The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition, Completely Updated and Expanded

Overview

David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film topped Sight & Sound magazine’s 2010 poll of international critics and writers as the best film book of all time.

Now in its fifth edition, updated, and with more than 130 new entries—from Judd Apatow to Lena Horne—the classic, beloved film book is better than ever.

For thirty-five years, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film has been “fiendishly seductive” (Greil Marcus, Rolling...

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Overview

David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film topped Sight & Sound magazine’s 2010 poll of international critics and writers as the best film book of all time.

Now in its fifth edition, updated, and with more than 130 new entries—from Judd Apatow to Lena Horne—the classic, beloved film book is better than ever.

For thirty-five years, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film has been “fiendishly seductive” (Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone), “the finest reference book ever written about movies” (Graham Fuller, Interview), and “not only an indispensable book about cinema, but one of the most absurdly ambitious literary achievements of our time” (Geoff Dyer, The Guardian). For this edition, Thomson has brought up to date and in some case recast the biographies, and has added new ones (Clive Owen, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Marion Cotillard, for example). The book now includes almost 1,500 entries, some of them just a pungent paragraph, some of them several thousand words long, every one a gem.

Here is a great, rare book that encompasses the chaos of art, entertainment, money, vulgarity, and nonsense that we call the movies. Personal, opinionated, funny, daring, provocative, and passionate, it is the one book that every filmmaker and film buff must own, from the man David Hare called “the most stimulating and thoughtful film critic now writing.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The best book on the movies ever written in English." —The New Republic

“Thomson proves anew that he is irreplaceable . . . His monologue has blossomed into an unlikely, searching dialogue about what to value in the movies—how to love what’s come before without nostalgia, and how to find the courage to demand more from the stuff being made right now . . . Deservedly treasured . . . One of the most probing accounts ever written of a human being’s engagement with the movies.” —Sarah Kerr, The New York Times Book Review

“Delicious. One of the best and most useful books written about the movies.” —Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle

The Dictionary is not only an indispensable book about cinema, but one of the most absurdly ambitious literary achievements of our time.”  —Geoff Dyer, Sight & Sound

“A marvel . . . Eccentric, audacious, sparkling . . . Probably the greatest living film critic and historian, Thomson writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael.” —Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic

“From Abbott and Costello to Crumb’s Terry Zwigoff, David Thomson expertly caters the banquet of film history in the latest edition of this classic. One critics’ poll called it the best movie book ever; it also has some of the finest, orneriest writing in the English language.”
Time 
 
“Truly, maddeningly, gloriously subjective . . . Buy this book for a friend, and bask in the pleasure of knowing that you have incalculably enriched his life. Buy it for yourself, and book some quality time with one of the finest writers the story of film has ever had.”
—Saul Austerlitz, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“[A] mad and magnificent opus . . . Thomson is a great rhapsodist of how film acts on his, and therefore our, imagination. . . . Close viewing, and the insights that spring from rapt attention, are what Thomson’s criticism is all about. Despite its seemingly straitlaced A-to-Z format, the ‘Dictionary’ is oddball and Borgesian, finding imaginative ecstasy in its encyclopedic tendency. The book crackles with epigram while often reaching for meanings that endow familiar subjects with a new reality. . . . It’s an essential, loony, irresistible book, and scarcely a week passes when I don’t submerge myself for an hour or two in its labyrinthine marvels.”
—Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times
 
“Essential . . . Razor-sharp reviews are often commentaries on both the filmmaker and the audience. . . . We’re always aware that we’re engaging with a passionate educated human being. Isn’t that more interesting and rewarding than marketing-driven Netflix summaries? Great critics are cinema’s most inspiring enthusiasts. Four stars.”
            —Jeffrey Overstreet, Books & Culture
 
“Witty, expasive, convincing, honest, more than a little mischievous and, so often, absolutely on the money. Thomson’s voice is one of the most distinctive and enjoyable in film criticism. It leaps from the pages of this spruced up classic like flames from a bonfire. . . . Almost every page contains at least one unexpected nugget of information that you would struggle to come across by any other means. . . . However, the real value of this book lies not in facts, but in opinions. Thomson’s views are so shrewd, so exquisitely stated that, more often than not, they feel like thoughts you already held but were never quite sure how to put into words. . .  In a world awash with amateur pundits, the value of a genuine expert who knows his own mind has never been higher. . . . Dip into any entry and you will find irrefutable proof that his gaze remains as sharp as ever. For as long as there are films worth writing about, Thomson’s opinions will remain worth reading.”
            —Benjamin Secher, The Telegraph
 
“The newest edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film is 1,076 pages long. It weighs a ton. And yet, it’s almost impossible to put down.”
The New York Observer
 
“Invaluable and occasionally maddening.”          —Steven Rea, The Kansas City Star
 
“Skip the movie; read David Thomson instead. Addictive . . . his landmark work. You’ll see how erudite, generous, cheeky, elegant and fascinating Thomson’s writing is. Take any entry and it’s impossible not to want to read to the finish.” —Kyle Smith, New York Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307271747
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Edition number: 5
  • Pages: 1088
  • Sales rank: 792,450
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Thomson

David Thomson has taught film studies at Dartmouth College, has served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, and has been a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, The Nation, Movieline, The New Republic, and Salon. His other books include “Have You Seen . . .?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films; Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick; and three works of fiction: Suspects, Silver Light, and Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. Thomson lives in San Francisco with his family.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

A

Abbott and Costello:

Bud (William A.) Abbott (1895-74),

b. Asbury Park, New Jersey; and

Lou Costello (Louis Francis Cristillo) (1906-59), b. Paterson, New Jersey

The marital chemistry (or the weird mix of blunt instrument and black hole) in coupling is one of the most persistent themes in tragedy and comedy. At their best, you can't have one without the other. More than fifty years after they first tried it, Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" sketch is about the best remedy I know for raising laughter in a mixed bag of nuts-or for making the collection of forlorn individuals a merry mob.

Many people know the routine (written, like most of their stuff, by John Grant) by heart. Amateurs can get a good laugh out of it. But Bud and Lou achieve something lyrical, hysterical, and mythic. Watch them do the sketch and you feel the energy and hope of not just every comedian there ever was. You feel Beckett, Freud, and Wittgenstein (try it!). You see every marriage there ever was. You rejoice and despair at the impossibility of language. You wonder whether God believed in harmony, or in meetings that eternally proved our loneliness.

Lou is the one who has blood pressure, and Bud hasn't. So they are together in the world, yet together alone, doomed to explain things to each other. They are companions, halves of a whole, chums, lovers if you like. But they are a raw display of hatred, opposition, and implacable difference. They are also far better than all the amateurs. And if Lou is the performer, the valiant seeker of order, while Bud is the dumb square peg, the one who seems oblivious of audience, still, nobody did it better. If I were asked to assemble a collection of things to manifest America for the stranger, "Who's On First?" would be there-and it might be the first piece of film I'd use.

At the same time, they are not very good, rather silly, not really that far above the ocean of comedians. It isn't even that one can separate their good work from the poor. Nor is it that "Who's On First?" is simply and mysteriously superior to all the rest of their stuff. No, it's only that that routine feels an inner circle of dismay within all the others, the suffocating mantle next to Lou's heart. It isn't good, or superior; it's divine. Which is why no amount of repetition dulls it at all. I think I could watch it every day and feel the thrills and the dread as if for the first time.

They bumped into each other. Bud was a theatre cashier where Lou was playing (around 1930), and he grudgingly took the job when Lou's partner was sick. They were doing vaudeville and radio for ten years before they got their movie break at Universal: One Night in the Tropics (40, A. Edward Sutherland) was their first film, but Buck Privates (41, Arthur Lubin) was the picture that made them. There were twenty-three more films in the forties, a period for which they were steadily in the top five box-office attractions. Buck Privates, and their whole appeal, reflected the unexpected intimacies of army life.

They broke up in 1957, long since outmoded by the likes of Martin and Lewis. But there again, Abbott and Costello are the all-talking model (as opposed to the semi-silence of Laurel and Hardy) of two guys trapped in one tent.

Costello made one film on his own-for he had great creative yearnings-The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock (59, Sidney Miller). He died of a heart attack, which had always seemed about to happen. Bud lived on, doing next to nothing.

Ken (Klaus) Adam, b. Berlin, Germany, 1921

At the age of thirteen, Adam came to Britain, and stayed: he would be educated as an architect at London University and the Bartlett School of Architecture, and he served in the RAF during the war. It was in 1947 that he entered the British picture business, doing set drawings for This Was a Woman (48, Tim Whelan). Thereafter, he rose steadily as an assistant art director on The Queen of Spades (48, Thorold Dickinson); The Hidden Room (49, Edward Dmytryk); Your Witness (50, Robert Montgomery); Captain Horatio Hornblower (51, Raoul Walsh); The Crimson Pirate (52, Robert Siodmak); Helen of Troy (56, Robert Wise); he did uncredited work on Around the World in 80 Days (56, Michael Anderson), and assistant work on Ben-Hur (59, William Wyler).

Clearly, he was adept at getting hired by American directors, or on Hollywood productions, yet he did not seem overly interested in going to Hollywood. Indeed, he built a career as art director and then production designer in Britain, and he would be vitally associated with the design look and the huge, hi-tech interiors of the James Bond films: Soho Incident (56, Vernon Sewell); Night of the Demon (57, Jacques Tourneur); The Angry Hills (59, Robert Aldrich); The Rough and the Smooth (59, Siodmak); The Trials of Oscar Wilde (60, Ken Hughes); Dr. No (62, Terence Young); Sodom and Gomorrah (62, Aldrich); Dr. Strangelove (64, Stanley Kubrick); Woman of Straw (64, Basil Dearden); Goldfinger (64, Guy Hamilton); The Ipcress File (65, Sidney J. Furie); Thunderball (65, Young); Funeral in Berlin (66, Hamilton); You Only Live Twice (67, Lewis Gilbert); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (68, Hughes); Goodbye, Mr. Chips (69, Herbert Ross); to America for The Owl and the Pussycat (70, Ross).

An international figure now, he worked increasingly in America, while keeping his British attachment to Bond and Kubrick: Diamonds Are Forever (71, Hamilton); Sleuth (72, Joseph L. Mankiewicz); The Last of Sheila (73, Ross); winning an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (75, Kubrick); Madam Kitty (76, Tinto Brass); The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (76, Ross); The Spy Who Loved Me (77, Gilbert); Moonraker (79, Gilbert).

Illness caused a significant gap in his work in the early eighties, at which time his only credit was as design consultant on Pennies from Heaven (81, Ross). Since his return, he has been based in America and Bond-less. He also seems to work on more modest projects, while staying loyal to Herb Ross: King David (85, Bruce Beresford); Crimes of the Heart (86, Beresford); The Deceivers (88, Nicholas Meyer); Dead Bang (89, John Frankenheimer); The Freshman (90, Andrew Bergman); The Doctor (91, Randa Haines); Undercover Blues (93, Ross); Addams Family Values (93, Barry Sonnenfeld); then back to Britain, with another Oscar, on The Madness of King George (94, Nicholas Hytner); Boys on the Side (95, Ross); Bogus (96, Norman Jewison); In & Out (97, Frank Oz); The Out-of-Towners (99, Sam Weisman).

Isabelle Adjani, b. Paris, 1955

There is something so frank, so modern in her feelings, yet so classical in her aura, so passionate and so wounded, that Isabelle Adjani seems made to play Sarah Bernhardt one day. Why not? She is a natural wearer of costume capable of making us believe that the "period" world we are watching is happening now. She is bold, a mistress of her career, and has been a fiercely equal partner in her romantic relationships with Bruno Nuytten, Warren Beatty, and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Her mother was German, and her father Algerian and Turkish. When only a teenager, she was invited to join the Comédie Française, playing to great praise in Lorca and Molière. She has been making movies since the age of fourteen: Le Petit Bougnat (69, Bernard T. Michel); Faustine ou le Bel été (71, Nina Companeez); La Gifle (74, Claude Pinoteau); and made an international impact as the love-crazed girl in L'Histoire d'Adèle H. (75, François Truffaut), for which she won an Oscar nomination.

She was on the brink again in The Tenant (76, Roman Polanski); Barocco (76, André Téchiné); Violette et François (76, Jacques Rouffio); made an uneasy American debut in The Driver (78, Walter Hill); as a woman infatuated with the vampire in Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (79, Werner Herzog); as Emily in The Bronté Sisters (79, Téchiné); Possession (80, Andrzej Zulawski); and Clara et les Chics Types (80, Jacques Monnet).

She played the central victim, a version of Jean Rhys, in Quartet (81, James Ivory); L'Année Prochaine si tout va bien (81, Jean-Loup Hubert); Tout Feu, Toute Flamme (82, Jean-Paul Rappeneau); Mortelle Randonnée (82, Claude Miller); Doktor Faustus (82, Frank Seitz); as Antonieta Rivas Mercadi, a melodramatic arts patron, in Antonieta (82, Carlos Saura); was stark naked for much of L'été Meurtrier (82, Jean Becker), something between an erotic force of nature and a village idiot; Subway (85, Luc Besson); entirely wasted in Ishtar (87, Elaine May).

She was the producer as well as the star of Camille Claudel (88, Bruno Nuytten), her most overwhelming and characteristic performance, as a woman in love with art, exhilaration, and danger. Once more, she was nominated for the Oscar. If only Warren Beatty could have given her a role as strong. After four years, she made La Reine Margot (94, Patrice Chéreau). Granted that she does films so seldom, why do Diabolique (96, Jeremiah S. Chechik), with Sharon Stone, or La Repentie (02, Laetitia Masson)?

Ben (Benjamin Geza) Affleck, b. Berkeley, California, 1972

Here is a test of critical responsibility. On the one hand, I have a soft spot for Mr. Affleck in that he is the only actor who has played, or is ever likely to play, the man who founded the school I attended. I refer to Edward (or Ned) Alleyne, the Shakespearian actor-manager and founder of Dulwich College, as offered in Shakespeare in Love (98, John Madden). I daresay I would be joined in this sentiment by other Old Alleynians-Michael Powell, Clive Brook, Leslie Howard, Raymond Chandler, P. G. Wodehouse, Michael Ondaatje, and Paul Mayersberg, among others. But I have heard not one word from any of them, or from anyone, come to that, to dispute my other view that Mr. Affleck is boring, complacent, and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far. If there was any doubt in my mind it was settled by the mere presence-and it wasn't anything more than mere-of Affleck in the travesty called Pearl Harbor (01, Michael Bay).

Yet look what he has gotten away with: The Dark End of the Street (81, Jan Egleson); playing basketball in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (92, Fran Rubel Kuzui); School Ties (92, Robert Mandel); Dazed and Confused (93, Richard Linklater); Mallrats (95, Kevin Smith); the lead in Chasing Amy (97, Smith); Going All the Way (97, Mark Pellington); sharing in the script, and an Oscar, for Good Will Hunting (97, Gus Van Sant); Phantoms (98, Joe Chappelle); Armageddon (98, Michael Bay); 200 Cigarettes (99, Risa Bramon Garcia); Forces of Nature (99, Bronwen Hughes); Dogma (99, Smith); Boiler Room (00, Ben Younger); Reindeer Games (00, John Frankenheimer); Bounce (00, Don Roos); Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (00, Smith); Changing Lanes (02, Roger Michell); taking over as Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears (02, Phil Aldon Robinson).

I note that, into his early thirties, he is still playing one of the lads, just as in Pearl Harbor he was too old to be the boyhood pal of Josh Hartnett.

James Agee (1909-55), b. Knoxville, Tennessee

James Agee looked a lot like a young Robert Ryan; he behaved as self-destructively as Nicholas Ray; but he was only himself as a writer on film. As one of his biographers, Laurence Bergreen, has written, "To Agee movies were not primarily a form of entertainment . . . they were . . . the indigenous art form. Good or bad, vulgar or exquisite, they were, more than any literary form, the mirror of American life. They were cheap, rude, hypocritical, democratic, occasionally inspired, usually humdrum-in short, they were American. For this reason he longed to find his way, however roundabout, into them."

I take that last remark at face value: I think it was Agee's wish, not just to be involved with film people, in the making of the work, but-literally-to be in movies. That doesn't refer to some masked urge to act. It's something far more extensive: Agee wished to be perceived like a character from the best movies-intensely romantic, darkly handsome, and desirable, yet aloof, tough, moody, and doomed. Plainly, even if you know, intellectually, that some films are foolish, still, it follows that anyone wanting to live on the screen has to have faith in the grandeur and gravity of film. And so it follows that Agee's adult life coincides with the great age of self-belief in American cinema. Indeed, in 1945, he could write, in candor, "I can think of very few contemporary books that are worth the jackets they are wrapped in; I can think of very few movies, contemporary or otherwise, which fail to show that somebody who has worked on them . . . has real life or energy or intensity or intelligence or talent."

Happy days-even if from this moment in time it is easier to have more respect for books.

Agee went to Harvard, edited the Advocate, and took up booze and poetry in quantity. He was always a womanizer, and a mess personally, but he found a journalistic voice that lasted for about twenty years. It extended to the text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), that classic of the rural Depression and hard lives, where Agee's text went with the photographs of Walker Evans-and in which Evans's photography shines with a sensuality that Agee delivered personally to some of the poor women. It also equipped him to be a film critic at Time and The Nation for much of the forties.

He was far from reliable-he could write off Kane as a reservoir of hackneyed tricks, and he was of the opinion that Chaplin and Huston were without equal in America. But he wrote like someone who had not just viewed the movie but been in it-out with it, as if it were a girl; drinking with it; driving in the night with it. That direct physical response was new, it was done with terrific dash and insight, and it surely intuited the way people responded to movies in the forties. It was also, it seems to me, a powerful influence on Pauline Kael-I have a fond dream of the two of them snarling at each other, like the characters in The African Queen.

Which brings us to the vexed matter of Agee's scripts. From the mid forties on, Agee made a set at Huston-it was authentic admiration, or hero worship, but it was also a pioneering case of the movie critic lusting to sit at the all-night dinner with the big guys and walk away with a writing job. Agee worked on the script and commentary of The Quiet One (49, Sidney Meyers); he did a script for The African Queen (51, Huston), which was substantially redone by others; he did the "Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" episode from Face to Face (52, John Brahm and Bretaigne Windust), and he wrote the first screenplay for The Night of the Hunter (55, Charles Laughton).

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  • Posted September 3, 2011

    Tinseltown Titans

    A modern classic by one of filmdom's most erudite scholars, if you can afford only one tome on the lives of Tinseltown titans, this would be it. *** Any film dictionary worth its celluloid is going to have articles about the Cary Grants and Katharine Hepburns, but what about the industry's second bananas and grade Z thespians? They don't get any more no-name than an anonymity like Richard Donner, whose two sentence biographical sketch informs the reader that this man has the dubious distinction of making some of the ".least interesting films of his age." 'Nuff said! The difference between a good reference book and a great one is that the latter contains the good, the bad and the boring, not to mention everything in between. Now in its fifth edition, this paperweight of a book has accumulated mass with each new iteration, the present volume containing no fewer than 1,076 pages. Many surprises delight, as people you don't really associate with the movies per se make appearances within. A case in point would be Abraham Zapruder, who was just another guy with a home movie camera, but was catapulted to fame when he inadvertently caught the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on tape. Then again, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers weren't so much movie actors as they were singing cowboys who happened to be in the movies. Regarding the latter duo, author Thomson reveals not only his incisive commentary but a biting wit as well, with his observation that these guys were ".less handsome than their horses but rated as singers on the principle that that whining sounds sometimes keeps restless cattle calm." Simply put, this book is a must have for any serious cinephile. Review by Michael F. Bemis

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