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.