Wednesday, July 9, 2014

TCR Recommends: "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" (Sixth Edition) by David Thomson

David Thomson has been writing and publishing books, essays, and reviews on film for nearly half a century. His quirky, highly subjective style can infuriate but he is so deeply knowledgeable that he never fails to hold one's attention.

"Witty, expansive, convincing, honest, more than a little mischievous and, so often, absolutely on the money, Thomson’s voice is one of the most distinctive and enjoyable in film criticism," says Benjamin Secher in The Telegraph.

A sixth edition of Thomson's best known work, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, was recently released by Knopf. In the introduction to the sixth edition, Thomson writes -- "Opinion can be emphatic, self-indulgent, cruel, tasteless -- and at times this book has suffered in those ways. But it can be creative, provocative, the start of a conversation." Thomson has mellowed and says that he no longer believes (as he did when writing the first edition of the Biographical Dictionary, published in 1975) that "not only must one like the right films but one must also like them for the right reasons" but the book remains a "mechanism for alerting you to films you have not seen and may never have heard of."

Dana Stevens of Slate calls The New Biographical Dictionary of Film the "book every movie lover should own" but warns that it is "the most idiosyncratic and deeply personal of a filmgoer’s journals masquerading as a reference work."

David Thomson
(photo/Lawrence K. Ho,  Los Angeles Times).
The biographical information in the Biographical Dictionary is sketchy and seems randomly selected. Do we really need to know that Jamie Lee Curtis is the godchild of superagent Lew Wasserman? Career credits are kept up to date (to early 2014) but Thomson's comments sometimes seem to have been written long ago. The entry on Katharine Hepburn, who died in 2003, includes the line "her health has been bad for several years." Of Goldie Hawn, who is now approaching seventy, we are told "she will soon be too old to play the gamine."

"It is important to understand that perfection was never quite the point here," writes Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News. "To find unimpeachable biographical accuracy, other film encyclopedias – literary and digital – beckon...The successive new editions of Thomson’s biographical dictionary have, literally, had no equal since the first edition was published in 1975. Nothing quite stirs up debate among film’s most passionate audience the way a new edition of Thomson does."

Cary Grant, the "best and most important actor in the history
of the cinema."
Thomson is an Englishman who has lived for decades in the United States. He currently lives in San Francisco and writes for The New Republic. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that he considers Cary Grant, another Brit who found his fortune in America, the "best and most important actor in the history of the cinema." The essence of Grant's genius, Thomson says, was his ability to be "attractive and unattractive at simultaneously: there is a light and dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view...He was, very likely, a hopeless fusspot as man, husband, and even father. How could anyone be Cary Grant? But how can anyone, ever after, not consider the attempt?"

Another Thomson favorite is Robert Mitchum. "How can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies?...But, since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods," Thomson writes.

Tom Hanks. the "American Actor."
(photo/Dodge Enburn).
Actors who are still living and working are harder to sum up but Thomson meets the challenge. Johnny Depp is "too languid, too inclined to follow the money." Tom Hanks has "become the American Actor, rather than someone actually involved in character and story...a figure who walks through his own films as if they were on parade for him." Missouri-bred Brad Pitt has "farmboy charm" but seems worn down by "the labor of being a movie star" and hasn't lived up to the promise of his early films Thelma and Louise and  A River Runs Through It.

Thomson writes perceptively on the enduring, and to some perplexing, popularity of Tom Cruise. He praises Cruise as a hard-working, risk taking actor who "survived the black-hole narcissism of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man" and, in the style of old time stars such as Clark Gable, has refreshingly "little wish to impose himself or his attitude upon his pictures."

Thomson calls Clint Eastwood someone who "leaves us feeling fortunate to be in his presence (a true attribute of stardom)" and recalls attending a London event where Eastwood was presented with an award by Prince Charles. Thomson writes -- "A visitor from another planet, advised on how to recognize modern royalty -- its natural eminence, its grace and authority, its sense of divine right made agnostic in simple glamour -- would have no doubt which man was the prince...Nearly everything that comes to Eastwood now is rendered fitting by his majesty."

Thomson's book on the "lovely
stranger" Nicole Kidman.
In regard to women, Thomson is at his most Thomsonesque. He shamelessly favors actresses who arouse his libido. Nicole Kidman, about whom Thomson wrote a book (Nicole Kidman, 2006) brings him close to incoherence -- "The cinema would never have had its glory without the urge in many of us to go crazy over the look of these lovely strangers and their insolent, reckless hint that they know we are watching."

Thomson gives Rebecca DeMornay, a blonde starlet of the 1980s, almost as long an entry as he gives to pioneering director Cecil B. DeMille. He also goes on at undue length about other beautiful but minor performers who have captured his fancy such as Jacqueline Bisset, Greta Scacchi, and Nastassja Kinski.

It somehow doesn't come as much of a surprise to discover that Thomson's favorite of all actresses is Angie Dickinson. "Not that one thousand words of analysis would carry more weight than a well-chosen still," he writes in defending his choice and goes on to praise Dickinson's performance in the Howard Hawks directed western Rio Bravo as "one of the truest female characters in modern cinema " and one that characterizes her ability to "inhabit a man's world without asking for concessions and without needing to rock the conventions."

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo: "one of the truest
female characters in modern cinema."
Thomson writes beautifully about Greta Garbo as the "extreme definition of stardom in the cinema" and a "gloomy woman made radiant by artificial light." He credits Meryl Streep as a superb actress of enormous range but one who has "shown no instinct for organizing her career." Thomson notes the "great skin tone" and "considerable screen presence" of newer star Jennifer Lawrence but thinks it remains to be seen "whether she can act." Amy Adams is a talented but too cute "polished-cheeked sweetheart" who "leaped to life, sexiness, and fun, like a trout snapping at bait" in American Hustle.

Bryan Cranston in TV's Breaking Bad: "Long-form
television is the narrative form that has
transcended movies."
Thomson can be funny without going over into mean-spirited ridicule. John Cusack, he says, "has been adorably promising for close to thirty years now." Joanne Woodward in her films with husband Paul Newman "is like a dutiful wife who goes along on the husband's fishing trips." Ben Stiller "does everything except find a comfortable self." The stardom of Julie Andrews, Thomson writes, "should teach me that many people find enormous pleasure at the movies for reasons that baffle me" and adds that the "sixty-plus" Andrews has done films "the way the Queen tours, smiling and waving to a lucky public, refusing to notice its shrinkage."

The sixth edition includes many new entries on performers, such as Bryan Cranston, whose primary work has been on television. In his introduction, Thomson acknowledges that "Today, there may be enthusiastic readers of this book who have seen very few movies on 35mm, in a large theatre, with a big crowd." In his entry on Cranston, Thomson writes -- "Long-form television is the narrative form that has transcended movies in a way, once, the novel surpassed cave paintings."

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