BOOKS: Movies + money = madness

The Whole Equation: a history of Hollywood By David Thomson LITTLE, BROWN pounds 22.50 (433pp) pounds 20 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

When David Thomson published the first edition of his masterpiece, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, in 1975, he was living in Sussex and had never met any of the people he was writing about. Of course he hadn't. There wasn't time. He mordantly observed that the book could have been titled "Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark".

And that was in the days before VCRs, let alone DVDs. To see an old movie, you would have to go to the National Film Theatre or track down an obscure double bill in one of the surviving picture palaces that still showed such things, or wait for them to show up on television.

Over the years, the Dictionary changed and grew in successive editions. With its success, David Thomson changed too. He moved to California, he got to know personally many of the entries in the book, and his attitude to cinema developed as well. In the introduction to the 1994 edition, he confessed that he saw fewer films now and would as soon "go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game". By the time he introduced the 2002 edition he was admitting that "I think I have learned that I love books more than films".

Thomson has also grown to be interested in movies in a different sort of way. In his history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, he is really for the first time more interested in the movie process, the technology, the audiences, the meaning, the private lives of the stars, than the films themselves. He devotes a whole chapter to Chaplin, which discusses in detail Chaplin's memoirs, his sex life, his business dealings with much attention to budgets and grosses. He goes off at a tangent about whether the films of that period can really be described as art, when you compare what was being produced by novelists, composers and painters at the same time. But in a 20-page chapter, he only devotes a few perfunctory lines to describing a Chaplin film.

And yet, Thomson being Thomson, he still manages to capture Chaplin's style in a couple of brilliant phrases: "He's like the x that can function on both sides of an equation, dancing, stumbling, skidding from one side to the other. Chasing himself with attention."

Unwary film students who pluck this "history of Hollywood" off the shelves expecting a sober account of the subject are in for an enormous shock. Thomson circles round certain subjects - the movie Chinatown, the story of Louis B Mayer and his son-in-law, David Selznick (creator of Gone with the Wind), and F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon - and swoops on them again and again. Then on page 371 you come to this sentence: "I have nothing to say about Star Wars." Of course, David Thomson saying nothing about Star Wars has its own eloquence, but readers may wish he had tried. (You need to turn to the entry on George Lucas in the Biographical Dictionary to see what he really means.)

Much of the book has the hallucinatory quality of a dream. A chapter called "Our Town", ostensibly about the architecture of Southern California, also discusses audiences' identification with movie characters, the cultural meaning of guns, the life and death of Jean Harlow, the contrasting lives of Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn (because they happened to die a few weeks apart), the relationship between Hollywood and the Los Angeles prostitution business, the relationship between Hollywood and the therapy business, Marlon Brando's discourtesy to Rod Steiger during the shooting of On the Waterfront, Brando's fees between 1947 and 1992, the financial situation of Joe Gillis (the screenwriter played by William Holden in Sunset Blvd), followed by a very detailed account of the financial situation of an equivalent screenwriter in the present day.

The effect can be almost farcical at times. Half-way through the book, I thought we had reached the Second World War when a paragraph begins, "By the end of the twenties...". In the next paragraph we're in the middle of the Twenties and on the next page back in the19th century. If this is history, it's history as written by Laurence Sterne in collaboration with Lewis Carroll.

Yet, self-indulgent and self-absorbed as this book is, Thomson manages to convince us that maybe this is the way that Hollywood has to be written about. Because what Thomson found when he actually went to California, and writes about absorbingly here, is that Hollywood was drenched to an almost unimaginable degree in money and sex. When Birth of a Nation was released, in 1915, the revenues were so vast that they funded the creation of almost an entire industry and also a culture of larceny that continues to this day.

Nobody has ever been able to work out where the money went, but only a tiny percentage ever reached its creator, D W Griffith.

Just as Dorothy Parker said that the only -ism Hollywood understood was plagiarism, nothing in the industry has been as creative as its accounting. Thomson cites the recent example of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost $5m to make, took in $240m at the US box office alone, yet according to the books ended up "losing" $20m.

And sex. Producers, directors, actors have been drawn to Hollywood by the creative possibilities, by the money - but maybe sex outweighed any of that. For much of its history, Hollywood has been like the biggest brothel in the world, controlled by a small group of men. Thomson suggests that this sexual control, a culture of casting couches and office blow- jobs, even permeates the image of women we saw on screen: "How do you think lip gloss got invented?" he asks rhetorically.

Thomson can be wonderfully subtle and perceptive about this slippery subject: the industry and the inspiration, beautiful films produced by cruel or greedy or insane men. "Being true to yourself is not enough," he says about the weird skills required of a producer. "You have to keep faith with mixed motives."

The book is full of these perceptions: "the most special effect in movies is always the human face when its mind is being changed". Or, describing the weird appearance of Robert Redford, "youthfulness, which is not the same as youth".

I was taken aback when he described Gone With the Wind as "the movie of movies", but then comes the sucker punch: "so long as you don't have to sit through it again". As a sane, sober history of Hollywood this is an abject failure, for which we can all be grateful.

Sean French's novel `Start from Here' is published by Picador; `Secret Smile' (Penguin) is the latest novel by `Nicci French'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor