Hollywood’s Secret History of Sexuality

David Thomson’s fascinating, and frustrating, tour of gay subversion and female oppression in American movies

Najeebah Al-Ghadban

“We all of us sleep with strangers in our heads,” David Thomson declares near the beginning of Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. That sentence as aptly describes the physical experience of dreaming as it does the omnivorous nature of sexual fantasy. Much of Thomson’s work over a career now into its fifth decade—he’s 78—has dwelled in the ambiguous space where dreams, fantasies, and movies overlap. To call the London-born, San Francisco–based Thomson a film critic isn’t quite right. Nor does the label of film historian fit, exactly, though his knowledge of the cinematic past is certainly formidable in its depth and detail. Rather, he’s an autobiographical essayist who approaches movies as a psychic toy set to be dismantled and rearranged according to the dictates of his own voluminous memory and florid imagination.

Thomson, the author of more than 30 books—including biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles and monographs on Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Gary Cooper—has been called the greatest living writer about film. He’s also been dismissed as a loquacious show-off in love with his own meandering voice. When the latest edition of his best-known book, the monumental and monumentally weird The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, was released in 2014, I allied myself more closely with the former camp than the latter. This labyrinthine reference work can be infuriating, but it is a one-of-a-kind compendium of thumbnail biographies of performers, directors, writers, and the occasional cinematographer or costume designer. Thomson sums up not the life or career of particular creators, but his impressionistic experiences with their work.

Thomson’s approach to the collective psychosocial phenomenon he sometimes designates simply as “movie” (“ ‘movie’ was a place people longed to be”) is guided by a deep-seated critical principle: Desire is a form of understanding. At its best, this method inspires passages of lively first-person prose. The lengthy dictionary entry on James Dean, Thomson’s generational compatriot and one of his favorite actors, includes a sense memory of the plush pile carpets and easy-to-evade usherettes at the Granada Theatre, in the South London district of Tooting, where he sneaked into a showing of Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. His commitment to letting himself love what he loves and hate what he hates can make for soaring arias of praise as well as scathing dismissals. Sarah Polley’s direction of Julie Christie in Away From Her “has shown us that certain characterizations in fiction may be as far-reaching as explorations into space, higher mathematics, or the genome project.” The Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is “brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name.”

Thomson’s belief in the primacy of subjective experience and deep currents of feeling can also give rise to a murky blend of hyperbole and abstraction. Here he is on Juliette Lewis, who has gone from playing a teenage nymphet in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear to specializing in off-kilter aging party girls. “I can’t help regarding her as something beyond the real—as some mythic or warning enterprise,” he writes in his dictionary, before apologizing for this cryptic reading with the caveat that “this is a book about response.” That reliance on gut response—as his ill-received 2006 book, Nicole Kidman, revealed—can sometimes derail him. Described by one critic as an “unseemly mash note,” it was less a biography than a work of torrid fan fiction, sometimes bordering on soft-core pornography. In one especially prurient passage, Thomson describes a dream he had during an afternoon nap, a reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour in which the prostitute played by Catherine Deneuve—an actress he identifies as Kidman’s cinematic predecessor—is reincarnated as Kidman herself, clad in “a very revealing white brassiere, a size or two too small.”

In undertaking Sleeping With Strangers, Thomson had originally planned to write a book about the history of “gayness” in film. He set out to explore the notion that “the atmosphere of all movies had a gay air—as in a mounting suspicion that America’s approved romantic formulae might be demented.” In the early chapters that spring from this idea, Thomson finds a through line of queer subversion in even the most staunchly heterosexual of classic Hollywood genres: the Western, the musical, the screwball comedy. But while he was writing, the explosion of the #MeToo movement persuaded him to expand the scope of the book. In its final form, Sleeping With Strangers also takes on the history of male privilege and female oppression in Hollywood, both onscreen (in the representation of female sexuality) and off (in the hidden-in-plain-sight world of casting couches and on-set affairs).


Sleeping With Strangers wisely does not claim to offer an exhaustive or chronological survey of sex in film—an impossible undertaking, given that the medium from the beginning has been about little else. Instead, Thomson approaches his subject thematically, shaping chapters around, for example, the coded love between the heroes of classic Westerns and their loyal sidekicks (“Buddies and Cowboys”); the existence of a thriving gay subculture within the Hollywood social scene as early as the 1930s (“Gable and Cukor”); the complicity of gossip columnists and talent agents, many of them also gay, in concocting offscreen heterosexual romances for less-than-straight movie stars (“The Cat’s in the Bag, the Bag’s in the River”). Devoting himself to the proposition that “if our culture is to survive, or deserve survival, then ‘straight’ people need to accommodate and learn from gay experience,” Thomson attempts to tease out an alternative history of sexual identity—a freer, fuller understanding of the varieties of desire—embedded in the film industry’s officially straight story.

Thomson is at his best when he’s mining these hidden veins of meaning, noticing a detail in a familiar film that helps you see the movie in a new way. I loved his affectionate reading of Laurel and Hardy’s partnership as, quite literally, a match made in heaven: “God made Laurel and Hardy as a tribute to what little he recalled of the comedy of marriage … Just as they had made no decision to be together, so they lacked the option or the willpower to part.” And his tossed-off observation that Vera Farmiga “is inserted like a bay leaf in the male stew” of Scorsese’s The Departed sums up in a single metaphor a long, regrettable Hollywood history of women as faintly discernible flavoring.

In the chapters that deal with homosexuality, Thomson cheerfully acknowledges his position as the very viewer at whom the movies have been aimed all along: the straight guy so clueless that he didn’t notice the secret queer film history happening under his nose. It’s the rare straight man well past middle age who tries to radically change how he thinks about a subject so fundamental. There’s a nobility in that quest, even when, still a novice at queer theory, Thomson sometimes fumbles the lingo, appearing to conflate the trans experience, bisexuality, and even vaguely kinky straight behavior under the generously spreading umbrella of “gay.” Far from defending his hetero turf, he seems to delight in the work of gay artists such as the costume designer Travis Banton, who saw straight sex as “laborious and rather silly with its pantechnicon of love, marriage, and growing old together.”

When he writes about the onscreen representation of female sexuality, Thomson seems less at ease and, tellingly, has less to say; his musings about women occupy far fewer pages than those about gay men. Still, many of his insights about the movies themselves shine. In Marlene Dietrich’s gloriously artificial costumes (designed by Banton) for the films she made with her longtime director and possible lover, Josef von Sternberg, Thomson sees a treatment of feminine beauty so mannered that it constitutes an inquiry into the limits of glamour. Wearing Banton’s glittering creations, Dietrich becomes a pure image, “a ravishing icon who treated men like flies.” Sternberg’s great achievement as a director, Thomson writes, “was to signal contempt for traditional romance.”

But when it comes to the subject of offscreen, three-dimensional women and their exploitation by the Hollywood machine, Thomson’s evident good faith can’t save him from moments of tone-deafness painful enough to stir qualms: Did he make the right choice in adding a bay leaf to this already complex stew? In a chapter called “The Male Gaze,” Thomson details the casting-couch process by which the 16-year-old Natalie Wood allegedly won her part in his adolescent favorite, Rebel Without a Cause. His purpose in describing the relationship between Wood and the film’s 43-year-old director, Nicholas Ray, is ostensibly to give voice to the vivacious but insecure girl born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, who “had called herself Natalie Wood since childhood.”

In the eyes of the law and of most parents I know, 16-year-olds still count as children. But Thomson appears not to have gotten the memo about statutory rape, and can’t seem to resist downplaying Wood’s qualifications for the role outside of a willingness (or, as Thomson frames it, eagerness) to sleep with the director. “So Natalie wanted to be noticed by this powerful and attractive man,” he writes in a tone that’s disconcertingly dishy, “and all she had going for her were her amazing eyes, her bursting need, and being sixteen.” This meager list of résumé items hardly jibes with the fact that—as Thomson himself notes two paragraphs later—Wood had already captured the hearts of moviegoers at age 8 in Miracle on 34th Street. In fact, she had spent half her life as a successful child star. Wood may well have enthusiastically slept with Ray to secure the role, but that doesn’t mean she was old enough to give meaningful consent, any more than it suggests that her presumed sexual availability was Ray’s only motive to hire her. Thomson’s effort to restore agency to Wood ends up curiously skewing in favor of the man who exploited her.

Thomson’s struggle to fully grasp the first principle of the #MeToo movement—that women’s accounts of their experiences deserve, at long last, not to be drowned out by men’s voices—goes from awkward to enraging in a chapter near the end titled “Burning Man.” In 1978, while teaching at Dartmouth and reviewing movies for a Boston paper, Thomson developed a deep friendship with the young filmmaker James Toback, whose first movie, Fingers, Thomson regarded, then and now, as “one of the great debuts in American film.”

That title, and Toback’s very name, are hard to hear in 2019 without envisioning the director’s own importunate fingers in stomach-curdling proximity to one of the hundreds—yes, hundreds—of women who came forward in late 2017 to accuse him of sexual harassment or assault. His alleged pattern was to lure young women off the street with promises of film stardom. According to Thomson, it was his shock at the revelations about his friend that first led him to include stories drawn from Hollywood’s long and varied history of preying on women.

Given that the Toback allegations (all of which he denies) changed the course of a work in progress, I would have expected to find this epiphany close to the beginning of a book often concerned with the sort of manipulative quid pro quo that the director’s behavior exemplifies. To Thomson’s credit, he does some soul-searching and honest reappraisal as he looks back over decades of closeness to Toback, whose entry in the Biographical Dictionary was so chummy that it was written in the second person, beginning with “Dear Jim.” Thomson recalls reading, in Toback’s 1971 book on the football star and sometime actor Jim Brown, about the orgies his friend had participated in at the home of the retired Cleveland Browns running back. Thomson now sees with sorrow that “it was a spree in which the women were pliant instruments … Some of them must have gone away damaged and in despair.”

But the way Thomson concludes this chapter raises serious doubts as to whether he really understood the #MeToo concept to begin with. Rather than expressing anger or sadness for the, again, hundreds of women whom Toback allegedly abused, Thomson expresses the hope that his old friend’s newest project might help him out of a rough spot that’s lasted, wow, a little more than a year now. Toback has lost 60 pounds! He is “writing with zest”! His next book—100 or more pages of which Thomson has already seen, because apparently whatever rift the scandal caused between them did not stand in the way of proofreading—“could be his great work.” I’m sure that millions of women, on top of the many alleged abuse victims already mentioned, will join me in congratulating Toback on his remarkably short and consequence-free time in the doghouse.

The history-within-a-history of Thomson and Toback’s friendship aside, much of Sleeping With Strangers has the rueful mood of a film lover reconsidering a lifetime spent desiring in the dark—and then recognizing, decades later, that his desire was not as innocent as it seemed. When you’re inside the protected bubble of “movie”—when that bubble exists to enclose and enchant people like you—it can be hard to see what and who has been left on the outside. What this seductive yet at times repellent book never fully grapples with is the privilege required to grant yourself that innocence.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline “Desire in the Dark.”