Thomson, who was given complete access to Selznick’s personal papers, as well as interviews with family (with the notable exception of second wife Jennifer Jones), provides not only a thorough account of his subject’s life, career, and family, but also of the show-business milieu within which he rose to prominence and then fell from grace. Thomson sees Seznick’s career as mirroring the fate of the Hollywood studio system, which peaked at the time Selznick’s Gone with the Wind was released (1939) and then became increasingly out of touch with film audiences. Though he does not resort to Freudian jargon, Thomson also regards Selznick as a child who never successfully coped with his domineering biological father, Lewis J. Selznick, or his spiritual father, Louis B. Mayer, his father-in-law.
Thomson’s biography, which contains invaluable photographs, a filmography, genealogical charts, and an extensive biography, is at once cultural history, a storehouse of anecdotes and gossip about Hollywood notables, and the chronicle of a showman whose strengths became his weaknesses and whose self-destructive excesses (with women and gambling) adversely affected family and career. Thomson focuses on the man, not his many films, and the portrait that emerges is more pathological than laudatory.
Selznick was, Thomson insists, charming, lively, creative, and well-read, at least by Hollywood standards, but the producer was insecure, ill at ease in the presence of virile actors, desirous of other people’s respect, given to lavish displays of generosity and obsessed with minutiae and self-justification. The copious notes and exhaustive memos, many of which were not forwarded but were consciously written and saved for posterity, reveal Selznick’s insights and, ironically, expose him as an insensitive, arrogant individual who trusted no one else’s judgment and who could not delegate responsibility. Given the complexity of Thomson’s portrait of Selznick, it is disappointing that Jennifer Jones does not receive the same attention that Thomson gives Selznick’s first wife, Irene.