Reel People, Real Lives
Review by Elisa McGovern
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Sixth Edition)
David ThomsonAlfred A. Knopf
The first and most obvious question is: Why the hell would I want a dictionary of film biographies? I can access the entirety of the internet, including a database dedicated to movies and television to answer the second burning question, What has Klaus Kinski contributed to the history of cinema?
In the sixth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, British cinema critic/historian/enthusiast David Thomson answers both questions. Regarding Kinski, Thomson’s knowledge is based on time spent with Kinski as well as familiarity with the actor’s long and sometimes absurd body of work. Whereas the internet merely catalogs the names of Kinski’s films, Thomson puts Kinski’s place in cinema in context—as an actor of occasional depth, frequent madness and an unforgettable face “that had seen hell [and was] sharing the shock with us.”
photo by Lucy Gray
Raised on French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma and the Nouvelle Vague films it brought into being, Thomson is an exceptional student of film history. The preponderance of actors from the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (circa 1927 to 1963) suggests a sentimentality for the movies of Thomson’s youth but is likely to mean less to a generation raised on Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and—shudder—Michael Bay. Thomson is unabashedly opinionated; Tarantino and Burton he regards as successes in spite of themselves, and he openly mocks Bay. He also welcomes the reader to disagree.
Presented as a book about movies, the bulk of the entries belong to actors—and why not? The faces on screen leave more lasting impressions than the scrolling names of the writers who invent and the directors who shepherd the story to its conclusion. Thomson doesn’t miss a chance to praise the best-of-the-best talents in world cinema. But national pride notwithstanding, one has to wonder how beloved English character actor Denholm Elliott gets an entry and beloved American character actor Sam Elliott does not. Hell, Sam Elliott’s mustache deserves its own place in the history of film.
Omissions and inclusions are more telling for the non-acting or -directing entries. Because Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), arguably the most influential American film critic, gets an entry, but Roger Ebert, arguably the most popular American film critic, does not. Despite an Oscar each for Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler’s List, composer John Williams is absent, but Ennio Morricone, far less lauded, is included. (Morricone wrote the score for The Good the Bad and the Ugly; you’re damn right he’s in the book.)
It’s easy to get lost or distracted while searching in this biographical dictionary, yet it’s a book best not read from cover to cover, lest you find yourself processing Bette Midler (Beaches), Toshiro Mifune (The Seven Samurai) and Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale and TV’s “Hannibal”) one after another. And it’s likely a book that appeals to film geeks more than a casual moviegoer.
As an answer to my first and most obvious question: It’s Thomson’s knowledge that makes the book far more authoritative than any online database, the same way books can tell more than their screen adaptations can show. It’s just unfortunate Thomson’s book isn’t as boundless as the internet.
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