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The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood Hardcover – November 30, 2004

3.0 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375400168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375400162
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,398,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David J. Gannon on December 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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