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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2004
The Whole equation by David Thomson is basically as historical overview of Hollywood and the American filmmaking industry. Mr. Thomson is well placed to write such a book-his other "credits" include a biography of an 18th century novelist as well as one of Orson Welles, an history of an artic exploration and the all inclusive "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film".

The whole equation is an extremely well written and absorbing account of the film industry including, on one side of the equation, the artistic elements of writing, acting and directing, and on the other side of the equation, the bottom line businessmen-the studio chiefs, the producers, agents and assorted bean counters.

Mr. Thomson does not shine his spotlight only on the success stories. He chronicles the rise and fall of several key talents-some well now, some obscure-through all the various means of descent-failure of inspiration, life-styles of enormous excess, bad career management, overrun ego and the nefarious tyrannies of studio chiefs. He also traces the many arcs of success and the juxtaposition of the two often illustrates how often luck---both good and bad-affects trajectories in Hollywood.

This book has a bit of something for everyone. Although written with a novelistic flair, the book adheres to an historian's discipline. It has the "names" one would expect and interesting biographical datum on many great Hollywood personalities. It does a very nice job of providing a vivid picture of how the film industry operates. The book is both informative and fun to read.

A great book for film junkies.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2005
First off this is "A History of Hollywood" not "THE History of Hollywood." David Thomson isn't writing the chronological, straight-up, blow-by-blow account of Hollywood movies. "The Whole Equation" is an essay that takes as its question, "are Hollywood films ever art like a Beethoven symphony or a Picasso painting?" He says they are both more and less than that. More because American film captures the tension between wanting to make money and wanting to say something which allows for the unintentional to happen. That serendipity is wonderful when it works which isn't often. Less because there are always artistic compromises as someone is always looking at the budget and thinking about the profits.

And unlike most film critics he is just fine with this tension. His argument is that to understand and appreciate American film, you have to understand that it's always about the money and about the art. That means it is never truly art in any pure way (but is any art truly pure?). To tell you the truth, I don't think the book succeeds that well on that level. He points out various people and their struggles with this dilemma through out the history of American film but he doesn't developed a coherent argument that builds on his initial insight.

For me, that just didn't matter. What makes it a terrific read is that David Thomson knows and loves film. He writes with a adolescent thrill and openness about his subject that makes it fun and poetic. He uses the film "Chinatown" as his framing device and as that is my all-time favorite movie, I was in heaven. He is not a deep thinker but his book crackles with his delight in sensations whether of the movie theater, the audience, the actors, the costumes, the music, all of it. He constantly raises questions and throws out insights that just tumble onto each other until you realize that like watching a film, you must just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2005
I'm a fan of Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film," and this book is cut from the same cloth--curmudgeonly, British, often dead-on. This is not the usual Hollywood history book (it has been published by holier-than-thou Knopf, afterall)--it's all over the place and LOADED with references to every last syllable in Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon." If you haven't read that novel, you're going to miss half of what Thomson is saying.

Nevertheless, the book is worth sticking with. Starting with a cautionary behind-the-scenes tale from "Chinatown," he then weaves through film history as we watch movie-making go from silent art to studio product to the "filmed deal." The chapters on 20s, 30s, and 40s Hollywood are quite fresh, and full of interesting observations, including a detailed look at how much it would cost to film "Gone With The Wind" today.

The reviewer who mentioned Pauline Kael is right-on. This feels just like her rambling, unclassifiable tomes. If you liked her writings, and miss that kind of casual, chatty film scholarship, you'll like this book.

BTW--After reading this, I followed it with an excellent, little known book called "Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History," which does an equally good job of taking some of he shine off of Tinsel Town.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 26, 2006
The Whole Equation shouldn't work. It's written in a rambling style that is at times pompous, at times overly dismissive, and almost always self-indulgent. Additionally, Thomson tends to place much more importance on certain themes (like Nicole Kidman's performance in The Hours) than they deserve, thus bogging down the flow of the book.

And yet, The Whole Equation does work. Once one get accustomed to the style, it's very clear that Thomson has married an intellectual's knowledge of the medium with a film lover's experience to create a history that is both informative and challenging. Particularly important are Thomson's ruminations on societal issues that motion pictures have impacted; like the increase in divorce rates, the power of celebrity, and the easy with which violence is seen as a viable (if not the only) option for dealing with disagreement. These ruminations make it clear that the strange mix of pretension and greed that fuels a movie's creation may not produce results that are beneficial to society.

In the end, I was glad that my frustration with the writing style didn't overwhelm my appreciation for the book's themes. This book certainly isn't for everyone. But, for those looking for a new perspective on this topic, The Whole Equation will prove to be a worthy guide to that strangely powerful form of modern expression known as the motion picture.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon February 23, 2006
As someone who has casually perused his monumentally encyclopedic "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film", I recognize author David Thomson for the deep well of cinema knowledge he obviously possesses. With an obviously fertile mind, he is able to discern filmmaking trends and styles others have not thought to synthesize in their thinking. His writing can get scholarly and sometimes off-putting, but for the most part, he is quite accessible. His latest book is a provocative and personable read of a macro-level subject one would think too onerous to capture adequately in one tome. Not only does he attempt to tell the history of Hollywood but how it has influenced the rest of society here and globally.

Taken appropriately from a line in "The Last Tycoon", F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished roman à clef about legendary MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, the title refers to the delicate balance between movies as entertainment and the business side where the source of funds and the quest for profits affects how movies are made. In fact, as the practical facilitator between a struggling new studio and a monomaniacal director in danger of excessive cost overruns, Thalberg himself is the subject of an interesting essay on how he maintained this precarious balance during the intensely stressful filming of Erich von Stroheim's epic 1925 silent classic, "Greed".

Spanning the generations since then, Thomson covers personalities ranging from D.W. Griffith to Nicole Kidman, and he is at his best when he focuses on the artistic side of the equation. For example, he opines knowledgeably that silent films were due to meet extinction because of the Victorian theatrics and stilted movements that were necessary to compensate for the lack of dialogue, even though others are adamant that silent films are a lost art. The author can also get curmudgeonly as in his assertion that screenwriter Robert Towne should have made "Chinatown" a novel rather than a movie script and thereby ignoring the virtues of the resulting film, which most people consider a modern classic. Tom Cruise would give Thomson, obviously not a fan of Method acting, a standing ovation for his opinion that Marlon Brando's dependence on psychiatry during the filming of "On the Waterfront" was a decidedly destructive force, but again the result would prove otherwise.

Intriguingly, despite his passion for the films and personalities involved, it is the business side that receives the most emphasis in Thomson's treatise. He goes deeply into the studio structures and the functionaries who are needed to make these companies run and make a profit. In this spirit, he goes into the power struggles and scandals that are as much a part of the industry as the films themselves. It is really in these sections that the author gets somewhat dry and overly explanatory. Regardless, Thomson is always worth a read just to see the results of his erudite mind in full intellectual flight.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2005
Part of this book--the good part--is a fascinating history and analysis of power and money in Hollywood. Thomson figures that control is power, and he's right--most of the time.

Part of this book--the bad part--is twee autobiography (I'm not fastastically interested in The Granada, Tooting); endless and often obscure rhetorical questions; and rather a lot of thinking with a part of his body that is not his brain. Yes, folks, we're deep in Pauline Kael Land! Thus we get dumb tributes to dumber Nicole Kidman and her dumbest Oscar vehicle "The Hours"; rather more about Selznick Freres than we care to know; and a rather pathetic swallowing of Slim Hawkes' "I-Am-Muse" myth. This self-indulgence is unfortunate, because it gets in the way of the good things in the book. Thomson's opinionated, which makes him entertaining. Thomson's opinions, though, are sometimes dead wrong. (David dear, the French are not right about Jerry Lewis. Just sayin'.)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2010
Thomson's book is a great read despite (maybe because of) the idiosyncracies of the author. (We have to remember that Hollywood fashions fantasies and Thomson's wordy, often hard-to-follow ruminations throughout the book are themselves often the fantastical and unedited by-product of those fantasies he watches on the screen; and why should that be off-putting? Thomson, after all, has earned the right by his incisive criticism of film in earlier books to ruminate all he likes, hasn't he?). But I think his strictures against psychiatry and its practictioners' rush to Hollywood to score a killing with the well-heeled (who are themselves condemned for being selfish and self-absorbed and narcissistic for their reliance on the craft) is silly, even delusional. After all, Thomson spends a lot of time in his history establishing how the place can drive sane people crazy...

Therefore, it's not surprising that Thomson gets the date of the publication of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams wrong; it was 1899, not 1895.

By the way, the criticisms above on Amazon were unusually thoughtful and helpful. In particular, they helped me understand the meaning of the book's title, as well as the justice of blaming Thomson for being too fast and loose with blaming HUAC solely for the awful results of putting Hollywood dissenters in jail and the subsequent blacklist. As was well said, the studios and the judiciary have a lot of the blame to share also.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2004
The magic of the movies is in their uncanny, hypnotic ability to make us believe in fantasy. Extending from the images on the screen to the exaggerated lifestyles of the falsely refined movers and shakers who make them, the lies trickle down to affect both the manner and perception of us, the viewer. To say that movies (and, more profoundly, television) have reshaped society is an understatement: their sweeping modification of reality is one of the legacies (and the foremost curse) of the twentieth century.

As David Thomson displays in The Whole Equation, to write about movies is to write about fabrication and influence, and authors even as keen as he are just as susceptible to the same power of suggestion as everyone else. Going through this energetic, analytic volume, we're with a man caught between exposing the lie and loving it. In over a dozen books and countless magazine articles, Thomson's study of this dangerous game of chimera and self-deception has been enlightening and often irritating. (How dare he shatter our illusions!) Updated once every decade, the unsentimental tone throughout his Biographical Dictionary of Film has infuriated some readers to the stage where several crabby reviews have been as caustically entertaining as the pointed work itself. The audience who condemns what they fancy to be his myopia fail to recognize Thomson's intense respect and adoration of good films, directors and actors. But it's there, most certainly so, often packed very tight between the lines, an area generally overlooked by unadventurous minds and delusional addicts.

Read the complete review at [...]
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2010
THE WHOLE EQUATION reads more like separate observations than anything that coheres. David Thomson, so good in his WHO's WHO, seems to be in his own little world in a book that I desperately wanted to like, but found nearly impossible to read. The best parts are about CHINATOWN, Howard Hawks, and his trashing of TITANIC and EASY RIDERS. But, having read his other material, that's old news. The addition of sound in the 30s brought pictures forward, but moving away from black and white robbed them of something--again, old news from Thomson. In the end, I had to put it down because it was going nowhere.
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15 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2005
There is a need for a book that provides a comprehensive history of Hollywood, but this book is not it. That book would weave personal, industry, and critical history together and would require thousands of hours of research, an excellent ability to organize and analyze data, etc, and of course, the ability to write.

Having just read a wonderful book on Hollywood history "An Empire of Their Own," I was in search of another book to deepen my knowledge. Unfortunately, having read that book makes me see how sloppy this book is.

Not only does Thompson gloss over "industry" history, to instead focus on personal ancedotes, the "stories" he chooses have either been told a thousand times before, don't belong in this book, or are written in such a subjective and convulted way that the reader has no clue what the author is trying to say...

I imagine that Thompson knocked back a few before he put his fingers to the keys, otherwise I can't imagine how one would even consider writing some of the things he does.

Furthermore, I am no prude, but Thompson's crude renderings of some of the seamier sides of business in Hollywood have no place in a book that purports to be history.

Finally, how this book escaped an editor I can't quite imagine... he makes all kinds of generalizations about inane things...

For example, the way in which lip gloss got invented (you don't want to know Thompson's "expert" theory on this).

I hate to say it, but it's not even worth the time to read it.

If you want Hollywood history, there are many other books, that are well researched, informative, and a pleasure to read.

If you want gossip, don't bother reading Thompson's bizarre and truncated renditions, try "Hollywood Babylon" and the like.
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