Oscar Vault Monday – Chinatown, 1974 (dir. Roman Polanski)

This is one of those films that’s often imitated but never duplicated (even with the ill-conceived 1990 sequel). It was directed by Roman Polanksi, who at the time was one of Hollywood’s hottest up and coming directors; was written by Robert Towne, who at the time was mostly known for some uncredited work on Bonnie & Clyde and The Godfather; and stared two of the most acclaimed young actors of their generation: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but only Robert Towne walked away a winner for his screenplay. It lost Best Picture to The Godfather Part II which is, perhaps, the most acclaimed sequel of all time.

Polanski received his first of three nominations for Best Director, losing to Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather Part II. And although he would go on to win for 2002’s The Pianist, I think this is by far his masterpiece. It’s a detective tale full of twists and turns and the direction is impeccable. I think really what makes this film so amazing is the combination of all who worked on it. equal parts his direction, Towne’s script and the performances of each of the actors.

At this point Nicholson had already been nominated for three acting awards one for supporting, two for lead: Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail; but had yet to win. Ultimately he lost to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto, but he went on to win the next year for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve yet to see Art Carney’s performance, but I find it very hard to believe it was better than Nicholson’s. In fact he won numerous awards for his performance, including a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. He is a force to be reckoned with in this film, exuding an insane amount of energy from the beginning of the film all the way to the very last frame.

I also feel it necessary to point out that for a great deal of the film Nicholson performs with a giant bandage over his nose. Not only does it not hinder his brilliant performance, he somehow even makes the bandages sexy. The choice to have their lead male covered in a bandage for so much of the film was a risky one at the time, but it more than works, and is now one of the more memorable aspects of the film.

I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t go into too much detail about Faye Dunaway’s character, but let’s just say it’s one of the most complex and tortured performances ever to grace the silver screen. This was Dunaway’s second performance to earn her an Oscar nomination, she’d previously been nominated for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, and would later win the award for 1976’s Network. She is definitely one of the greatest actresses from the 1970s and the roles she originated are nothing short of iconic.

To call John Huston’s character in this film a scoundrel is beyond understatement. He is perhaps one of the slimiest, most despicable characters in cinema history and John Huston plays him so well. What’s so remarkable about John Huston’s turn in this film is that he’s more known for his directing – he’s directed over 40 films and won Best Director for 1948’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly he  was comfortable – and talented – both behind the camera and in front of it.

Prior to her role in this film, Diane Ladd had mostly worked in television, and although her role is small, it is a crucial one and she plays it with gusto. The following year she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Flo in Martin Scorses’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, as well as being nominated twice in the 90s for Wild At Heart and Rambling Rose. She was married to actor Bruce Dern from 1960 to 1969 and is the mother of actress Laura Dern. All three are being awarded Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011.

I don’t want to spoil the film, because I feel like it would ruin your viewing experience if you’ve never seen it, so I’m not going to talk much more about it. Instead I’m just going to end this post with the final lines of the film, as they were perfectly delivered by veteran television actor Joe Mantell:

Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

If you’re interest in purchasing the film, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on June 21, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

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