A co-worker of mine asked me what it was about. I said I couldn't tell him, it would spoil everything. But if you really want to know and haven't seen it: it's about a private eye who gets a job photographing his client's husband with another woman. However, his client is just impersonating the real wife, the husband winds up dead, and the fraud disappears. The private eye investigates, and the audience is treated to noir, a history lesson, and social injustice. Despite the abundant humor and hot romance, it is a Downer of a film.
But of course: it's Roman Polanski, who received his first nomination for Best Director with this film (Coppola won for The Godfather: Part II). Polanski, who was previously nominated in Best Adapted Screenplay for Rosemary's Baby, is not famous for his hopeful, Love Conquers All endings. Interestingly, Chinatown's famous ending is all Polanski, as screenwriter Robert Towne wanted a more upbeat finale. Towne also didn't want to excise any of his original 300+-page manuscript, which had a sprawling ensemble and a more episodic structure. They fought and argued, argued and fought; they compromised, and we have the Chinatown as we know it today: a perfect movie with a perfect screenplay.
Towne was the only winner of the bunch, for Original Screenplay. In addition to his win and Polanski's nod, Chinatown was nominated for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), losing to Harry & Tonto's Art Carney; Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), losing to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore's Ellen Burstyn; Best Sound, losing to Earthquake; Best Editing (Sam O'Steen) and Best Cinematography (John A. Alonzo), losing to The Towering Inferno; Best Costume Design (Anthea Sylbert), losing to The Great Gatsby; and Best Art Direction, Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), and Best Picture of the Year, losing to The Godfather: Part II. It's ok, Chinatown; I like you more than all those others.
So if I love it, and if it's considered by many to be perfect just the way it is, why even suggest a different cast? Because we can!
Who is He: The Mulwrays' faithful manservant, he sees everything and says nothing.
James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Mulan)
Chin Han (The Dark Knight, Contagion)
Who is She: The mysterious woman who poses as Evelyn Mulwray, asking Jake Gittes to catch her husband in an infidelity. When she is revealed to be a fraud, she suddenly disappears...
Originally played by: Academy Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore)
Diane Ladd (Ghosts of Mississippi, Primary Colors)
Katie Finneran (Night of the Living Dead, Firehouse Dog)
Who is He: Chief engineer for LA Department of Water and Power, opposed to the building of a new dam, former business partner of Noah Cross, husband of Evelyn, dead man.
Darrell Zwerling (TV's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, And Justice for All)
John Hodgman (Coraline, "Bored to Death")
Who is He: Acting head of the Department of Water and Power, secretive and snobbish.
John Hillerman (At Long Last Love, "Magnum, P.I.")
Christian Clemenson (Broadcast News, J. Edgar)
He can play that snooty, entitled suit well -- haven't you ever watched "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."?
LT. LOU ESCOBAR
Who is He: Homicide detective, an old acquaintance of Jake's. Doesn't always see the big picture, doesn't always like Jake, but he seems like a smart guy who respects a pro.
Perry Lopez (Che!, The Two Jakes)
Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, Runaway Jury)
Who is He: Wealthy and influential landowner. A humorous gentleman, but scarily powerful. Concerned about the whereabouts of Katherine Cross, who was seen with Mulwray before he was found dead.
Originally played by: Hollmann Award/BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Chinatown)Academy Award Winner for Best Director and Best Screenplay (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Golden Globe Winner for Best Director (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Prizzi's Honor) and Best Supporting Actor (The Cardinal), WGA Award Winner for Best American Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
John Huston (Myra Breckinridge, The Visitor)
My Choice: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actor (Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Drama & Musical/Comedy (Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Cast Away), SAG Award Winner for Best Actor (Forrest Gump) and Best Ensemble (Apollo 13)
Tom Hanks (Road to Perdition, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
He's like America's Dad, and he's as great a dramatic actor as he is a comedic one. Just imagine that last scene -- or any scene, really -- with Tom Hanks. It'd be completely different from John Huston's, which is a good thing; why would you want everything to be exactly the same? It'd easily be one of his best performances.
EVELYN CROSS MULWRAY
Who is She: Hollis's wife, Noah's daughter. Her secrets and lies get Jake suspicious of her, and her beauty and vulnerbaility get him into bed with her. But the secret she'd holding tightest to is the darkest of all...
Originally played by: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Actress (Chinatown), Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress [Drama] (Network), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Chinatown, Network)
Faye Dunaway (Little Big Man, Mommie Dearest)
Christina Hendricks (Life as We Know It, Drive)
If "Mad Men"'s Joan Harris and Drive's Blanche don't convince you, what in the world will? She's beautiful, she can do period, she can do noir, she tears your heart out with her silences. She's perfect for Evelyn.
Who is He: A former cop with a past (of course), now a private eye with a problem: his last client wasn't who she said she was. To protect his rep, he's on the case to find out who really hired him, and why. He'll uncover an underbelly even darker and more complicated than anything he found in his last turf: Chinatown.
Originally played by: Hollmann Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Departed), Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, As Good As It Gets) and Best Supporting Actor (Terms of Endearment), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Chinatown & The Last Detail, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Best Supporting Actor (Reds), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Drama & Musical/Comedy (Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Prizzi's Honor, As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt) and Best Supporting Actor (Terms of Endearment), SAG Award Winner for Best Actor (As Good As It Gets)
Jack Nicholson (The Raven, How Do You Know?)
My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Milk), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (No Country for Old Men)
Josh Brolin (True Grit, Thrashin')
I do think Jake needs to be well-past thirty, old enough for his cynicism and experience. Brolin has a quiet intensity that I like, and a laconic style of humor that fits Gittes well. He'd look good in the suit, too.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Best Actor: Josh Brolin
Best Actress: Christina Hendricks
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Hanks, Cliff Curtis, Christian Clemenson