Between Five Easy Pieces and Nicholson’s next appearance in the Best Picture category he garnered another Best Actor nomination for The Last Detail. But Nicholson’s next appearance in a Best Picture nominee arguably saw him go from character actor to established leading man.
The film was Chinatown, a film noir set in the early 1930s and very reminiscent of movies such as Scarlet Street and Double Indemnity. Here Nicholson starred as Jake Gittes, a former cop turned private detective who is initially tasked with exploring the infidelity of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power. Little does Gittes know that the woman who has paid him to investigate the case is not Mulwray’s wife and he is soon being sued by his real wife Evelyn for deformation of character. Soon Hollis turns up dead and Evelyn asks him to investigate the murder while Evelyn’s father Noah Cross, who was also Mulwray’s business partner, doubles Evelyn’s fee to get him to find Hollis’ unnamed young lover. Gittes starts to see how the story of Mulwray and Cross plays into the drought that LA is currently experiencing and he starts to play a dangerous game with some very influential people. Though Gittes does solve the murder, not everybody comes out of the case and unscathed, meaning that we don’t quite get our happy ending once again.
Similarly to Rebecca, I found the title of Chinatown fairly misleading as only really the final scenes of the movie take place in the district. What Chinatown did have was one of the best screenplays of all time, written by Robert Towne. Towne was originally asked to adapt The Great Gatsby, but declined the offer instead creating this original piece of great storytelling. Towne plays the audience perfectly as the pieces begin to fit together gradually building to that famous final scene in Chinatown. Oddly, it was director Roman Polanski who decided on the melancholy final scene with Towne wanting something a little bit more upbeat. Towne was rewarded for his work with a Best Screenplay Oscar, which was the only Oscar the film won. Nicholson’s performance here was a lot more captivating as he played the smart, everyman who wanted to make it clear that he was just trying to earn an honest living. Nicholson initially plays Gittes as someone who doesn’t let their emotions get in the way of the job, however gradually his feelings for Evelyn cloud his judgement. Faye Dunaway is perfectly cast as the classic noir heroine – a mixture of femme fatale and damsel in distress, who goes from being a fairly emotionless character to someone who acts in the heat of the moment in order to keep a loved one safe. John Huston adds fantastic support as the seedy Noah Cross while Jerry Goldsmith’s score enhances the period vibe of the whole piece. I find it’s a shame that Chinatown was nominated in such a strong year, as it does feel like a film that in any other year would be a Best Picture winner. Despite this the film has lived on due to the outstanding script and infamous scenes which mean that, unlike Gittes, we will never forget Chinatown.