The Whole Equation:
A History of Hollywood.
By David Thomson
Knopf, 405 pages, $39.95
There seems little need to recommend this book, its author's name guaranteeing its interest, distinction and, above all, readability, a blessing in an age when so much serious writing on film has treated movies as fodder for the proliferation of abstruse theory. David Thomson has already made himself indispensable to film lovers with his massive New Biographical Dictionary of Film and his books on Orson Welles and David O. Selznick. Now he gives us another substantial work that is patently by someone who loves movies and has devoted much thought and tireless research to exploring the complex conditions of their making.
It should be made clear at once (for anyone likely to be lured by the apparent promise of the cover's "glamour" photo of Rita Hayworth, who gets only one brief reference) that this History of Hollywood is not your standard history of movies (though of course they figure in it), but a probing, wide-ranging, complex investigation of Hollywood itself: how it came into being, how it developed, how it has functioned, how it has affected our culture and our lives.
I intend to devote most of this review to arguing with Thomson's book, so let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed reading it and how many avenues of thought it awakened. It is refreshing nowadays to come upon a serious book on cinema written from an unashamedly personal viewpoint, with frequent excursions into autobiography. This is a highly unorthodox, idiosyncratic "history," told not in the conventional, plodding historian's way of: This happened, then this happened, so this happened, but through an accumulation of key characters and revelatory events, not necessarily chronological, always bathed in the illumination of Thomson's own responses and predilections. So we pass directly (for example) from a chapter on Chaplin to one essentially about Nicole Kidman and the author's love for her, the connection being a meditation on film acting and star presence. Much of the book's charm and pleasure derive from the apparently total freedom Thomson has been granted (and over a long and distinguished career has surely earned) by his publishers, confident of his ability to enlighten and entertain.
Yet it is precisely this dichotomy that seems to me the book's major problem: the way in which the historian's desire to enlighten can drift into a sometimes pleasing, sometimes annoying and alienating self-indulgence. At times, the book degenerates into something resembling a free-association session, as when (Chapter 9) we move from von Stroheim's Greed to Thomson's English childhood memory of a coffee shop in Streatham High Street, via Jean-Paul Sartre, Gore Vidal and the changing cost of cinema tickets. He is both blessed and cursed with the gift of the gab, and can move in a couple of sentences from brilliance to a damaging slickness (see the remark about Joan Crawford at the top of page 26). He can't decide whether he's a historian or a critic: He clearly wants to be both, and ends up confusing two somewhat different (though not necessarily incompatible) functions. The history is fascinating, the critical judgments often conventional, occasionally eccentric, and seldom argued or supported.
Sometimes, admittedly, it is difficult to draw the fine line between a sense of historic importance and a value judgment. He wants to discuss the significance of certain figures in the evolution of Hollywood, but when they are figures he personally admires, he can allow himself to get sidetracked into an "appreciation." This sometimes leads one to question why a certain figure has been singled out while others for whom equal claims can be made are ignored. Chaplin, for example, gets a whole chapter, while Laurel and Hardy are barely acknowledged. They existed, of course, at almost opposite ends of the Hollywood spectrum, Chaplin as superstar, Stan and Ollie as program fillers in the days when features lasted less than two hours. But many now regard them as being of equal importance and worth.
Leo McCarey, Hollywood's finest director of comedy, covering its entire range from anarchic lunacy (the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup) to tender romanticism ( Love Affair), directed three of Stan and Ollie's masterpieces and was "supervising manager" on most of the others, working with them on scripts and gags. He also made Ruggles of Red Gap, one of the films that seeks to define "America" and American values, a topic that recurs throughout Thomson's book. McCarey is not even listed in the index; Ruggles is not mentioned.
The book's major problem, however, resides in what proves to be (after we've navigated our way through its numerous digressions) its central thesis: the whole concept of "entertainment." Here Thomson is at his boldest and best, and reaches his greatest failure. Throughout the book he has debated (with Mahler's Ninth Symphony as a touchstone) the tricky question of whether "entertainment" films can also be considered "art," on the grounds that "art" delves deep into the problematic nature of human existence, where "entertainment" distracts us from such depths, excusing us from confronting them. And he sees that this question has reached crisis point with the dominance of television and the decline of the Hollywood cinema over the past decade, with the emphasis on unreality (digitalized special effects) and mindless youth movies.
Yet Thomson himself is partly complicit here: I can imagine many readers closing this book and saying, "Well, that was entertaining," with only a vague sense that it also implicitly suggests that we should be fighting to change the whole course of our civilization. And he fails to realize fully just what is politically at stake. We live today in a world whose very existence is threatened, by global warming on the one hand and the possibility of nuclear war on the other. I am not going to argue that the current debasement of "entertainment" is some kind of deliberate ploy to keep us from thinking too much, yet surely one must see a connection, a simultaneity: So long as we can watch a new TV show, buy a new car, have our hair done a certain way, we needn't worry about what sort of planet our grandchildren are going to inhabit, need we?
Thomson -- who is critical of Hollywood but very much inside it -- sees this clearly enough, but he can't take the next logical step: that the possibility of salvation does not depend on some impossible transformation of TV shows and contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, but on the overthrow of corporate capitalism, within which the television companies and contemporary Hollywood operate. There is nothing else.
Robin Wood is the author of Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. He teaches a graduate course each year at York University in Toronto.