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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Two Jakes” (1990) – The 30th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “What I do for a living may not be very reputable… but I am. In this town I’m the leper with the most fingers”. A 30th anniversary celebration of Jack Nicholson’s “The Two Jakes”. A sequel to Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir masterpiece. Directed by Jack Nicholson “The Two Jakes”, appeared 16 years later to a tortured history of false starts, infighting and cinephiles and critics muttering “Forget it Jack. It’s not going to be any Chinatown”. Despite the productions hardships that led to a failed planned third film. Problems from screenwriter Robert Towne bowing out as director to other high profile filmmakers passing on the project to arguments of producer Robert Evans wanting to play a major character in the movie. The problems were endless and despite all the setbacks “The Two Jakes”, has no feeling that the film had so many problems on set and manages to be a deep and thoughtful movie. And one that when it’s over you can’t easily put it out of your mind. For the most part Nicholson being behind the camera is a fine piece of work. Certainly an upgrade from his previous two directed films and while he does well with the films style, he doesn’t quite have the panache of Roman Polanski. For me “The Two Jakes” has it’s flaws (although not many) that I dive into. It still manages to be a focused and concentrated film where we get so many good scenes being played out and every scene perfectly falls into place. “The Two Jakes” is the best sequel anyone could reasonably expect, and to simply put it’s overlooked and underrated in so many ways. It’s one that is very much worth your time.

There are many different schools of thought on what constitutes a “perfect film”, but you know one when you see one. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” is one of those perfect films, but its perfection lies in its craftsmanship. There isn’t a wasted shot in “Chinatown” and every frame of the film communicates something essential and is masterfully conceived from top to bottom. It was nominated for eleven Oscars and walked away with only one for best screenplay by Robert Towne. 

If you look on many critics and audience lists and you’ll certainly find “Chinatown” but I can also bet you’ll find no mention of it’s 1990 under appreciated sequel “The Two Jakes”. Coming sixteen years after Polanski’s classic, production of “The Two Jakes” was almost as convoluted as its plot. Originally scheduled for filming in 1985, with original screenwriter Robert Towne directing (due to Polanski going into exile from the U.S. after being charged with statutory rape) and it’s producer Robert Evans fighting to costar as Jake Berman, who would be the new client of Nicholson’s Jake Gittes.

Towne’s lack of confidence in Evans’ acting ability exploded into a final argument when Evans objected to having to get a 1940s-style haircut. Evans was fired and despite Jack Nicholson’s wish to begin production anyway, Paramount had withdrew from the distribution deal out of nervousness. Once Robert Evans was re-hired as a producer and since the film was having such a hard time coming together. Nicholson, Evans and Towne formed their own production company to make the film independently, and re-entered into negotiations and a distribution deal with original studio Paramount Pictures. 

Assured by executives that Paramount was committed to the film, Nicholson had approached Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango In Paris”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) about directing the ”The Two Jakes”. Once they passed Nicholson assumed the job himself, because his involvement reassured the studio’s financiers and by directing at guild scale he could make the film more financially viable. 

Nicholson’s only credits as director were: “Drive, He Said and “Goin’ South, both which are decidedly mixed bags. Along with Nicholson’s return as Jake, several supporting players from ”Chinatown” were located and hired to re-create their parts. With them having aged enough in the years between the films that Nicholson said, ”We had the first sequel that doesn’t need makeup”. 

By May 1985, the sets had been built and filming was ready to begin, but the project was stalled again until 1989. When Harvey Keitel was cast as the other Jake instead of Evans and by the time shooting had ended on “The Two Jakes, tension had split the creative team. Evans left the project again as he was called as a witness in a murder trial involving the making of his 1984 film “The Cotton Club” from Francis Ford Coppola. By this time Nicholson had made alterations in the script that annoyed Towne, that contributed to the creative teams split. 

”The Two Jakes” was scheduled for release at Christmas 1989. Due to delays, script changes and re-shoots that date came and went, as did a second opening set for the spring of 1990. The film wasn’t completed until a few weeks before it’s theatrical opening as Nicholson was fine tuning the elements, from print quality to spoken narration, seeking to make ”The Two Jakes” worthy of its predecessor. Nicholson has insisted that the film came in “perfectly on schedule and perfectly on budget”.

It’s easy to admit that the initial attempt to film ”The Two Jakes” fell apart nearly the very day principal photography was to begin. Sets were struck, props returned and for a time, it was uncertain that the cast and crew would even be paid for their weeks of rehearsal and preparation. Even thirty years later, it remains impossible to reconcile the various versions of what purportedly went wrong on the production.

Nicholson said in an interview during the films marketing: “Any time you’re a working relative to any other piece of work, the problems are multiplied. Particularly when it’s a classic piece of film making by one of the finest directors in the world. So it’d be presumptuous to think I’d direct as well as Roman. But I wanted to be in the area. I direct only intermittently, and I definitely don’t do it from hunger, so I’m only interested in directing great movies”. 

Nicholson is quick to point out that during his 30 years in Hollywood he has written, edited, directed and produced films, so that ”there’s hardly a job on a picture I haven’t done”. It is fair to say, however, that neither of his previous directing efforts had generated the anticipation of ”The Two Jakes”. 

As much as Towne and Nicholson have always shared the essential ideas of ”The Two Jakes”, bringing their ideas to film had consumed six years, countless rewrites and millions of dollars. In the process Nicholson made revisions and adjustments in dialogue and made more fundamental changes in the screenplay, which taxed the men’s 30 years of friendship and collaboration.

One person who has been reported in not seeing the final version of “The Two Jakes” is Robert Towne. Although the writer says he ”didn’t mind” not directing the film, he has spoken about ”The Two Jakes” with a mixture of detachment and regret. He said “In the case of ‘Chinatown’. I knew in every respect what the film was going to be like. I watched the dailies. I fought with Roman every day and ate dinner with him every night. We even agreed about where we disagreed. Here I didn’t have the same sense. The most truthful answer is that I don’t know how I feel about ‘The Two Jakes’”. 

This would also be the contributing factor to why the third film “Gittes vs Gittes” never saw the light of day. Jack Nicholson said in an interview some years after when “The Two Jakes” was getting a remastering and a special edition dvd. “It was always a plan to make three films. We wanted it all to be tied into elemental things”. Nicholson then went on to describe that “‘Chinatown’ is obviously water, while ‘The Two Jakes’ is oil and the third film was meant to relate to air”. 

“It was to be set in 1968 when the no fault divorce went into effect in California. It was to be about Gittes’ divorce and the secrecy of Meg Tilly’s character who was somehow going to involve the most private person in California, Howard Hughes. That is where the air element would have come into the picture”. 

Unlike its predecessor, the film was not a box-office success. It made $3.7 million in its first weekend, finishing in seventh place, then earning $1.8 million and $1.9 million in its second and third weekends, finishing 16th place both times. It ended its theatrical run with $10 million at the box office, nearly a third less than the original. While they spent $25 million on the film, it never made back what it spent. 

When asked in an interview if Jack Nicholson had believed what happened off-screen compromised the reception to the film? He responded “Definitely, because people couldn’t shut up about it. It definitely affected the response to the film”. When Nicholson had finished the film, as a check on his own judgment. He had shown the finished film to legendary director and screenwriter Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot”), who Nicholson said ”Billy said it was a great picture because 90 minutes of it was a detective following the clues”. 

Those who go into “The Two Jakes” without a “Chinatown” refresher just may find themselves a bit confused. Towne’s script can be convoluted and may take a few viewings to catch everything as he connects the events of “The Two Jakes” to “Chinatown” and name drops previous characters such as: Cross, Kahn, Loach and Mulwray. While Nicholson wrote, recorded and set to visual images voice-overs by his character. He says his intention was less to propel narrative than to establish a unifying voice and tone. But it also helps to tie things together.

Nicholson said: “Movie making is most exciting. When the film has a life of its own. And when you have a story this convoluted, there’s a temptation to clarify and comment on it by referring to a previous film. But I wanted people to have to work harder to have to solve this film”. 

It’s no surprise that it didn’t take long for “Chinatown” to be considered an all-time classic and its reputation only became more solidified with each passing year. By late 1989, it was already an outrage and sacrilegious, to even consider making a sequel. So much so that fans turned the famous line from the original that went… “Forget it Jake. It’s no Chinatown”. And riffing on it and turning the quote against the idea of a sequel into…”Forget it, Jack. It’s not going to be no Chinatown”.

But no matter how good part two would be or whether Polanski was directing the sequel or not, it would always and forever be compared to its predecessor. Sure Robert Towne was back again as the screenwriter to the complicated and snappy screenplay, that is handled with meticulous care. While Vilmos Zsigmond shoots the beautiful orange and sunshine colored visuals and Van Dyke Parks builds on Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant 1974 score. 

“The Two Jakes” is no “Chinatown” but it’s the best sequel anyone could reasonably expect, and it’s both competent and very much worth your time. To simply put it’s overlooked and underrated in so many ways and it is satisfyingly moody and atmospheric. It’s certainly a much snappier picture than “Chinatown” and moves along quickly from one scene to the next.

While I don’t question the quality of Jack Nicholson’s performance, because he is Jack and he is one of the finest actors in Hollywood. Right up at the top with DeNiro, Pacino and Brando and while his performance is above par. His performance is also the biggest double edge sword in “The Two Jakes” as he weirdly doesn’t quite feel like the Jake Gittes of “Chinatown”. In 1974, he was thin, slim and his voice came out in a higher register. By 1990, the weight had been put on, he moved differently, used his eyes and face and body differently and talked in a lower, slower drawl. 

To describe it in the best way is to say at this point, Nicholson had become a movie star and had begun slipping into that “Jack” persona that we would eventually find in many of his performances. While his turn as Gittes is enjoyable, it never quite feels like the same man from “Chinatown”. He still manages to pull off a performance that fits the story which is being told from his point of view of a detective who is just trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. I did appreciate the way he makes Gittes older and wiser and more easily disillusioned. And how he never talks about the loss of Evelyn Mulwray that hangs heavily on his heart and we have to gather the information from the way his friends and employees tiptoe around it.

For the most part Nicholson’s work behind the camera is a fine piece of work. Certainly an upgrade from his previous two films and while he does well with the films style, he doesn’t quite have the panache of Polanski. Nicholson isn’t able to make Los Angeles a veritable character in the way it was in “Chinatown”. At the same time, “The Two Jakes” at times feels as if it’s just making somber references to the past and trying to get by on nostalgia. It establishes so many ”parallels” with the first film that it never takes a risk to become a domain of its own. 

“The Two Jakes” may have it’s flaws (although not many), but it still manages to be a focused and concentrated film that every scene perfectly falls into place. So many good scenes are played out, including when Nicholson and Keitel, have their final exchange of revelations. There’s no feeling that the film had so many problems on set, that so many films have a difficult time disguising in the films final cut. 

And as a director, Nicholson does everything possible to accentuate the film’s overall message. That we may think we’re done with the past, but it’s almost never done with us. Coming from a sequel to one of cinemas greatest gifts, it says a lot when it manages to be a deep and thoughtful movie. And one that when it’s over you can’t easily put it out of your mind.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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