Reading David Thomson's new book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood is like listening to a favorite older uncle reminisce about his Hollywood career; it's full of interesting stories of yesteryear, lots of valuable insights, and probably good for you--even if some sections go faster than others. Thomson is an accomplished critic who has written for The New York Times and Salon (among others), and is also the author of several books on the subject of show biz, including The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. In The Whole Equation (a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon), he attempts to cover "the history of American movies," and "the history of America in the time of movies." To do so, he brings in finance, film theory, and just plain gossip. (For those who haven't heard how Jean Harlow died, prepare to watch the facade of glamour crumble as never before.)
It's an ambitious project to say the least, and the movie business is probably too complex a subject to sum up in 350-plus pages. Often a reader can start a chapter, purportedly on one topic, and find themselves completely off the grid--or at least buried under a lot of words--a few pages later. Like that favorite uncle, Thomson isn't necessarily quick to make his point, nor afraid of straying from his main subject. Nevertheless, many parts of the book are enjoyable and valuable--particularly for those who really want to learn about the history of American filmmaking, and wouldn't mind finding out what Brando got paid for Last Tango in Paris in the process. --Leah Weathersby
From Publishers Weekly
The "whole equation," a phrase borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, refers to the balancing of financial acumen, artistic aspiration and sociological savvy that movie moguls needed to keep Hollywood flourishing during the Depression. It's also what Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) aims to achieve in his idiosyncratic chronicle of American filmmaking. He explores personalities (Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick) and specific films (von Stroheim's Greed, Spielberg's Jaws) to explain the 20th century's shifting sensibilities. Thomson addresses seminal effects from the last 100 years—from the ramifications of sound and color to the chilling consequences of the McCarthy hearings—to explain the culture of moviemaking. His writing is lyrical, but his pronouncements hyperbolic. (His ire against psychiatry, manifested in a dislike of Method acting, is particularly pronounced; its influence on an acting style, claims Thomson, "could yet destroy a society.") Thomson is considerably frustrated with current films and what he sees as moviegoers' lowered expectations. His melancholy metaphor for survival in Hollywood is the 1974 film Chinatown, where "the lone seeker of truth is told to shut up at the end." This fascinating, sometimes frustrating love letter to Hollywood doesn't shirk from exposing the blemishes on Thomson's inamorata. 23 photos.
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