a passage that sees Polanski reflecting on Tate’s murder: “Where others saw crimson sunsets fade to pink, he could not stop her bleeding flesh from rotting to darkness.”

The screenplay that Towne first gave Polanski ran to 340 pages, and as the two worked together to cut it down to a manageable 130, they fought bitterly over the ending. Towne wanted J. J. “Jake” Gittes, the private detective played by Jack Nicholson, to save Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), daughter of the wealthy villain (John Huston), but Polanski wasn’t having it. As Mark Horowitz points out in the New York Times, production designer Richard Sylbert, talking to Wasson, “summed up Polanski best: ‘The point is the girl dies. That’s his whole life.’”

Reviewing The Big Goodbye for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Biskind, who wrote about Chinatown in his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, finds that “Wasson proves himself an indefatigable researcher, plundering every imaginable scrap of relevant material.” For Horowitz, Wasson’s occasional “attempts to reach for something deeper to say about America in the ’70s come across as awkward and heavy-handed attempts at sociology.”

Nevertheless, Horowitz sees The Big Goodbye as “part of a welcome and newish publishing trend: deeply researched and elaborately subtitled books about a single movie, which explore and reframe the film as an inflection point within the broader culture.” As examples, he points to Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, W. K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, and Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Frankel, who’s currently working on a book about New York in the 1960s and the making of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), writes an appreciative review of The Big Goodbye for the Washington Post—though he does find that the “prose occasionally overheats.”

Leone and Morricone

One title that Horowitz might have included on his list is Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece by Christopher Frayling, the author of Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. The book features a foreword by Leone fan Quentin Tarantino, who gives Sharon Tate a happier destiny in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. In the TLS, Keith Hopper reviews Frayling’s book alongside 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Italian Western by Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) and Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, a collection edited by Alessandro De Rosa. “Morricone developed an innovative process of scoring and sound design, which is outlined in detail in all three books under review,” notes Hopper, while Cox, in his passages on Once Upon a Time, “turns film-buff trivia into a fascinating meditation on signs and meaning.”

For Hopper, the highlight of Frayling’s book is the “compelling introduction, which outlines the various formal techniques that made this film a belated masterpiece.” Hopper also pulls a quote from filmmaker John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance), who has argued that with Once Upon a Time, “the western reaches its apotheosis. Leone’s title is a declaration of intent and also his gift to America of its lost fairy tales . . . It is both the greatest and the last western.”

British Memoirs

For his part, Boorman “may be the most inspired and wayward of English directors since Michael Powell,” writes David Thomson on the London Review of Books. The occasion for the piece is Conclusions, a new memoir by the eighty-seven-year-old director and something of a follow-up to 2004’s Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Xan Brooks, who interviews Boorman for the Guardian, finds Conclusions to be “a lovely miscellany, loose and limber, juggling filmmaking tips (‘Don’t make the script too good’) with gossipy recollections of ’60s and ’70s Hollywood.”

Another British legend, another second memoir. For Bookforum, Lindsay Zoladz reviews Julie Andrews’s Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, cowritten with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Zoladz more or less sets the book aside to reflect on her own about what Andrews represents. She suggests that there’s “an odd tension beneath the surface of Andrews’s most ostensibly wholesome performances—the kind that can drive a viewer to all sorts of wild speculation about what Mary Poppins gets up to on her days off, and that can inspire an entire volume of queer theory that hinges upon a dissident reading of the boyish Maria von Trapp (see: Stacy Wolf’s 2002 A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical). Pinning down the hidden complexities and contradictions of Andrews’s stardom is a bit like holding a moonbeam in your hand. As composer and broadcaster Neil Brand put it to the Guardian last year, Andrews may just be ‘the politest rebel in all cinema.’”

Less Polite Rebels

In the 1950s, Andrews arrived in the States as a celebrated singer and performer, but a little over twenty years before, Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel moved to Santa Monica virtually unknown to anyone—excepting the very famous. At the home she shared with her husband, Berthold Viertel, a director invited to Hollywood by F. W. Murnau, she entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht, and her close friend Greta Garbo. “The role she played in both Golden Age Hollywood and transplanted Weimar high culture was crucial if vaporous,” writes Adina Hoffman in the New York Times.

Writing for Tablet, Thomas Doherty notes that the “near-tandem publication of a new edition of Viertel’s luminous memoir, The Kindness of Strangers, and an essential companion piece by literary critic Donna Rifkind, The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood, offers a welcome opportunity to look back on—and bask in the sheer decency of—a woman who was much more than the sum of her illustrious houseguests.” Viertel pulled strings, solicited donations, and lobbied the State Department in her tireless efforts to rescue friends and strangers alike from Hitler’s Europe. “Given her fierce anti-Fascism and open door to refugees of all stripes, it is no surprise that Salka ran afoul of the postwar anti-communist crusade in America,” writes Doherty. Work “dried up with suspicious synchronicity” and she had little choice but to return to Europe in 1954. “Readers who have fallen in love with the Salka Viertel of the memoir will be reassured to know that the woman Rifkind portrays is as good as the legend,” writes Doherty.

While Viertel’s politics were grossly misconstrued by U.S. authorities during the McCarthy era, the reputation of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is considered by many to be the greatest nonfiction film ever made, “has been resurrected by successive groups of artists and intellectuals to legitimize other political interventions,” writes Emma Widdis in her review for the TLS of the first volume of John Mackay’s “magisterial” Dziga Vertov: Life and Work. Widdis argues that a single question runs throughout the book: “What do the revolutionary ambitions of the early twentieth century—the first ‘media age’—have in common with the present?”


Let’s wrap with a few quick notes. Christopher Schobert tops his latest round of recommendations at the Film Stage with a few words on The Irishman: The Making of the Movie, a pricey but handsome volume collecting interviews with Martin Scorsese and his cast and crew, photographs by Brigitte Lacombe, and a text by Tom Shone. “It’s a beautiful and surprisingly intimate appreciation for a cinematic masterpiece,” writes Schobert. At Hyperallergic, Jake Cole recommends Manny Farber: Paintings & Writings, a collection edited by Michael Almereyda, Jonathan Lethem, and Robert Polito. Catherine Grant notes that the introduction to Eric Smoodin’s Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950 is freely accessible. And on Tuesdays, starting on March 3, Eleanor Wachtel will be hosting the tenth season of the TIFF Cinematheque series Books on Film in Toronto.

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