Shots ring out in the night. On a darkened Chinatown street in Los Angeles, an elegant blonde played by Faye Dunaway slumps against the steering wheel of a yellow roadster, her eye pierced by a police bullet. Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a hero defeated by the forces of corruption, watches in silent despair. His partner leads him away from the scene and says, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” That enigmatic line marks the ending of a movie that Nicholson has been unable to forget. With a tenacity worthy of Gittes himself, he persisted in making a sequel to that 1974 classic, Chinatown, despite enormous obstacles. Now, at the end of a long and painful production history, he has finally completed The Two Jakes—five years after cameras were originally set to roll. After surviving a series of delays, difficulties and bitter personal feuds, Nicholson seems proud to have carved another notch in Hollywood history. “This has never been done before,” he told Maclean’s. “No one has ever done a sequel to a film 16 years later.”
The Two Jakes is the second instalment of what is intended to be a trilogy about the early development of resources in Los Angeles—
Nicholson calls it “an ecological triptych.” Chinatown’s tale of moral corrosion revolves around a plot to divert water from the city reservoir. In The Two Jakes, set 11 years later, in 1948, Gittes uncovers a conspiracy involving the city’s underground lake of oil. The detective is now more prosperous, compromised and cautious, but his sense of security is shattered when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of a second Jake, a client named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel).
Rift: It is a movie about betrayal and obsession with the past—themes that acquired a cruel resonance for the film-makers. Raging acrimony over the making of The Two Jakes has cast a long shadow over the project. The movie originated in 1984, when Nicholson created a production company with two of his closest friends—Chinatown’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Robert Towne, and its producer, Robert Evans. Towne was slated to direct the film for Paramount Pictures, and Evans—who had not acted since 1959—would co-star as Jake Berman.
But in April, 1985, when shooting was about to begin, it became clear to crew members that Evans was not up to the demands of the role.
Since being convicted for possession of cocaine in 1980, the producer’s professional life had been in turmoil. He was implicated in the 1983 murder of Roy Radin—a New York City entrepreneur who was involved in the financing of The Cotton Club (1984)—by a witness in a pretrial hearing. Although the prosecutors failed to produce evidence, the case severely damaged Evans’s reputation. According to various insiders, Evans turned into a fretful prima donna on the Two Jakes set.
Stubbornly, Nicholson resurrected the project by offering to direct it himself. Towne acknowledges that he was unhappy when his friend usurped his position as director. But, after the earlier debacle, Nicholson was the only one with enough Hollywood influence to revive the project. Last year, Towne spent three months rewriting the script to the star’s specifications. Nicholson says that Towne collaborated with him on all rewrites. But Towne told Maclean’s: “I don’t consider it a collaborative experience. I tried to understand as best I could what he wanted me to do, and it was difficult.” Although he is named as the screenwriter in the credits, The Two Jakes clearly slipped out of his control—even more than Chinatown, which was given an irredeemably dark ending by its director, Roman Polanski, against Towne’s wishes.
The rift that The Two Jakes created in the 32-year friendship between Nicholson and Towne has not closed. Both are reluctant to discuss their relationship publicly, but emotions still appear to be running high. Recently, Los Angeles Magazine published an article riddled with damning reports of Towne’s conduct on the Two Jakes set in 1985, and some of them were attributed to longtime Nicholson associate Harold Schneider. Said Schneider: “Towne got lockjaw, his brain fried. He turned into Jim Bakker. He was in a fetal position under the couch screaming, T can’t go on.’ ” Denying the allegations, Towne calls the article “outrageous and defamatory,” but adds that he has no desire to fuel the controversy. Launching a libel suit to disprove the claims, he said, would serve no purpose. Meanwhile, in an interview with Maclean’s, Schneider did not withdraw his remarks, although he conceded that they were based on secondhand reports.
Three days before the cameras were set to roll, Towne decided that Evans had to be replaced. Nicholson proposed forging ahead with the shoot, arguing that it would be easier to replace Evans later if necessary. But Towne was adamant. And nervous Paramount executives, resolving to cut their losses, pulled the plug on the production. The studio bulldozed sets worth more than $1 million. The Two Jakes partnership evaporated as creditors sued the three co-producers. And intimate friendships dissolved.
For his part, Nicholson carefully skirts the controversy surrounding his movie. “It had a very mangled beginning,” he said. “The best way to put all of that to bed is to make the film and bring it to some kind of positive resolution—and put that whole level of what happened out of your life.”
The ordeal of making the movie took its toll on Nicholson. Working double time as director and star, he had to shoot under the restraints of a relatively tight budget of $28 million. After the shoot was over, he spent almost a year assembling the final product. And last spring, when he presented his edit to Paramount executives, they politely expressed their concern that audiences might find the story confusing. Finally, the studio released the movie on Aug. 10—nine months later than first announced.
Over the summer, Nicholson wrote and recorded eight pages of narration—without Towne’s help—and added it to the movie, “not to explain the story, but to give audiences a
point of reference,” he said. As director, star, script doctor and narrator, Nicholson has made the movie his own, and he seems determined to let The Two Jakes stand on its own two feet. “All comparisons are odious,” he said when asked about the challenge of living up to the Chinatown legend. “And you can’t avoid them here. They can’t work for you; they have to work against you.”
Corruption: The Two Jakes offered Nicholson neither happiness nor riches. But it gave him an opportunity to re-create a character— and a period in the past—that fascinated him. “Gittes is certainly closer to me than the devil, or the Joker,” he said, referring to his roles in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Batman
(1989). In the sequel, he is a less impetuous Gittes than the character in Chinatown. “He is a man who has been through the war,” the actor added. “He doesn’t crack quite as many jokes. He’s not quite sure about what’s right and wrong in any given situation.”
The Two Jakes, like Chinatown, is a story of personal and political corruption. One film is about oil, the other about water. But the most celebrated products being pumped out of Los Angeles, the city built on a desert, are the big-screen mirages created by the movie studios. In turning the camera on their home town and trying to recapture the elusive magic of a classic movie, three Hollywood figures became trapped in their own vicious intrigue.
For Nicholson, something bigger than fame or fortune was at stake. A considerable slice of the actor’s identity—and years of his life—were wrapped up in The Two Jakes. Com-
pleting the film became an artistic
imperative. It was an opportunity to establish himself once and for all as a genuine filmmaker, able to act and direct at the same time. “These are two very demanding jobs,” he acknowledged. “It would be impossible hubris to say that any movie wouldn’t be improved if you added [directors] Roman Polanski or Stanley Kubrick to the company. I don’t have that kind of hubris.” He decided to direct himself because no Polanskis or Kubricks were available. In the end, his main accomplishment was to get The Two Jakes made at all. “Moviemaking,” concluded Nicholson, “is the art of the possible.”
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