For the nth time, one rains impatient questions on David Thomson’s iconic, sometimes archaic, often well-nigh manic reference book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Why is there nothing in you about Janice Rule? Admittedly, in The Chase, she was only a supporting actress, but as the leading lady in that wonderful lost Western Invitation to a Gunfighter, she was so graceful she drove Yul Brynner to extremes of behavior that verged at times on acting. Haven’t you seen that movie? If you’ve seen 10 times as many movies as I have, how come you haven’t seen that one? Used to being shouted at, the book disdains to reply.
After five editions in 35 years, Thomson’s famous compendium of biographical sketches about the movie people—hey, it’s read by the movie people, the movie people are fighting to get into it, male stars measure their manhood by the length of their entry—is still a shantytown with the ambitions of a capital city. It gets bigger all the time without ever becoming more coherent. But with more than a thousand pages of print to wander in, only the most churlish visitor would complain about lack of cogency. Better to rejoice at the number of opportunities to scream in protest at what the author has left out, put in, skimmed over, or gone on about with untoward zeal. As a book meant to be argued with, it’s a triumph.
Also, there is the frustrating consideration that Thomson is often right. Most people of his generation who have spent their lives seeing every properly released movie even if it stars Steven Seagal are incapable of judging them. The reason is simple: those people are monomaniacs. Thompson has found time to do other things: read books, breathe clean air, cook and eat real food. It takes someone with greater resources than a mere buff to ask whether his chosen field might not have reached a point in its history where the best movies, being aimed successfully at an audience that wants art, are no longer for everyone. On the other hand, such a moviegoer can see that he might just be getting old.
Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start. Writing at his best, Thomson is well qualified. You have to know about more than just the movies to see the “nobility” in Denzel Washington’s best acting; to isolate Al Pacino’s characteristic of “outrageous inner size,” you have to be up to speed with short-legged Napoleonic warlords since Alexander the Great; evoking Warren Beatty’s “puzzled look” is a nice way of describing catatonia, but it proves that the critic’s eye for aesthetic value can penetrate a surface; and it takes a knowledge of the American class structure to make the correct observation about Katharine Hepburn that she “loved movies while disapproving of them.” Thomson just loves them, but he knows there is a world elsewhere.
Deep judgments are packed into resourceful language, sometimes into a single punctuation mark: when he calls Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds “brilliant, and uninteresting,” the comma is in exactly the right spot. He captures the drift of James Agee’s film criticism, and possibly of his own as well, when he says that Agee could write about a movie as if he had been “out with it, as if it were a girl.” He has the right reason, and the right remark, for how the Wachowski brothers contrived to propel the Matrix movies progressively toward nowhere: “Alas, the brothers got class.” And he has the right, though impolite, question to ask about Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby: “Why was Gatsby crazy about her?”
His assessments of Hitchcock are sane and brave: while as mad about a capital work like North by Northwest as you or I, he is ready to say, as almost no other critic is, that Hitch’s frequently lousy-looking back projection is not an ironic comment on the illusion of reality or a realistic comment on the illusion of irony but is in fact lousy back projection. Of Truffaut, to say that his perennial youthfulness “made all his films like debuts” is to catch him to the life. About Robert Walker, Thomson concludes that the actor’s career, before he made Strangers on a Train, had been “cramped by wholesomeness”: well said. Other things are ill said, but usually because he is bursting with appreciation.
Bursting, or having already burst. Some people thought he had strayed into weirdo territory when he wrote a book about Nicole Kidman that was distinguishable from a mash note only in being less temperate, but most of us realized that he had merely been carried away. It’s one of the nice things about him, unless you sincerely believe that to notice the beauty of a female film actor (let me just say actress and see whether somebody calls the cops) should be an indictable offense. Carrying you away is what the movies have always tried to do, and putting a well-favored young lady on the screen has always been one of the main means of transport. Other means of transport are the look of the thing, the appeal of the theme, the logic of the action, the tautness of the story, and the authority of the male face at the center of the frame. Thomson responds to all those things too. Male stars are not deprived of his appreciation merely because their good looks, however potent, are not of the kind that drive him to lyrically expressed desire. Directors, producers, cinematographers, even the occasional writer: Thomson loves them all, as long as they are good at what they do.
Crucially, he can tell when they aren’t. In that respect he’s a long way ahead of Pauline Kael, whom he praises far too much. She could write with skill and what seemed like a whole new scope, but until late in her career, she knew almost nothing about how a movie was put together. Some of Hollywood’s cannier young male paladins realized that her mind could be blown by an invitation to the editing room. Keeping company with the smart movie men made her feel pretty, as if she too were a dewy, fresh young star. Ambitious young male critics who flocked to her knees were called the Paulettes. I was briefly a Paulette myself, and I saw enough of her to know that if she were to come back now from the ethereal cackle-factory where she spends eternity sticking pins in her wax doll of Hal Holbrook—for some reason she hated him—she would be deeply pleased to see an entry for her cropping up in the alphabetical order, just between Raul Julia and Garson Kanin. Whatever her wishes, however, she wasn’t really one of the movie people, and in the space taken up by the paragraphs about her, there would have been room for Janice Rule.
But much as Thomson knows about the people behind the camera, the people in front of it are the primary attractors; and of those people, the females attract him first; and of those females, the young, comely ones attract him most. Men of his age, myself among them, would do best to admit that they share the same proclivity before they condemn the sometimes unbridled fervor with which Thomson reveals it. I myself, across a trifling age difference of about half a century, am so smitten by Téa Leoni that I can’t imagine why she has been left out. Perhaps Thomson thinks that none of her movies have been sufficiently important, and that joining Maximilian Schell to face the onrushing CGI tidal wave in Deep Impact was not a sufficient qualification for being allowed past the velvet rope. But there are other actresses, not notably more gifted, whom he treats as if they had painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In the midst of raving about Scarlett Johansson, Thomson refers with laborious irony to his own “famed reticence toward beautiful young actresses.” He is less disarming than he thinks, having patently forgotten the rule by which a man should avoid being seen in pursuit of any woman who walks faster than he can. Farther on, in his entry about none other than his muse Nicole Kidman, he briefly steps aside from raving about her to rave about young actresses in general, referring hopefully to “their insolent, reckless hint that they know we are watching.” It would not be much of an actress who hinted at any such thing. She would have to be as unhinged as a critic.
When he’s emitting hosannas about “these lovely strangers,” Thomson’s prose often threatens to grow limp from being too long erect with emotion, and in the case of the adored Nicole, it collapses completely. Declaring that she was ideally suited to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001)—a calumny on her for those of us who thought that the movie was stone dead in every area where the same director’s Strictly Ballroom had been so alive—he says, “She sang, danced, acted and burned her candle at every end.” Well, she did indeed provide her own singing voice, but it was mainly the editing that made her dance, and no matter how well she can act, she could never burn her candle at every end. Until Thomson caught himself in mid-cliché, burning a candle at both ends was generally considered a sufficient indicator of profligate behavior. When a writer thinks he can revive a hackneyed phrase by changing it only a little bit instead of a lot, it’s a sign that he’s exhausted.
With Nicole and the multi-ended candle, you can at least tell what he means. Elsewhere, there is a reference to a hot-fudge sundae that will keep scholars busy in centuries to come, when his classic book is being studied by postgraduate lizards from another galaxy as a key text of Earth’s celebrity-crazed Jahrhundertwende between the 20th and 21st centuries. Watching Geena Davis, even at her loveliest, it had never occurred to me that “we have not yet found a way of having movies in which waifs, strays, wallflowers, and slowpoke earth girls look less than a hot fudge sundae.” Did it ever occur to anyone except Thomson?
But perhaps I have arrived too early at the point where Thomson lets his remaining hormones scramble his prose. More often they open up an area in which he has a useful assessment to register and can write it well. Though he spends too much time talking about the prizes Penélope Cruz has won and not nearly enough about what she did to win them, he can see that her acting talent came from heaven along with her face, and the same double perception is operating when he looks into the past and writes about Tuesday Weld. For one thing, his judgment is good. Too cutely named, and almost too cute in person to be credible, she was a fine actress, and he knows how to say so. That’s how a valuable film critic shows his worth: when he can summon a string of adjectives like “brilliant, seductive, and lethal” to say what an artist who was underrated because of her name and looks did in a film like Pretty Poison (Noel Black, 1968), which first of all has to be perceived as a serious work.
It was serious indeed, but few critics at the time could see past the gloss of publicity to detect the object of value. I can remember wondering why the film and her performance in it weren’t being hailed by the kind of writer who thought so much of the French New Wave. Thomson was just such a writer, but he knew how to expand his range of appreciation. Though there are still signs, which we must get to, that he still hasn’t expanded it enough, he covers himself with glory when he says that Tuesday Weld might have been rated higher if she had called herself by her real name, Susan Weld. One is inclined to add that she could have called herself Sigourney Weld and still done all right. It was the Tuesday that cooked her goose. Similarly, Ann-Margret Olsson should never have called herself Ann-Margret. The dumb name stopped the dumb critics from seeing past her splendid exterior to the inner sensitivity. But that was long ago. Today, a marvelous young actress can be called Leelee Sobieski and nobody will think the less of her.
Thomson has always been too much of an art lover to let such considerations get between him and the talent. Good looks won’t fool him long about talent’s absence. Nor will bad vibes dissuade him from celebrating its presence, except in the case of Natalie Portman, about whose acting abilities he seems grudging, even when enthusiastic, as if it were an inner lack of responsiveness on her part, and not lack of imagination on the part of George Lucas, that should be blamed for her inexpressive recurring appearances as Amidala, Queen of Naboo, the Bad-Hair Planet. But usually he rates fairly, as if determined to correct any distortions set in place by the media: yet another essential critical task fulfilled. Anne Heche got a savage press from Camille Paglia, for reasons lost in the turmoil of neo-post-feminism. From Thomson, Heche gets the appropriate salute. His praise of her vivid gift is by no means diluted by his approval of the package it comes in. “She’s tart, slender, pale… lemony…” All the adjectives apply, but lemony applies perfectly because it identifies the antidote she carries for her small-faced sweetness: her intelligence. He might have done more to connect her to the tradition she comes from so strangely late, at the 11th hour: the tradition of the snappy dame of the 1930s. Just by the way she handled the dialogue in Wag the Dog, Heche proved that with a suitable trip 60 years backward through the star gate, she could have done the same in The Awful Truth. She’s another Irene Dunne, whose mixture of mystery and speed Thomson so admires. For him, the actresses don’t have to be young and lovely now. Just as long as they were young and lovely once.
But to be fair, his capacity for affection stretches farther than that, even unto another gender. With the old-style male stars, it sometimes stretches too far. Loyal enthusiasm for one’s early admirations is all very well, but not nearly enough skepticism has gone into his essay about John Wayne. He is dubious enough about John Ford—apart from The Searchers, he thinks most of Ford’s putative masterpieces are travesties, a blanket condemnation that I am inclined to share—so he might have taken, say, They Were Expendable and used its lumbering absurdities to show that Ford’s favorite star, Wayne, was a stack of attitudinizing toughness with a trick walk. At this point the ghosts of those GIs who had to face real enemy bullets rather than the magic ones that swerved around Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima rise up from the dead to remind us that he was a draft dodger. In later years, Wayne’s pet project, The Green Berets, did its bit to convince intelligent audiences throughout the world that the United States was incurably stupid. But no, nothing will shift Thomson from his basic thralldom to Wayne’s screen presence, which is appraised as if that sneering drawl of his were a token of moral authority, and the ability to lean in a doorway with the light behind him were an artistic gift.
Weirdly—far more weirdly than when writing thinly disguised love letters to the muffins—Thomson warns us that if we belittle John Wayne’s achievements, we might be succumbing to a politically motivated denigration of creativity, “just as reaction has misled the world into ignoring Leni Riefenstahl’s worth as an artist.” Riefenstahl never gave the world much chance to ignore her, and her artistry was worth not much more than Albert Speer’s leather overcoat, but it must be admitted that Wayne looked good leaning in that doorway. On the strength of that degree of receptivity to a man’s screen image, Thomson might have given Henry Fonda a bit more credit when talking about My Darling Clementine. Thomson doesn’t think much of the way Fonda’s version of Wyatt Earp sits back in the chair on the porch. I loved it, love it still, and have suddenly realized that I am now arguing with myself about John Ford. It’s that kind of book. It drives you nuts.
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.
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