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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film Hardcover – October 8, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When this book was first published in 1975, it ignited arguments among many film buffs who disagreed with London-born critic Thomson's strongly opinionated summations. This latest upgrade which includes 300 new entries promises to do the same. Thomson retitled it, he says, "because so much is fresh and different." Now that the reference includes talents who've shot to fame during the past decade or so, including Renee Zellweger ("great range") and Ben Affleck ("boring, complacent and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far"), it is truly massive, running the gamut from Abbott and Costello, who achieve the "lyrical, hysterical and mythic," to Ghost World's Terry Zwigoff, "a rare, individual voice". A critical minimalist, Thomson often nails the essence of a personality or career in less than a dozen words, such as Johnny Weissmuller: "No subsequent Tarzan ever matched him the loincloth was retired." He deftly distills entire movies down to single sentences, with Internet-like linkages. Since his Haley Joel Osment profile sneaks in a critique of Spielberg's A.I. ("Osment was uncannily good as the robot/puppet coming to life, but ultimately betrayed by the inability of his director to keep control of the very ambitious material"), the hypnotized reader feels compelled to seek his lengthier comments on Spielberg: "Schindler's List is the most moving film I have ever seen." After the publication of a 1994 edition, the Internet Movie Database became one of the book's major competitors, linking nearly a half million performers with over 260,000 titles, but one still turns to Thomson for witty writing and potent, razor-sharp insights. With an immense passion for pictures, he plunges past the IMDb into the very soul of film. Agent, Laura Morris. (Oct. 11) Forecast: Older readers will want to replace their earlier edition with this one, while an author tour, radio giveaways and advertising in the New York Times Book Review and Film Comment will attract a new generation.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

First published in 1975 and updated in 1981 and 1994, this dictionary returns with 300 new entries, mostly on emerging actors and directors from the last decade (e.g., Luc Besson and Reese Witherspoon), bringing the total to 1300. Film scholar Thomson (Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick) offers extensive but not comprehensive coverage, with entries ranging from a couple of paragraphs to several pages. He seems to write about whoever interests him, leaving some unexplained gaps. For example, he profiles Jeff Bridges but not father Lloyd or brother Beau and includes a fine tribute to the late critic Pauline Kael but ignores Roger Ebert. The book contains a lengthy appreciation of TV talk show master Johnny Carson that probably doesn't belong here. Like other serious film writers his age, Thomson admits that he no longer finds movie-going the "transforming experience" it once was, adding "I think I have learned that I love books more than films." This probably shapes some of his outspoken opinions. For example, writing about Tommy Lee Jones's recent career, he says, "He became coarse or was it depressed? and you felt he had lost faith in the business as his checks grew bigger." Halliwell's Who's Who in the Movies covers far more figures, in less detail than Thomson, though Thomson seems to value opinions as much as facts. Some readers may resent Thomson's dismissal of Paul Newman or John Ford's "appallingly hollow" Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley ("a monstrous slurry of tears and coal dust"). Halliwell's remains the first choice for a ready reference in film biography collections. If budget permits, large public libraries and college film collections should consider Thomson's book as a browsing title owing to its trenchant, sometimes witty, prose and its up-to-date coverage. Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 963 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 4th edition (October 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411283
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411281
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 7.2 x 2.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,671,345 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I don't think i've had as much fun, or been as challenged by any book on film as i have this one.
Reading it is almost like sharing a relaxed discussion over drinks with an extremely well-informed film critic with a sometimes eccentric slant on things.
Robert Heiniger
Whatever would David Thomson think about a 1000-page work called "The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film Criticism" that had no entry for David Thomson?

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 74 people found the following review helpful By spheremusic on February 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you're looking for a standard reference work, look elsewhere (Katz is probably your best bet). That said, this is one of the finest books I've discovered in years. You can read it from cover to cover and never get bored, which is probably impossible to say about any other reference book.

David Thomson is absolutely brilliant. I disagree with about half of what he writes here, but even when I disagree I respect his opinions and greatly admire the way in which he articulates them. Very often in these entries you will find that unexpected beauty and strangeness that are the hallmarks of all great literature and all great art in general. Some of the passages are heartstopping. Here's Thomson on Jean Vigo:

"L'Atalante is about a more profound attitude to love than Gaumont understood. It is love without spoken explanation, unaffected by sentimental songs; but love as a mysterious, passionate affinity between inarticulate human animals."

Have you ever heard a more haunting, uncanny definition of love than this one? I haven't. After reading these words for the first time, I sat there like a fool in shock for five or six minutes, ruminating on their simple profundity.

Thomson is also not afraid to be nasty, which is refreshing in this age of mindless, frothy hype being spewed in all directions on just about everyone. Here he is on Roberto Benigni:

"Then came the thing called La Vite E Bella. As a matter of fact, I often echo that sentiment myself, but if there is anything likely to mar the bella-ness, it is not so much Hitlerism (I am against it), which is fairly obvious, as Benigni-ism, which walks away with high praise, box office, and Oscars.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By M. Dog VINE VOICE on July 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have bought every edition of this book (this is the fourth) and find each one well worth the money. Thomson is the best writer among the movie critics, probably the best writer that has ever reviewed movies. His writing is so good, even when disagreeing with him, I still love reading the reviews or biographical sketches. He has a tremendous poetic economy with the English Language: consider the following:
About Bruce Dern in the film Coming Home:
". . . A rapturous embrace between Jane Fonda and Jon Voight was being watched by a wistful, suspicious Bruce Dern, his eyes lime pits of paranoia and resentment."
Or Basil Rathbone:
"The inverted arrow face, the razor nose, and a mustache that was really two fine shears stuck to his lip. Ladies looked fearfully at him, knowing that one embrace could cut them to ribbons."
Both these passages capture the essence of the star perfectly. Just perfectly. The book is full of this kind of superior writing.
The update has all the new stars, some who probably wish they were excluded. Who can not read a reviewer that says of Ben Affleck: ". . . Mr. Affleck is boring, complacent, and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far."
As I say, Thomson has a way of capturing things perfectly in a few words.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jerry Jancarik Jr. on December 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Thomson's tome was first published back in 1975 and it's fluent and informed assessments of hundreds of film careers put Thomson into the front rank of film writers along with people like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Stanley Kauffmann. Like Kael, he was unafraid of critically examining the work of accepted "masters" such as John Ford, David Lean or Stanley Kubrick and his entries on these directors are three of the most interesting in the book. The directors he is most enthusiastic about such as Howard Hawks or Max Ophul's fully deserve the praise they get and hopefully will bring more people to the work who might not have been as familiar with otherwise.

The book is superbly written and often very funny and the only reason I hesitate to give it a five star review is that I disagree strongly with some of Thomson's assessments.
His entry on Fellini (as an earlier reviewer noted) being the most notably unfortunate example. While he puzzlingly raves about such questionable works as American Gigolo and Cat People(1982) he proceeds to trash each and every Fellini film. He first cites I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone and (most unfairly) Nights of Cabiria and writes "This quartet needs to be put firmly in its place. They are slick, mechanical stories..." He then goes on to thrash La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 and doesn't even bother addressing Fellini Satyricon, one of the most compelling excursions into 60's surrealism. La Dolce Vita is "dated" when of course every film eventually becomes dated, the question is whether the sensibilities and style dates gracefully and in the case of Fellini I believe it does. I simply cannot accept the view that American Gigolo and Cat People(1982) are finer works of cinema than Nights of Cabiria or La Dolce Vita.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Michael W. Cleveland on January 21, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is an interestingly paradoxical book, fascinating and well-written, but questionable in its balance. It ranges from funny to (unnecessarily) vulgar (see the entry for Clara Bow), and I find myself compelled to continue reading far beyond the point when I need to put it down. Unfortunately, even his compliments are often couched in negativity. It's a must-read book, but in the end, the book itself offers a portrait of an imaginative writer who is more apt at basking in the self-illuminating glow of his own intellectuality than at any balanced evaluation of the people and films he writes about.
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