If Brando had played Hamlet...
An engaging book on the merits and foibles of the stars of the silver screen
Actors are like cattle, or so Alfred Hitchcock is reported to have contemptuously said, though if you're to believe the front cover of David Thomson's new book, they're more like apes - Caesar from Planet of the Apes in close-up stares out reproachfully at the reader.
The London-born, California-based Thomson, who's long been the best of movie commentators, has a thing about actors. He's the author of an adoring - indeed, too adoring - book about Nicole Kidman. And in his indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film (a factually accurate title that entirely undersells its often contrarian views), he's lavish in his praise of favoured performers.
Here he is on Robert Mitchum, a man who was "mocked throughout his career for listlessness, inertia, hooded eyes and lack of interest". Given that, "how can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies?" Yet he does, and very persuasively.
Then there's Cary Grant, not just "a leading box-office draw for some 30 years" and the "epitome of the man-about-town" but also "the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema". And he's persuasive here, too, as he is about Angie Dickinson, where he confesses to "the plain fact that Angie is his favourite actress" (Anyone who's seen Rio Bravo and Point Blank will know what he means).
And he can be just as taken by more recent players, deeming Brendan Gleeson to be both "the greatest Irish actor of his day" and "sublime", though he's not shy about giving brickbats as well as bouquets. He thinks Keira Knightley "about as interesting as a crème brûlée", while George Clooney's tendency to be "pleased with himself comes in advance of our response and takes the edge of decision away from us", while Tom Hanks in Philadelphia "carries the automatic sentiment of a dog in a film about people".
None of these actors is mentioned in his new book, which nonetheless finds room for Lionel Messi and Ronaldo and for the notion that, apart from their dazzling football skills, they're both playing parts that have been allotted to them by our obsession with celebrity - indeed, Ronaldo, "the contemporary soccer player with perhaps the sharpest sense of showbusiness", reminds him of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.
But Thomson is only getting started. In a book of teasing suggestiveness, he throws out many ideas, including a consideration of the technological advances that enabled performances to be captured for posterity and rewatched by all of us whenever we so desire. The mastery of Edmund Kean and other famous actors of an earlier age may be known to us only by repute, but Jean Seberg, whose decomposing remains were found in a car parked on a Paris street in 1979, "is still the kid on the street selling the New York Herald Tribune in Godard's Breathless."
Then there's the often fortuitous matter of casting, Thomson playing with tantalising might-have-beens in the careers of Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. He devotes a lot of space to both of these actors, which might bewilder the book's younger readers - indeed, as far back as 1977, Stephanie in Saturday Night Fever only knew of Olivier as the guy "who did the Polaroid commercials" - but he's very good on both of them.
He traces the "spine of insecurity" that ran through Olivier's personality and that kept him intent on gainful employment to the very end, and he contrasts it with Brando's increasing inability "to lose the feeling that his own great talent was foolish".
He imagines the "stealthy" qualities that Olivier would have brought to The Godfather (he was being considered, apparently, along with Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine), and he asks the reader: "Wouldn't you like to see Olivier's Vita Corleone as much as you might hope to see Brando's Hamlet?" Yes, I would. And he also asks: "Wouldn't Brando have made an impassioned and dangerous Othello?" Yes, again.
He's interesting, too, on the American obsession with the immersive process of method acting that Olivier so disdained and he quotes Olivier on the set of John Schlesinger's thriller Marathon Man as he watched Dustin Hoffman strenuously and time-wastingly thinking himself into his role: "Oh gracious, why doesn't the dear boy just act?"
And this is perhaps why Thomson has such admiration for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who "seemed determined not to look like an actor" and who in his later roles was "on the verge of trusting himself to do nothing".
The book - an extended essay, really - ranges all over the place and is very subjective. This, after all, is the man who described his own dictionary as "personal, opinionated, unfair and capricious". But he's a marvellous companion and a fund of good stories, and he's endlessly quotable.
He notes William Holden's "light, friendly but faintly sour voice", which evokes that actor immediately. He observes of the younger Julia Roberts that "her smile ran the risk of obliterating her face". Orson Welles was all too often "a hammy actor, unduly contemptuous of the rubbish he was doing". And he locates a "poetic reticence" in Gary Cooper that keeps his screen persona "mysterious and intact" while other famous actors of his era now seem dated. I like, too, his fondness for supporting actors and for those non-speaking performers who fill in the background of movie scenes - the trick to being a good extra, he says, is "to be marginally vivid or interesting, without quite being noticed".
And acting matters to us, he feels, because "for some of us, on some days, we spend more time with acted figures than with real people" - this thought echoing a line, not quoted here, by Joan Didion, who found herself at dinner with John Wayne and was struck by the realisation that "the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband's".
At the outset of Why Acting Matters, we're advised to "turn to some other book if you do not share in an uncritical love for actors". But Thomson is so generous with insights and such an engaging stylist that there's no chance of that.