Review: The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
Little, Brown, €40.95, Hardback
Just in time for Christmas comes the fifth edition of a reference book that has long been an indispensably quirky bible for movie lovers. The author himself, an Englishman who's been living for decades on the west coast of America, has deemed it "personal, opinionated, unfair, capricious" and to those epithets one could add infuriating, perverse, irresistible, unputdownable and quite a few more.
In other words, the title, which suggests a sober and impartial work of scholarship, is deeply misleading. Yes, David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is alphabetically arranged, but here are 1,500 passionately argued mini-essays on most of the key figures in cinema over the last century, with unabashed enthusiasms disarmingly declared and intense dislikes frankly conceded.
Some of Thomson's pronouncements have become famous to his readers. "How can I offer this hunk," he says of Robert Mitchum, "as one of the best actors in the movies?" Yet he does, and very persuasively, noting that "for a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humour, menace, stoicism, and above all of watching other people as though he were waiting to make up his mind."
Cary Grant, for his part, is "the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema," and you learn the reasons for this verdict, while there remains "the plain fact" that Angie Dickinson -- held in little regard by most highbrow critics -- is his "favourite actress". (Fans of Rio Bravo and Point Blank will understand his fervour).
The brickbats can be extreme, too. Richard Donner, journeyman director of the Lethal Weapon series, is dispatched in the book's briefest and most brutal entry: "Mr Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it's over yet." And the director of The Crying Game doesn't fare much better: "After a dozen films, Neil Jordan seems as unsettled as a beginner."
Like many others who thrilled to the adventurous movie-making of the late '60s and the '70s, Thomson is clearly disenchanted with the mainstream Hollywood fodder of the last few decades. Writing of Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne, he says that in the 1980s "there came into being a kind of movie that was, at the same time, sensational and dead" -- though he sees the rot as beginning with Star Wars, "a movie full of the prospect of Muzak cinema, a light show where the music never stops, a diversion without delight or distress".
In fact, the cinema he loves mainly belongs to earlier ages -- the '30s and '40s of Renoir, Carne and Hawks (but not John Ford, whom he accuses of prettifying the West), and the '50s of Mizoguchi, Ozu, Ophuls and Hitchcock -- and most of the actors who quicken his pulse come from the same era: his tribute to the perennially underrated Robert Ryan is especially eloquent.
Yet, though he laments the absence of intelligence, humanity, wit and innovation in contemporary mainstream cinema, he doesn't look elsewhere for these qualities -- his pronounced bias towards American and European films (even if they're mainly to be deplored) means that he all but ignores developments in cinema from the Middle and Far East.
In fact, you get the strong sense that movies don't matter as much to him any more, a feeling that's reinforced by the perfunctory approach to many of his updatings, with paragraphs simply tacked on to entries from previous editions, and by his melancholy introduction to this new edition, in which he says: "Those of us old enough know how much the general level of film knowledge is in decline, and sooner or later criticism becomes a part of history" -- adding, a couple of paragraphs later: "Do not be too surprised if this is the last edition."
And it certainly seems to be an unexpected and regrettable weariness that's behind some glaring omissions in this latest update. Michael Haneke, that chilly darling of the art-house crowd, doesn't even get a mention, and it's hard to figure out why Rebecca de Mornay and Amy Irving are deemed worthy of inclusion when Julia Stiles and Rebecca Hall are ignored. Similarly, though Gabriel Byrne makes the cut, Colin Farrell doesn't and neither does Heath Ledger.
Still, the book is full of cherishable insights and opinions. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia "carries the automatic sentiment of a dog in a film about people"; Oliver Stone affects "the tireless way of someone who believes he contains multitudes"; George Clooney's tendency to be "pleased with himself comes in advance of our response and takes the edge of decision away from us"; Jeff Bridges has become "a model of stoicism and a guarantee of the forlorn"; while Christopher Walken is now "the ghost that haunts American film, hired to be spooky, pale, staring, eccentric."
Thomson's most touching entry is devoted to Dublin filmmaker Kieran Hickey, who died suddenly in 1993 at the age of 57 and whose friendship with the author dated back to 1960 when they were both young movie buffs in London.
Hickey is largely forgotten now, but the entry here is both a fine elegy for the man and for a vanished time and a vanishing love of cinema. It concludes: "He was the best friend I'll ever have, and in a way I feel the movies are over now that he's gone."
It's a lovely tribute in a book that, since its first appearance in 1975, should be on every movie lover's shelf.