The Whole Equation

Subtitled “A History of Hollywood,” David Thomson’s magnum opus is much more a literary production than a historical one. This, as Richard Schickel observes, is to be expected from one who in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, confessed, “I love books more than films.” Yet Thomson also poses a salutary paradox about cinema to which print cannot aspire. A serious book is an engine that can run or sputter depending on the efficacy of writtenness with a particular reader. But film has the power to engage “I” and “eye;” to change itself in a blink, “to reinvent its code or language-- and to say to the viewer: work it out, find the connection.”

While brilliantly extolling what might be summed up as the emotional immediacy of movies, Thomson claims to give primacy to those aspects in them that are most literary--witty dialogue, novelistic structure, and most exacting, intensely explicated characters. He wants to undercut film’s visual--or “cinematic”-- representations of life, but his evocative style in conveying the “feel” of being a spectator provides the book’s real strength.

Of the traditional major studios, only Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer interests Thomson. He writes of its boy-genius head, Irving Thalberg; of twisted relationships among Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Mayer’s daughter Irene, and her one-time husband, David O. Selznick. Thomson does not much like current films, although Nicole Kidman and her physical transformation to play Virginia Woolf mesmerizes him. His touchstone for survival in Hollywood is the 1974 film Chinatown where “the lone seeker of truth is told to shut up at the end.”