Biographical Dictionary of Film
Alfred A. Knopf
By Antoine du Rocher
YORK, 24 December 2002Although far from encyclopedic,
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is nonetheless a work
by and for the connoisseur. It is the kind of book that is popular in
England and France, where prestigious publishers market dictionaries
and their updates on everything from wines to the art market to
classical music CDs. A mixture of fact and opinion, they are most
often written by scholars, cultural journalists and critics who have
spent a life time writing about the subject.
scholar David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
is no exception. First published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1975 and
updated in 1981 and 1994, the current edition numbers 963 pages and
has a total of 1300 entries, of which 300 are new and cover the
careers of young actors and directors such as Luc Besson, Reese
Witherspoon or Philip Seymour Hoffman.
volume is very much Thomson's personal view. Since he has spent the
greater part of his career in the United States, Thomson is
particularly good at telling Americans about themselves. That said, he
provides considerable insight in his critical assessment of the many
careers that comprise the film industry worldwide. On Luchino Visconti:
"his work is trivial, ornate and unconvinced." Or: "Fellini appears to me
a half-baked, playacting, pessimist with no capacity for tragedy."
assessments of Hollywood movie stars and directors past and present
benefit more from his clever, amusing and at times nearly arch tone
and confident command of the English language. The result is eminently
quotable and irreverent.
For example, writing about
America's favourite actress Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,
Thomson says, "She played the kind of adorable whore whom a
respectable man could take to the opera and put through college; she
was an Audrey Hepburn who'd give head."
Of the American
Agnes Moorehead's post-Orson Welles career Thomson notes, "Her
subsequent parade of shrews, rancorous mothers, bitches, and spinsters
shows how quickly she overheated."
Neither does the
current crop of leading male stars escape Thomson's keen observation.
On Ben Affleck he says, "Mr. Affleck is boring, complacent, and
criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far". His
compatriot Hugh Grant fares little better: "With his drooping
chin and pouty lips, his quaff of hair and dithery manner, Hugh Grant
seems like a refugee from 1930s theatreor an incipient sneeze
looking for a vacant nose."
There are many omissions
some curious, others startling. For example, Thomson demonstrates a
firm grasp of French cinema, yet he omits Michael Lonsdale (b.1931).
One of France's most original stage and screen talents, his signature
roar as a French CEO, "J'ai horreur des Américains"
can still bring down the house in Paris. His absence seems bizarre in
a volume which, if idiosyncratic, is nonetheless in its way
Still, whether one's tastes lean more towards
le cinéma, film or "the movies," Thomson's dictionary
is beautifully written, informative and fun.
New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (8 October 2002)
0375411283; 4th edition
Antoine du Rocher is a French
cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member
of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com