The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Cloth, $35.00, 963pp. ISBN 0-375-41128-3.
Hours will be lost, then days. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is simply the most compulsively readable film reference book on the market. Thousands of cineastes already know that, as the first edition of this gargantuan compendium first appeared way back in 1975. The 1980 and 1994 editions saw added entries, and now the 2002 version includes more than 1,300 brief biographical sketches of key film personalities past and present. New entries in this edition follow no discernible pattern, ranging from hot young things (Reese Witherspoon, Ben Affleck), to aged veterans (Louis Jourdan) to the long dead (Dorothy Gish, Rin Tin Tin). Arranged alphabetically, these are no dry career recitations.
Each individual is given a unique reflection by the ever thoughtful, ever erudite San Francisco based critic, novelist and essayist David Thomson.
Nobody writes like Thomson. He seems incorruptible, immune to popular tastes, predictability, or press kit hyperbole. Anyone with even a fleeting interest in movie people won’t agree with all his conclusions; he’s far too honest and idiosyncratic to find universal favor. But the arguments, the penetrating emotional and intellectual responses, the humor and turn of phrase make the book a true feast. Read one and you’re bound to read another, then another. This book has the addiction of potato chips and the nutrition of soybeans.
Thomson’s comments are sometimes obtuse and irreverent, but always provoking. The actor’s physicality is fair game. On Paul Newman: “He seems to me an uneasy, self-regarding personality, as if handsomeness had left him guilty.” On Jean Harlow: “She had a young woman’s body — for a moment — yet she offered it to the camera maternally, or like a seasoned whore. Her neglect of underwear seemed aggressive just because her breasts and the oceanic roll of her hips were so mature.” Thomson is not afraid to take a stand, praising Angelina Jolie while we mortals couldn’t see past her supreme weirdness: “No one writing about Angelina Jolie’s arrival on the screen in the late 1990s was able to mask sheer wonder at the carnal embouchure that is her mouth.” Even the easiest targets are fun to read, as he finds fresh ammo on the likes of Madonna: “She has her defenders, and I suspect she loathes them even more than she scorns her enemies. She is disappointed about something, and hugely driven by resentment.”
His writing has such knowledge and authority that the meek may take it as gospel. Even so, I would respectfully submit that a few of his poison darts are aimed at the wrong people. He has little affection for Billy Wilder (“he could be ordinary to dull far too often”) or the parabolic Akira Kurosawa (“As to the contemporary Japanese experience, Kurosawa now trails behind a new generation.”) He wanders through assessments of Lauren Bacall and Natalie Wood without noting their inability at expressing most of our basic emotions. To these eyes, his disregard for Julie Christie coupled with his ardor for Angie Dickinson is a reminder of the fallibility of taste.
My favorite Thomson mini-bios befoul those sacred cows in dire need of reassessment. There is a clarity and noble purpose to these efforts. His assault on minor talents such as Stanley Kramer, Sally Field, and Jack Lemmon are appreciated but not altogether shocking. One step up we find an appropriate excoriation of a contemporary icon: “To be blunt, De Niro has gone a long way to squander his own high reputation by the remorseless greed for minor or trashy projects.” For a lesson in sheer invigorating chutzpah, read his lengthy run-downs on Charlie Chaplin (“the demon tramp”) or John Ford. The latter is particularly cogent: “No one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form.” Thomson’s incisions often leave me gasping, but even a masterpiece can be flawed.
He and his fact-checkers are not above erring here and there; a book of this magnitude can’t help it. The Warren Beattys made Love Affair, not Love Story, though they no doubt wished they hadn’t. File this one under Gregory Peck: it wasn’t Lauren Bacall and spaghetti; it was Dolores Gray and ravioli.
But on to more important matters. Does David Thomson like anybody except Angie Dickinson? You betcha, and they haven’t been mentioned earlier because his negative appraisals seem at first glance more audacious and compelling. But his words on such disparate types as Howard Hawks, Carole Lombard, Kenji Mizoguchi, Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Anne Heche, and Robert Ryan are veritable love poems. Cary Grant is “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” Jean Renoir “asks us to see the variety and muddle of life without settling for one interpretation. He is the greatest of directors; he justifies cinema.” Sissy Spacek, a new entry in this edition, is “a major actress, with an authentic sense of rural life and uneducated ways.” To read them is to be made a convert to his tastes. Personal opinions in this review upon personal opinions in the book — that’s how it goes. Thomson makes his case more than 1,300 times, and so will you. It is quite impossible to take on the happy duty of browsing The New Biographical Dictionary of Film without wanting to have a conversation with it.