Customer Reviews: The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Expanded and Updated
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on February 16, 2003
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. I despise Life Is Beautiful, especially its warmth, sincerity, and feeling, all of which I belive grow out of stupidity. Few events so surely signaled the decline of the motion picture as the glory piled on that odious and misguided fable."

Sometimes that nastiness reaches the heights of pure poetry. Here is Thomson on Richard Gere:

"There are times when Richard Gere has the warm affect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness. And those are not his worst times."

Lest you think that Thomson is merely a fusty old curmudgeon, let me emphasize that in many other places (through most of the book, in fact), he displays a humanity and generosity of spirit that are nothing short of exemplary.

This book is not so much a reference on film as a meditation on life and everything in it. In these past hundred years movies have covered exactly that kind of encyclopedic range, both in their subject matter and in the lives of their makers. Thomson uses the world of cinema as a vehicle with which to explore the magnificent enigma of life and existence, and somehow manages to pack more of that life into its 963 pages than practically any other book of any genre. Opinionated, yes, but then again so is the Bible. A true desert island book. An absolute masterpiece.
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on July 7, 2003
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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on December 9, 2002
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. It seems to me that Thomson harbors some big grudge against Fellini that completely obscures his assessment of his work.

My few reservations are far surpassed by the many wonderful, accurate career biographies however. You'll see Thomson's writing quoted often in film books (and from Roger Ebert) simply because he is a superb, fluid, very observant viewer who's able to sum up films and careers with minimalistic prose.


Although the cover and title may be the same the 2004 paperback actually contains an additional 26 pages worth of entries beyond the original 2002 hardcover printing. The page counts you read online are often incorrect; the 2002 edition is actually 963 pages long and the new paperback is 989. I skimmed through the first 200 pages or so to make sure the page difference wasn't just due to page formatting and sure enough, there are many new entries such as Darren Aronofsky, Kevin Smith, Ray Winstone and Alfonso Cuaron that were not in the hardcover. The author has also expanded upon already existing entries so while the 2002 entry for Tom Cruise ends with "Is Minority Report rescue?", you can read the paperback edition to find out Thomson's answer.

I picked up the paperback simply because I happened across a signed copy in a used I am enjoying skimming through for all the new entries.
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on January 21, 2010
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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on May 8, 2004
Yes: this book is going to tick off a lot of people. Thomson's style and criticism are an acquired taste. I bristle and shake my fist at a number of his opinions. I don't think Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson and Jim Carrey and Nicole Kidman are great actors; Thomson does. Thomson has contempt for many of the directors and actors I respect and love. He thinks Humphrey Bogart is "a limited actor, not quite honest enough with himself." He calls Orson Welles a "charlatan." He calls the incomparable Hitchcock "an impoverished inventor of thunbscrews who shows us the human capacity for inflicting pain, but no more." He idolizes lesser-known directors like Yasujiro Ozu and sniffs condescendingly at celebrated figures like Akira Kurosawa.
Yet, Thomson makes no pretense that he's writing for everybody. Nor did Pauline Kael, for example, make such pretense. As Thomson himself writes, "Indeed, the stance taken here as your needling, provocative, argumentative companion at the movies takes it for granted that in the reading you will begin to compose your own response." That says it all.
Some people read film critics because no matter how much you disagree with them, they have something worthwhile, witty, thought-provoking, or just plain infuriating to say. Why else read film criticism at all? This book is a nearly thousand-page rollicking journey through some of the major figures of film, and it belongs on every film lover's shelf. I pick it up and refer to it often, and want to throw it across the room almost as often.
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on April 4, 2010
I have picked this 2004 version of this book up and put it down [mostly infuriated} more times than I've got hairs on my head so for its kind it must be {in my case}at least provocative. He has made me reevaluate for the worse [amoung others} Frank Capra's, Paul Muni's Lauren Bacall's,Humphrey Bogart's, Emil Janning's and John Ford's overall bodies of work and I found myself agreeing with some of his views - against my will, in particular in Bogart's case. As a fan of Gary Cooper and William Holden I found his reviews on them "right on the button" yet tinged with the sadness of their physical decline that brought out their humanity and vuneralbility - very nicely done.

Actors and Actresses that I would have expected him to "boil alive"- studio made contract stars such as Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Virginia Mayo, Gene Tierney, Paulette Goddard, Linda Darnell, Cornell Wilde, Ann Harding and Jane Russell he was more than fair to with his reviews and even liked some of them !!!! While I'm not in love with Cary Grant and Howard Hawks as he is, nevertheless I found his pieces on them interesting - Grant never appealed to me much because of the nasty edge under the charm but now Mr.Thompson has made me rethink this actors appeal - in this case " to the better".

The piece on C.Chaplin was harsh and almost bitter yet I felt it caught his essential strenghts and weaknesses better than some of the biographies I've read. The piece on Johnny Carson was probaly the best thing in the whole book - he professes to like and even admire Carson while Thompson is really full of loathing for the Tonite show format,its success and its "simplistic" audience - he pretends to appear to be spilt on this issue but definitely leans towards "loathing" !!

HOWEVER, his prejudice against the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio {and his distaste for their movies} starting with Irving Thalberg, to its producers, directors and stars is very obvious - Roz Russell, Clarence Brown, Sidney Franklin, King Vidor, Greer Garson, L.B.Mayer, Gene Kelly, John Gilbert, Vera Ellen, Sam Wood, June Allyson, Agnes Moorhead,it is like he has to hold his nose in detailing their careers because they smell so bad !! His distaste for Norma Shearer seems almost personal despite her 5 oscar nominations and one win and his opinion over the last decade has fortunately become an obsolete and minority view of her carrer and talents thanks to Mick Lasalle among others.

Calling Robert Taylor "a minor journeyman player" who by some miracle {in his opinion} was popular is a ridiculous opinion. Robert Taylor was for 25 years a major leading man / star {in the 30s, 40s and 50s} with numerous box office hits and star appeal for both men and women so the author's contention appears to be his personnel prejudice and petty spite - no actor survives for 25 years as a major star who is a journeyman talent.

When judging MGM he makes the most common critics mistake, Thalberg and Mayer were making movies for the audiences of their era {and was the most profitable studio for much of the era} -not for cranky old critics in 2004-2011 - AND they were the studio that in that era towered above the others. He liked Jimmy Steward and Edward Arnold and could tolerate Lana Turner without holding his nose - thats something anyway !!!. His dislike and disdain for William Wyler and George Stevens is beyond my comprehension espiscally in Wylers case look at Wylers film resume - Dodsworth, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mrs Miniver, The Heiress, Ben Hur etc etc what a film legacy !!!.

He is entitled to his opinions,likes and dislikes however wrong he may be - it is his book !! However,in my view where he really goes off the rails is in his hostile attitude towards the art of the silent cinema and its players. His hostility snd contempt for Lillian Gish, Emil Jannings, Mae Marsh, John Gilbert, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson amoung others is hard for me to swallow and he is dead wrong in his opinions.

The author seems to have a grudge against "good male box office bets" and matinee idols - he skewers Tyrone Power, Dick Powell, George Brent and is barely tolerable of Ronald Colman. His diatribe on Bob Hope's comedic skills has more to do with his distaste for B.Hope being a conservative republican and he says little in a constructive sense about his box office successes or strenghts as a comedian/actor - I doubt very much whether the incident he details is true about Hope being rattled by heckling !!! His "review on Ronald Reagan is a mean spirited, ranting, raging liberal screed of political correctness that reveals his tremendous bias and appears to be his pathetic attempts to "suck up" to a younger reading audience.

The author has a big chip of liberal political correctness / prejudices on his shoulder along with a lot of incorrect assumptions and for these reasons I can give this book a less than enthusastic 2 Star rating.
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on November 18, 2002
Boy does Thomson hate Fellini! That's fine, of course, but the author's cold bile (and British schoolboy elitism... he whacks Fellini over and over for daring to be born in a small town) make this almost useless as a real reference book. I guess it's fun to read as a cute, snotty film fan diary... but it's a thousand pages long! It should have come in a gift box, scribbled on damp, wadded cocktail napkins. Thomson hates John Ford, too. Again, fine. But he says that "The Last Hurrah" is Spencer Tracy's finest film (Ford directed it). Yet nowhere, NOWHERE, in the article on Ford is a single hint that there is a filmmaker present who could make Spencer Tracy's finest film. I guess the wounding thing is the hateful way that he mocks and ridicules we yokels who actually are stupid enough to enjoy Amarcord or La Dolce Vita. (He also seems completely ignorant, in his wild praise of Radio Days as an unprecedented, brilliant, sui generis masterpiece -- it's a great movie, but come on --, that the film is inconceivable without Amarcord... but that would mean that he would have to admit that Fellini, that unforgivably provincial clodhopper, had a style and some ideas.) Then again, this is a man who thinks Howard Hawks' last bowel movement should be preserved by the AFI (and surely "Man's Favorite Sport?", which Thomson cites as one of the screen's finest comedies, qualifies as a giant stinky...). He's right about a lot of things (Stanley Kramer [stinks]), but so what? And he's a fine, witty writer. Again, so what? Now I know what David Thomson thinks of Dorothy Gish. I can die a happy man.
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VINE VOICEon October 20, 2002
For those of us who are movie buffs, we're forever looking for biographical information on people in film. David Thomson goes way beyond the usual dry recitation of dates and facts and actually renders informed opinions on the people about whom he writes. Flip to any entry and you'll be entertained and informed by Thomson's refreshingly truthful take. He's one of the few people with the guts to say that Monster's Ball was not the greatest movie of all time, while giving kudos to Halle Berre for her performance. While I don't necessarily agree with all his opinions, it's great to read biographical material that actually offers commentary along with data. From Diane Lane to Bette Davis to Julia Roberts to Rudolf Valentino, Thomson offers comments and insights that no other volume does. I have the previous 1994 edition. Now, happily, I've got hours of happy reading ahead in the 2002 edition.
This is a must-have, not just for film fans but for its pure entertainment value as a gigantic collection of biographical short takes.
My highest recommendation.
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on April 20, 2003
I am relieved to see that it's not necessary for me to reveal for the first time the utter inadequacy of this mistitled tome. Let me just add a few details. The extensive entry on Hitchcock never MENTIONS "Shadow of a Doubt ," to my mind one of his greatet films. The omission is made possible, like so many others, by Thomson's mistake of incorporating titles in a rambling, discursive, mostly chronological narrative rather than a simple list. There are innumerable such omissions, both within entries and in listings; I shuddered repeatedly as I discovered no listing at all for one after another expected name (e.g. Red Skelton). Thomson's errors of judgment are equally crippling. He carps at David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," the incidental value of which in helping us understand the West's inability to understand "the Arab street" is enormous right now, calling the film "incoherent. Terry Gilliam gets less than half a page, his almost universally admired "Brazil" is reduced to "art direction at the expense of any scrutiny" without a mention of the famous battle with Universal or of the terrifyingly powerful vision so many have admired it for, and "Twelve Monkeys," which Thomson says he likes, gets only a dismissive contrast with films he likes better. Similarly Stanley Kubrick seems not to have produced five minutes of film worth watching since "The Killing" in 1957. Other reviewers here have demonstrated how Thomson's eccentric judgment weakens his entries for major figures like FelliniI. I'll add another, chosen virtually at random: Peter Sellers, whose universally acclaimed portrayal of three characters in "Doctor Strangelove," of which Thomson says only "his own pretensions vied with those of the director."*
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on April 26, 2005
A sometimes maddening work that invents its own genre -- neither dictionary nor encyclopedia nor film criticism nor any other known category. Instead it's no less than one man's critical reflections on major figures from the length and breadth of world cinema, alphabetically listed from Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff. Whew! (Where did he ever get the time since no staff is acknowledged?) All the majors are present including non-Americans, along with "second thoughts" on Ford, Capra, and others. Moreover, the new edition updates older ones by adding a fresh generation of movie-makers as special interest to younger readers. Also present: major figures from off-screen, including such seminal contributors as cameraman John Alton, writer Ernest Lehman, and giving-the-devil-his-due, notorious studio boss Harry Cohn.

Yes, it's a big book (989 pps.)-- most of the entries requiring no explanation. Still and all, Thomson needs to give us at least some idea why he included some marginal players, while excluding others. Why, for example, the distinctive and deserving Elisha Cook Jr., but not the equally distinctive and deserving Percy Helton whose gnome-like presence and raspy voice boosted many a 50's second feature. Sure, a discussion like this has no real resolution. Nonetheless, the question becomes an issue when Thomson devotes four full columns to non-movie, television star Johnny Carson, who may be a giant of popular culture, but whose only film credit is a single Connie Francis flick! So Carson comes at the expense of several deserving marginal players with real film credentials, including perhaps favorites of your own. (Mine being the luminescent and painfully sensitive Gail Russell, dropped from this edition.) Anyhow, there's a legitimate issue here that the author should address.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons why this series has endured. Above all, Thomson has the courage of his convictions, unafraid to challenge received wisdom or conventional opinion, which means that every page may hold a surprise. (His revisionist appraisal of the universally revered John Ford should by now qualify as a classic.) Couple that with some of the liveliest prose around, plus a remarkable talent for distilling an essence into a short space, and an unusual approach to the movies results. Also, it's one of those rare books that can be read cover-to-cover or in snatches with equally satisfying results. Sure, there is a lot of grist for argument throughout -- in my view he overrates Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and even Bob Mitchum, (he admires strong, silent types), and underrates Kubrick, but is dead-on with Ford. Still and all, this is a good book to set the critical juices flowing, and rightly deserves a fourth edition.
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