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David Thomson´s Movie Meditations

December 5, 2008 by Reader's Connection

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

I love David Thomson’s book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, despite the fact that I disagree with 75% of his opinions. I think he loves director Howard Hawks way too much, and doesn’t love directors John Huston or Akira Kurosawa nearly enough. Or actor Paul Newman. Make that 80%. But I’m just revealing my conventional tastes, here, and Thomson has no patience with those. 


So why do I read him? Well, I like Hugh Grant, too, but Thomson is known for having compared Grant’s acting style with



As I was saying, Thomson writes that Grant’s acting style is like “an incipient sneeze looking for a vacant nose”.



But don’t settle for quips. Thomson approaches his biographical subjects in unexpected ways, casting new kinds of light. Read his piece on Lee Marvin, “the last of the great wintry heroes,” and then move alphabetically into his unsettling treatment of the Marx brothers. Thomson might puke if he heard this, but the book is more like a sequence of meditations than an ordinary collection of show business profiles.

If, unlike Thomson, you’re a Paul Newman fan, and upon Newman’s passing you read Entertainment Weekly‘s tribute issue, and you were astonished when they didn’t mention George C. Scott’s performance in The Hustler, then read Thomson’s Scott profile and be reassured:

There was a moment when Scott seemed like the great threat in American acting–he had such drive and bite, such timing and authority. In two films, cast in important supporting parts, he seemed like a marauder, seizing the pictures away from stars. His prosecuting attorney from Lansing in Anatomy of a Murder was a player in a game, but his manager in The Hustler was a wicked destroyer of people, a watcher who made Paul newman seem tender and edible–a loser. This was fearsome promise; maybe other actors began to avoid him, in the way champions do not want to get in the ring with hungry challengers.

Thomson has interesting, if maddening, things to say about everyone. And since he has seen (another hasty estimate) 5,000 more films than I have, and has spent much of his life thinking about them, he always seems worth consulting. It occurs to me that thus far I’ve only mentioned his treatments of males, so here he is on Katherine Hepburn:

The young Hepburn was a creature of enomous imaginative potency and showy breeding. It was said that she was not beautiful. Nonsense: she was ravishing despite throroughbred features, a skinny body, and a deliberately, if not aggressively, emphasized Bryn Mawr accent. Her beauty grew out of her own belief in herself and from the viewer’s sense that she was living dangerously, exposing her own nerves and vulnerability along with her intelligence and sensibility. Like Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, she was a moral being, sometimes at odds with herself, deluded or mistaken, but able to correct herself out of a grave and resilient honesty. Nobody on the screen could be so funny and so moving in making a fool of herself, or so touching in reclaiming her dignity.

 Thomson is the author of several other books. One that I’m reading now is The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood.

The Whole Equation
If that subtitle makes you thinking that this is an orderly, chronological survey, then you’re being misled. Yes, there’s a lot of history here, but the “chapters” are once again something on the order of meditations, and they appear in the order that strikes Thomson’s fancy.

The first one is about Chinatown, which was released in 1974. It serves as a sort of introduction, so its non-chronological placement won’t ruffle any feathers. But Chapter 6 is about Nicole Kidman’s performance as author Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which was released in 2002. The seventh chapter has to do with D. W. Griffith, who made silent films in the last century’s teens and twenties. Mr. Thomson wants to say something about the nature of acting and identity, and Chapter 6 is where he wants to say it.

The book can drive you nuts with its tangents and its assumptions. But once again, Thomson has cool things to say.  Here he is on the “race” to invent moving pictures:

Edison was ahead in the race . . . But he made a “mistake” (or maybe not; keep an open mind). Once he had a system working, he produced a machine called a kinetoscope whereby one person could step up, look into the eyepiece and watch the film run forward for a few seconds . . . He could even run it back and forth, if he chose . . . Edison foresaw a marketplace in which some room or public place had rows of kinetoscope machines so that hundreds of people could have fun.

Thomas Alva Edison is obviously on the wrong track, here, correct? He doesn’t foresee modern movie theatres at all.

But then consider that Edison’s mistaken direction lasted only about fifty years. By the 1940s and 1950s, the cinematic experience was challenged by that of television, where many Edisonian circumstances were restored . . . the experience was not really shared until the next day when strangers might become friendly talking over moments from the same show. At first, television offered no way of stopping or repeating the show, but then came videotape. And in many other ways, the solitariness that Edison adhered to with the kinetoscope was restored by television. What emerges from this is the possibility that the movie was a special, short-lived side street, radiant and socially encouraging, but not lasting.

 It should be admitted that Thomson has more than one reason for sticking Nicole Kidman into his history so early. He has a crush on her, and came out with a whole book on her in 2006. I have an intermittent crush on Kidman, myself; and my wife bought me a copy of Nicole Kidman at Half Price Books as a sort of joke. Hence this blog.

Nicole Kidman

 Thomson examines her career, reviews each film. He’s always interested in what goes on in the dark of a movie theater, in what exactly is happening to us as we watch–and never more than when he’s obsessing about Kidman. He has me wondering if I should watch Birth again–I didn’t like it the first time–but I haven’t worked up the nerve to request it.

Thinking about that movie has thrown me into a gloom, so I’m turning to something more amusing in the Kidman book. Thomson is acquainted with sceenwriter and sometime director Robert Towne, and he writes about him well. This partly explains Thomson’s beginning The Whole Equation with a chapter on Chinatown, for which Towne wrote the screenplay. He writes about Towne, again, during a chapter about how Kidman met Tom Cruise when they worked together on Days of Thunder

Towne had worked a lot in earlier years with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, and in a way those two actors had been “patrons.” But those relationships had broken down, and by the late eighties Towne’s career was in trouble.

Which is one reason why he got attached to Days of Thunder, the sort of project that, in the 1970’s, Towne might have disdained. He was a very good writer then, with high standards, and every hope of doing a lot of good work. Yet he had learned that writers do not wag the dog, and he had spend a lot of time with men far richer than he was or might dream of being. That atmosphere can change you, so Towne was looking for a new patron. It would turn out that Tom Cruise filled the role in Towne’s life once held by Beatty and Nicholson. So Towne came on board Days of Thunder to punch up the dialogue a little bit. A friendship developed quickly. Towne is cool, very smart, terrific company. When someone asked him how he handled Cruise’s Scientology, Towne said, “I feel about it exactly the same way Lincoln felt about Grant and booze: let’s give it to my other generals.” You can see Tom’s grin and his fierce laugh at that remark. It lets Towne keep his independence, while showing Cruise knows his Civil War history.

These three Thomson books, taken together, make me want to watch 5,000 films. And after reading his treatment of some of Kidman’s movies, and the books they’re based on, I want to reread Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which I liked well enough, the first time (unlike Kidman, who hated it as a schoolgirl) but which I didn’t really go nuts over.
Mrs. Dalloway



And I want to read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’m afraid I haven’t read at all.
Cold Mountain


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