Continuing our look back at great Oscar winners, 1974 was the year of Chinatown, probably the greatest film noir made since the golden days of Raymond Chandler and the 1940s.
Chinatown was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. Unfortunately, it was the year of Godfather Part 2 which pretty much collected all the major trophies. Chinatown won just one Oscar but fittingly it was for the classic script by Robert Towne.
Jack Nicolson and Faye Dunaway were both nominated for best actor and actress. Nicolson was heavily favored but lost to sentimental favorite Art Carney. Dunaway lost to Ellen Burstyn's epic Scorsese female drama Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Jack Nicolson's status as a fine actor is supported by his three Academy Awards and 12 nominations—only Meryl Streep has more. Toss in seven Golden Globes, Kennedy Center honors and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and we are talking about a legendary career. Hit films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Passenger, Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets etc and you see probably the most impressive male cinematic career of the last 40 years
The essence of Jack Nicolson as an actor and sex symbol is on permanent display in his finest film, Chinatown. This wonderful 1974 film noir directed by Roman Polanski and co-starring Faye Dunaway—deliciously neurotic—is arguably the greatest film of the '70s—no easy choice considering Cabaret, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather are just some of the contenders. But Jack Nicolson's Jake Gittes with his fantastic 1937 wardrobe and blistering didialogourtesy of Robert Towne is truly one of the monumental film creations. What makes Jack Nicolson stand out above his contemporaries like Robert de Niro and Al Pacino is the cynical smart-ass approach he brought to almost all of his film roles.
Chinatown was that rare combination of luck and great talent. Producer Robert Evans, Director Roman Polanski and Robert Towne all came together at the peak of their artistic powers to create one of the most iconic films ever made. Creating this film was not easy. Director Polanski changed the ending of Towne's script to the complete downer that we love today. In the original ending, the Faye Dunaway character shoots her foul father (played by the great John Huston) and escapes with her daughter. Polanski rightly figured the film would have a much bigger impact with the tragic ending he devised.
To say that Roman Polanski and Faye Dunaway did not get along is understatement. Polanski later said, "I do feel Faye was tremendously tempermental. Off the stage I find her impossible." But Dunaway's performance as the poor tormented Evelyn Mulray is one of the great ones of the decade. Who will ever forget her aria with Jack Nicolson, "Sister/Daughter," that reveals the shocking secret to the film.
Chinatown is one of the landmark films of this century. It received raves when released. Newsweek called it "A brilliant cinematic poem," and for the past 40 years the film's stature has continued to grow.
Jack Nicolson easily moved into older, less charismatic roles, and the public has never gotten tired of his protean gifts. He could play a terrible bigot in As Good As It Gets and still win over an audience. Basically, it's just amusing to watch Jack Nicholson, whether as a crusty old man in a film or a devoted Laker basketball fan courtside.
Faye Dunaway finally won her Academy Award as the ballsy network chief in the fabulous Network. Dunaway had already starred in the iconic Bonnie and Clyde seven years before Chinatown. Dunaway would eventually gain gay cult status with her magnificent turn as Joan Crawford in the much-maligned Mommie Dearest.
If you want to see Jack Nicolson and Faye Dunaway's charm, talent and great personalities all rolled up into one movie, check out Chinatown. If you have seen it or think you know it well, watch it again. Chinatown will continually surprise you with repeated viewings. Classics don't come any better.