By The New Biographical Dictionary of FilmDavid Thomson
Muttering crazed curses while leafing through the book in search of the heavy brigade, the studio-built giants now long dead who were still alive when I was young, I find that in the Clark Gable entry there is more about his affair with Joan Crawford than about anything else. Not a mention of how Gable, in It Happened One Night, bared the first pair of star-quality male nipples ever to hit the screen. But at least we are told that when it came to Gone With the Wind, it was Gable’s decision to play Rhett Butler without a southern accent. Thomson could have gotten a whole extra and illuminating theme going here, had there been room.
This is the moment to point out the embarrassing reason why a book that gets bigger and bigger over the decades seems to have less and less room in it. It is because Thomson seldom rewrites an old entry from one edition to the next. He mainly just adds to it, and often the addition is just a list of later work. There are a lot of lists. Some of them are useful—ever the dedicated and generous student of foreign directors, he gives the titles of their movies in the original language also—but quite often you could get the same info from the Web. If a lot of that clutter were cleared out, there would be room for, say, Klaus Maria Brandauer, who doesn’t get an entry. And in the entry for Robert Redford, who had the privilege of getting an acting lesson from Brandauer in Out of Africa, there would be room to discuss why Redford showed up on location for that movie and faced its director, Sydney Pollack, with a version of the English adventurer Denys Finch Hatton minus an English accent. In real life, Finch Hatton was as bald as I am, but nobody would have expected Redford to shave his head. He might have been expected, however, to attempt a fitting voice, as Meryl Streep did for the Baroness Blixen (“I hod a fohm in Ofrica”). Thomson must know why Redford’s English accent was not forthcoming. It was for the same reason Gable’s accent in Gone With the Wind didn’t come from the South. Until very recently, the really big stars assumed that people bought tickets to see them as they were: adapting to the part was for supporting players. Thomson knows such things, but he rarely gives himself room to say them. This puts the shouting reader in the anomalous position of supplying the book with information.
Before Thomson’s book gained the ascendancy, there were biographical dictionaries of the movies by the British critic David Shipman, who seems to be forgotten now, along with his achievements. They were considerable: I just retrieved one of his books from my chaotic shelves and found the average entry fully as perceptive as anything by Thomson, while also, alas, more carefully written. I say alas because Thomson, though short of having an easy knack for a phrase, has a certain brio of invention—but it is underexploited. Where other writers in the field bust a gut to be vivid, he is too often content to be flat, as if lack of energy equaled equilibrium. If the reader feels this as a deficiency, it’s Thomson’s fault, because it was his idea to dress up a reference book as a critical gold mine, and it was his talent as a writer that made the aim plausible. All the more regrettable, then, when his tone of voice—the key component of any writer’s style—goes awry.
Not surprisingly, it is most likely to go awry when a woman is in question. Of Jean Harlow, he says “she liked her nipples to pout, as if to say, ‘Get a load of this.’” Terry Southern would have written it with less vulgarity, and been careful to specify whether it was Harlow, or her nipples, doing the talking. There was a lot to dislike about Lillian Hellman, but a critic so obviously fueled by his libido is in no position to accuse her of “hot pants.” Or perhaps he is: in that department he is always poised and set to go. Doris Day certainly did possess “big tits,” but she was talented enough to have earned the right to less contemptuous language. It’s possible that in writing that way about her he is deliberately aping, for illustrative purposes, the coarseness of the macho world she had to fight, but he commits so many lapses elsewhere that I couldn’t tell if this wasn’t a lapse, too.
Stylistically, his wobbling tone-control is worrying enough when he tries to convey pure admiration. With Barbara Stanwyck, one of the rare headliners whose career extended into middle age and beyond, he has a chance to push his estimation of a female talent beyond the bounds set by nubility, and he takes it well: but he would have taken it better without the excathedra pronouncements. “So often with great movie actresses, we have a first thought of skin tone: with Stanwyck it is of tacky paint, too warm for glossy hardness.” It has to mean something. Ethically, Thomson’s tin ear for the proper register can lead to unequivocal verbal atrocity, such as this supposedly rhetorical question about Clifford Odets: “What can we say of guys who fuck only actresses?” Well, we might be wise to say as little as possible, especially if we ourselves have actresses on the brain.
Sometimes you can’t get close enough to fight him, because he is too busy fighting himself. In his entry on Mike Nichols he can find almost nothing good to say, but in his entry on Tom Hanks he calls Charlie Wilson’s War “neglected.” How can a director you don’t like make a movie that’s “neglected”? Such an anomaly certainly conflicts with his declared principle that one good movie is enough to get anyone into the book. But more often, rather than throw a blanket condemnation over a big-name director, Thomson would rather praise the good little movies so that he can rubbish the bad big ones. Following that strategy, he gives Richard Attenborough an exemplary pasting. One would have thought that Gandhi has its historical significance, if only for what it did to establish the beatified status of Sir Ben Kingsley, let alone of the Mahatma, but it’s hard to gainsay a critic who has the guts, as Thomson has, to contend that the movies of Attenborough’s precursor and idol, David Lean, got emptier as they got bigger. To be caught even thinking that Lawrence of Arabia is less than a holy revelation is to defy the convictions of almost everyone in the movie world, headed by Steven Spielberg himself, who far outranks even Attenborough as Lean’s self-anointed descendant and acolyte.
But Thomson dares, and good luck to him. Not impressed by even the biggest blockbuster if it fails to breathe life, Thomson is admirably ready to discriminate among directors, making sure that his reverence for some of them is backed up by a solid detestation of others. Usually, however, Thomson can keep his hostility civilized. The abiding question is whether he employs it wisely. I agree with him when he finds most of Kubrick’s movies tedious, with Barry Lyndon as the pinnacle of tedium. But surely he is wrong about Fellini, of whom he writes as if the man had had no talent at all. A piquant antipathy, this one, because Fellini of all directors was, and remains, the most attuned to Thomson’s own brain patterns. As 81/2 reveals throughout its intricate length, the battle in the soul of its hero, Guido Anselmi—played by Marcello Mastroianni, plainly channeling Fellini himself—is how to make sense of his sexual attraction toward the latest visione amorosa while his wife looks strictly on. The babes stack up in his mental harem like a daydream by Silvio Berlusconi, but Guido’s mind, as opposed to his lust, is forever enslaved to the woman he married. Fellini’s life was like that—it was why he made Juliet of the Spirits, City of Women, and every other major movie in his catalog—and yet Thomson doesn’t find his career interesting. Thomson doesn’t even seem to get why Anouk Aimée, the wife in 81/2, is “looking severe in spectacles.” Yet if the war between sex and sense isn’t the driving conflict of Thomson’s mentality, then I’m a Dutchman, and Fellini was never an Italian.
Thomson rates Antonioni higher than Fellini. You can’t blame him for that, because there was certainly a time when Antonioni’s movies looked classier: the languidly ambulating presence in them of Monica Vitti was a guarantee of quality. But his later movies lack the interest that Thomson attributes to them. Even at this late stage, after several possibilities for a rewrite, he goes on finding substance in Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, when most of us from that generation had already given up with Red Desert. Loosely, too loosely, buried in the book is a rating system from the early ’60s, when the auteur theory was having such an impact that people caught it in other languages than French: it was a multilingual virus. Quite apart from the fact that he has persisted, through edition after edition, in the belief that Godard was some kind of genius, instead of every kind of half-wit, Thomson retains even in old age the full kit of early-’60s enthusiasms that the New Wave critics imposed on the world, after bringing their almost total incomprehension of the English language to bear on the Cinémathèque’s back catalog.
In Thomson’s aging pantheon, forever upright even though the plaster cladding falls off in pieces, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray still loom like gods. Godliest of them all is Howard Hawks, whom Thomson praises as if he were Orson Welles, and with some reason. The Hawks comedies, after all, were mostly pretty good, and one of them, His Girl Friday, was great. But that was partly because it was a cleverly rewritten play whose story had already been worked out. When Hawks was the preponderant author, as in his adventure movies, all the plots were the same. There was an experienced guy, and his drunken sidekick who had to get his soul back before he could join in the task of mowing down the heavies, and there was a worshipping youngster and a chortling old-timer and a ballsy woman called Feathers and… it went on like that for decades, with Rio Lobo copying Rio Bravo almost scene for scene, until, in the ’60s, all of the smart critics told the public to go and see the latest Hawks movie, Hatari, because it was all his, a real auteur job, and it couldn’t miss. And guess what? It stank.
Bad movies do, because we like the good ones so much. Gore Vidal said, correctly, that while a good director will sometimes make a bad movie, a bad director will always make a bad movie. It is also true that the corollary holds: a good movie always has a good director. He might have had a lot of help, and that movie might be the only time he was ever good, but it’s enough to get his—or, today, increasingly, and let us give thanks for it, her—work into our minds.
And that one good movie should be enough to revise a reputation. Thomson has had time to see Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007) and find it brilliant, but apparently did not have time to undertake the thoroughgoing reestimation of Affleck’s career that has now become necessary. (Thomson also leaves the Andrzej Wajda entry in a lamentably patronizing state, even though the director's astounding Katyn came out the same year.)
One good movie might even be enough to get a new name into this book. The name I would recommend is Richard Wilson. Once an editor for Orson Welles, he later directed Invitation to a Gunfighter. To tell the awkward truth, it probably isn’t quite as good as I remember. But it has a superbly eloquent speech about slavery that not even Yul Brynner could mangle, and it has Janice Rule. On Broadway, she was a princess: she could sing, she could dance, and she was too beautiful for words. But she was too much for Hollywood, perhaps because she looked so intelligent and sensitive, at a time when those attributes were no advantage. So she faded away, and in this biographical dictionary, which finds room for Wayne Wang and Bruce Lee, there is no place for her. Those are the breaks. Movie people have to make a big impact to stay current. You can be included and still be neglected. The entry for Teresa Wright starts with the information that she died in 2005 and ends with the observation: “She has not done too much lately…” And that would be because?
But for an ending, we owe Thomson a wide shot and a walk into the sunset. He is, after all, a movie hero. He was there during the movies’ greatest age, which is surely never coming back: not only because the art-house and indie movies have hived off to satisfy the highbrow audience, leaving behind fewer of the universally appealing creations that were meant for everybody; but also because the kind of people who loved to make movies have found a better way of expressing themselves. Late in the time of us old men who began our lives seeing a couple of double bills a week at the local fleapit, a new way to deliver the same blast has taken over. The talent goes into the boxed set of the TV serial, because it yields, for the creators, more bang for their buck. But the thrill that began with a shaft of light in the dark will still go on. It will just go on without us: a fact of which Thomson, at his best, is well aware. It isn’t just a vision of loveliness that drives his prose: it’s a vision of mortality.