By Charles Taylor
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It's a warm spring evening on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood, and the crowd jostling for hors d'oeuvres in the lobby of the Paramount Theater exudes the anticipatory hum of a gala studio premiere. Only tonight's feature presentation isn't a new summer blockbuster or year-end prestige release. Rather, it's Chinatown, director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne's seminal 1974 noir, presented as part of a series of archival treasures timed to the studio's 100th anniversary.
When the lights go down, producer Robert Evans perches himself on the edge of the stage. He tells how Chinatown was the first film in his independent-production deal at the studio—a deal he started while still serving as the studio's overall head of production. How he initially approached Towne to adapt The Great Gatsby, only for the writer to counter with an original script. How Evans could scarcely understand the twisty plot upon first read. How he used Jane Fonda (the first choice for Chinatown's female lead) as a pawn with legendary agent Sue Mengers in order to get his eventual star, Faye Dunaway, for less than her asking price. How Polanski was the most brilliant director he ever worked with. And how "everyone said I was crazy—until they saw the movie."
Arriving the same year as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II and The Conversation and one year ahead of Robert Altman's Nashville, Chinatown came at the height of Evans's power and at the peak of the American moviemaking renaissance bookended by Bonnie and Clyde and Jaws. Altman's, Coppola's, and Polanski's films, plus a dozen more from that risk-taking decade, are now the subject of a month-long retrospective at New York's Museum of the Moving Image—a lineup that suggests Paramount had its ear especially close to the ground of the "New" Hollywood. The series also includes acknowledged classics like The Godfather (1972), Harold and Maude (1971), and Paper Moon (1973) alongside lesser-known gems like Elaine May's A New Leaf (1971) and Peter Yates's hard-boiled The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). Not a comic book adaptation among them.
It was a moment of magic born from the fires of institutional chaos. At the dawn of the 1970s, its box office fortunes failing, Paramount became the first Hollywood studio to be sold off to a larger industrial conglomerate. Yet rather than an artistic death sentence, the sale to Charles Bluhdorn's Gulf + Western—a company that had made its fortune in auto parts—sparked a creative (and financial) renaissance. It was Bluhdorn who bet on Evans—a failed actor who had just embarked in earnest on a producing career—and Evans who in turn recruited Peter Bart, then a New York Times reporter covering Hollywood, as his vice president in charge of production. Together with the equally untested Stanley Jaffe (hired at age 30 to be studio president) and his eventual successor, Frank Yablans, they would develop many of the greatest films of the era.
In his raucously entertaining recent book, Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex), Bart sketches an absurdist portrait of Paramount in those days, with Bluhdorn selling off half of the lot to a shady Italian businessman, soundstages rented out for porn shoots, and Mob "fixer" Sidney Korshak retained as a kind of studio consigliere. "The atmosphere was chaotic, and corporately speaking, it wasn't what anyone would define as a well-run company, which was its strength," Bart says over lunch at L.A.'s Farmers Market the day of the Chinatown screening. "One of the reasons there was so many good pictures was because of the conflict within."
In other words, it was easier to get away with things. In the case of Paper Moon, Bart says he can't recall a single internal discussion over how director Peter Bogdanovich should shoot his lyrical, Depression-era father-daughter con artist drama. "I never told anybody in distribution or advertising or anywhere that it was going to be in black-and-white because I thought someone would throw a monkey wrench into it," he says. "No one knew except Evans and me. And that's how good pictures get made. At a studio today, can you imagine how many meetings would have taken place to discuss whether we should make Paper Moon and who should be in it? The only conflict I remember is that my oldest daughter used to play with [Oscar-winning Paper Moon star] Tatum O'Neal, and she didn't like her. So she called a meeting about that."
"The studios hadn't quite forged the more ironclad system of controls that they later did after some legendary films supposedly broke the backs of certain studios," recalls Coppola. Still, he counters the notion that '70s-era studio filmmakers operated with complete creative freedom. "On The Godfather, the studio had a man named Jack Ballard who was there to make sure I didn't veer whatsoever from the agreed-upon schedule and things I had agreed to cut from the script. He had a lot of authority. He was there on set, he was a striking guy with a bald head, and he didn't like me.
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