Screen Idols

Everybody has their list of movie heroes, but David Thomson's (Ginger Rogers) has become a legend. So who is in and who is out of the new edition of his 'Biographical Dictionary of Film'?

Yes, A Biographical Dictionary of Film is back – in its fourth life – but now, in 2002, because its publishers felt they wanted a little marketing sizzle – it is called The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Don't be alarmed, or deceived; it is the old book updated and reconsidered, and with 300 new entries (ranging from Rin Tin Tin to Reese Witherspoon – old dogs and new kittens). No one has been dropped – that's too brutal. I would like to think this is the best yet, the most readable and enjoyable, yet I'm compelled to admit that, minus a little pleasure here and there, the world would have sailed on very well without it. Maybe the same thing could be said if the movies themselves had never existed.

Yes, A Biographical Dictionary of Film is back – in its fourth life – but now, in 2002, because its publishers felt they wanted a little marketing sizzle – it is called The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Don't be alarmed, or deceived; it is the old book updated and reconsidered, and with 300 new entries (ranging from Rin Tin Tin to Reese Witherspoon – old dogs and new kittens). No one has been dropped – that's too brutal. I would like to think this is the best yet, the most readable and enjoyable, yet I'm compelled to admit that, minus a little pleasure here and there, the world would have sailed on very well without it. Maybe the same thing could be said if the movies themselves had never existed.

Anyway, my editor at this paper invited me to reflect on the history of the book, and that allows me to say a few things that usually go unnoticed. Above all, the book came to life through a mixture of chance, disobedience and a gamble. It was commissioned, in 1971, by James Price, and meant to be much shorter and tidier – a film encyclopedia that covered people, countries, technical terms. But as I began to write, I found the technical terms less inviting, and put them off. But, in turn, I expanded as I wrote about the people – grew passionate, insulting, and more searching. After a year of this, the book was turning more personal, opinionated and perhaps more fully written (as opposed to compiled) than had been intended. It was also set to be a much longer book than the contract had called for.

I was the more anxious over this in that James Price had moved on. So I presented my material to the new head of Secker & Warburg, Tom Rosenthal, and asked is this crazy? Is this viable? He read and reported that it was probably both. But he urged me on. This was the decisive moment in the history of the book, and if the recklessness was mine the courage was Tom's.

Two other things should be said about that first edition, published at last in 1975: the work coincided with my first years teaching film studies (American students in Sussex). There was no doubt that the arguments begun in class over films helped furnish the book's tone. The other point is that those early 1970s were rich and generous years in the dark. On so many occasions, I saw a wonderful new film one night and next day plunged into entries on the director and an actor from the film. (I did not write the book alphabetically; I waited each day to see what entry took my fancy.) So the intimidating scale of the project was offset by the regularly renewed faith in things seen on the screen. Of course, that first edition was done before video, when films still existed largely on their true home.

Publication coincided with my leaving the country (I was off to teach in New Hampshire). This must have alarmed Tom Rosenthal, and his assistant, Laura Morris, and it surely helped account for the absence of early reviews. But a fine one came about four months later, by Gavin Lambert in Films and Filming, and slowly the bulky book took off. It was published in America in 1976 and Gore Vidal took immense space in the New York Review of Books to say it was rash, misguided and unfair to him (all true – but a big help to the book getting noticed).

Later on, the book prompted friendships – with Michael Powell, Dusan Makavejev, Peter Bogdanovich and Nicholas Ray. Equally, it gave me enemies, or those who didn't want to have to meet me: I remember a party where John Schlesinger and I tried to avoid each other, but kept meeting; and here in San Francisco, Francis Coppola has been wary. Time will tell whether I can survive a meeting with Richard Gere, Kevin Costner or Madonna (some of those I have trampled on). It does make meetings and friendships harder, especially now that I live in California, but I have been spoiled by having director James Toback as a good friend. He enjoys the darkest remarks about himself – and usually tops them.

There was a second edition in 1981. It had some updating but no new entries as I recall. By then, I was becoming American – in 1981, I moved to California. And the book did modestly well and helped me get to write several others.

So it wasn't until 1994 that a third edition came out. By then, Tom and Laura had moved to Andre Deutsch, but they carried the book with them. In addition, I had found Knopf as my American publisher and it was there that Bob Gottlieb found me. He was a new lover of film and a brilliant editor. So (over the phone) we took the book apart. He could tell that the first author had been English, whereas I was by then at least Anglo-American. So he coaxed that new voice out. It was there especially in pieces on stars – Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Judy Garland.

Well, Tom Rosenthal retired, but Laura Morris helped carry the book to Little Brown. Meanwhile in America, Knopf and Bob Gottlieb were ready for this fourth edition. The book admits that the author is no longer as much in love with film as he once was – and probably no longer as au courant. I do not, nearly as often, see a film one night and live for the chance to write about it next day.

On the other hand, as I feel more disappointed by some new films, so I take the chance to fill old gaps. This fourth edition, I think, is quite strong and interesting on people who might have been in the first edition – Abbott and Costello, Pauline Kael, Oscar Levant, Andre Bazin, Graham Greene, Eddie Cantor and so on. I begin to appreciate silent film more than ever I did as sound films too often seem just noisy. But I'm not alone in harking back to the "good old days". When Sight and Sound recently took its top ten poll – among critics and film-makers – it was striking to see how few movies there were made since 1975 got in the lists. Is the medium in trouble? Does it know where it's going? Do "we" want to follow it? Tough questions without any chance of a reliable answer. Still, historically, I think the millennium just passed is a turning point in film history.

Which raises the question, will there be a fifth edition? In the darker days of writing the fourth, I was heard to cry out that this would be the last one – though many readers ask me to keep going; and I cannot deny that financial need seems not to age. Still, as Bob Gottlieb pointed out, if we go on at this rate, I would be 70 at a fifth edition and he would be 80.

So many external factors could intervene. The author who now finds himself slowed by having to look up nearly every fact (in someone else's reference book) could be many more marbles short in 2010. As it is, the New York Times reviewing the book very warmly last Sunday called it "venerable". But there is something else in the review that touched me. It came under the heading "The Moviegoer". Well, it may be that not many people now recall this, but that was and is the title of a wonderful novel by Walker Percy, published in 1962, maybe the first time I found a wise man of letters aware of how far going to the movies and dreaming in that odd, half-wakeful state had come to be one of the essential conditions of modern times. That, in truth, is what the Dictionary is about, and now, with 1300 entries I hope it represents this ideal: that literature can take a shot at handling movies.

However, the new title – The New Biographical Dictionary of Film – does take away from the original and abiding notion: that this was just "a" dictionary of film, and that it was up to other people to do, or at least think about, theirs.

'The New Biographical Dictionary of Film' (Little Brown, £25) is published on 7 November. David Thomson will be in conversation with Geoff Andrew at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) on Tuesday 29 October

Thomson on...

Brad Pitt

"Has Pitt yet really gone beyond his own early promise? ... His maniac in 12 Monkeys only showed how easy it is for young, barely trained actors these days to show off – and be praised for it."

Joan Crawford

"If nothing else, she was the living and movie example of how a woman from very lowly, if not shady, places could triumph in that version of the American class system known as Hollywood royalty."

Marilyn Monroe

"If she resembled a sleepwalker, perhaps that showed how many dreams impelled her ... It seems difficult to accept her as a tragic figure, because she was hardly able to grasp what was happening to her."

Orson Welles

"He drew together poetry and melodrama so that we no longer feel sure that one is reputable and the other suspect ... It is the greatest career ... the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us."

Steven Spielberg

"I don't really believe in him as an artist: I don't believe that much soul or doubt is there, or that much heartfelt trust in the organic meaning of style. But Schinder's List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens."

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