Interviews

INTERVIEW: DAVID THOMSON

By • Feb 14th, 2006 •

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David Thomson has established himself as perhaps the most interesting film critic working at present. His idiosyncratic, non-linear style perhaps owes more to Joyce than say Pauline Kael and he has built up a kind of cult following among serious film aficionados. Most recently Mr. Thomson published The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (Knopf) in which he constructs the history of Hollywood through history, economics, and even hearsay. Also, his one of a kind Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf) has just been published in a revised edition. S. Mark Rhodes recently spoke to Mr. Thomson about both works.


MR: What was the origin of The Whole Equation? Did you set out to write a book about the history of Hollywood or did this work evolve into a bigger undertaking than you had intended?

DT: I began with the notion of a book that tracked the struggle between art and money in American film. As I worked, I saw that it needed to cover the whole span of film history, and I think I saw that it would be a book about American history as well as film history.

MR:
The structure of the book is non-linear, starting out with the creation of the film CHINATOWN. Did this structure come naturally or was it something that evolved through your writing the book?

DT: I wanted an opening that was modern and contemporary if only to make
the reader feel that this book is about a current state of affairs – not just a dry historical survey. Beyond that, I’d say that the order of the book changed a bit and settled as I was writing. I think with any book – fiction or non-fiction – it acquires a life of its own in which the writer himself learns the proper shape as he goes along.

MR: One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with the unusual career of Michael Cimino. You review the history of (much of which I was surprised I had forgotten) and hint that Cimino has lost little clout at this point despite having made the most notorious financial “flop” of the modern era. How is it someone can remain in the hinterlands and retain this kind of influence in Hollywood?

DT: Well, I don’t think I do say that. Cimino is very much an outsider HEAVEN’S GATE now – in large part at his own insistence. All I’m saying is that the man is talented and that if he chooses to make a comeback I wouldn’t put it past him. I showed HEAVEN’S GATE this week at the Pacific Film Archive – in its full-length version. The reaction was clear: it’s not perfect, but it’s a very beautiful, fascinating picture.

MR: Do you think Hollywood would be different today if HEAVEN’S GATE would have been a success?

DT: Not really. Hollywood responds to large social forces. One film seldom causes a change on its own. But the picture was in its time a warning against arrogant directors and I think that led to a wave of younger, more pliant directors. So there is an influence.

MR: You write a great deal about Nicole Kidman and the tension between her (occasionally) unrecognizable screen persona in a film such as THE HOURS and her movie star persona at any number of award ceremonies. It seems that this points to one of the minor themes of the book in that stars of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood (Grant, Wayne, Stewart) were recognizable but the stars of today make a point of changing their appearance (De Niro, Kidman, even Pitt and Mike Meyers). When do you think this change took place? Why? Do you ever see a return to a more straightforward era of movie stardom?

DT: I think stardom is different now. We have stars in so many other fields, like sport and music. And we know that some stars don’t necessarily last as long as stars used to. But we the people still look for stars, still want to love them, and respond to them.

MR: Did you learn anything about Hollywood through writing this work? Did anything you learned surprise you?

DT: I think the chief surprise was simply realizing how once upon a time so many people went to the movies. It really was a much bigger pastime in the 20s, the 30s and the 40s. Today, we see our films in so many different ways. But the theatrical audience continues to fall.

MR: If you would, I would like to turn to the Biographical Dictionary of Film, a newly revised version has just been published. What was the origin of the work?

DT: It was a book commissioned in 1971 as a far shorter Film
Encyclopedia – there would be articles on people, but on countries, studios and technical terms, too. As I wrote, I found a voice in which it concentrated on people and the articles became longer. Happily, the original publishers liked this style and trusted it.

MR: What kind of response have you gotten from the public with regards to this work? What is your sense of the audience for it?

DT: Well, the book has been in print now 30 years and through four editions, and has grown in its popularity. I know its chief audience is film buffs, film students and people in the business. But I think recently it has begun to be seen as book for the lay person, a book to read (as well as a work of reference) and a piece of literature.

MR: Is there an entry or entries that people mention more than others? Do people disagree about your entries much?

DT: Angie Dickinson. Cary Grant. There’s been a lot of argument over John Ford. But the book was always meant to make people argue back. People like the Welles entry, and Jean Renoir.

MR: In putting this new volume together I assume you reviewed at least some of the performances and films again. Did any film or performer surprise you? Did any film or performance age poorly in your mind?

DT: Yes, I try to re-view old films all the time and my views do go through changes – and I’m sure that will continue. There are figures from my youth I now rate less highly – Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray. But there are people from earlier ages – Leisen, Lubitsch, Sturges – who seem to me to get better and better. I think as a whole I feel more certain that films of the 30s and 40s are the finest this country has made.

MR: You seem a little skeptical about some of the high profile “movie stars” of this current generation like Clooney, Pitt and Affleck. Can you explain how this group are considered movie stars but are not consistently reliable at the box office?

DT: Well, this goes back to our new sense of stardom. We are more fickle. They are not always as talented. A lot of stars come and go now. Ben Affleck, for one, may be finished. I think it’s all a reflection of the end of long-term contracts and the way in which stars are all alone now, without studio backing.

MR: You have added some performers in this latest edition. Do any entries ever drop out?

DT: I try not to drop entries – it seems mean-spirited somehow. On the whole, I’ve always been well aware of, and guilty about, people unfairly omitted. So I try now just to have the book grow. But it’s nearly 1000 pages and there are limits to what a binding can hold. I hope there will be a fifth edition and it has to be longer – but I don’t want it to be more than one volume. Ideally there would be another 200 entries – new people, of course, but also filling in some holes from the past. People write to me with lists of suggestions and I keep those lists and try to act on them.

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