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Book Review

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf

By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 24 December 2002—Although 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.

British film 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.

Throughout, the 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."

His 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 theatre—or 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 authoritative.

Still, whether one's tastes lean more towards le cinéma, film or "the movies," Thomson's dictionary is beautifully written, informative and fun.

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
Hardcover: 963 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (8 October 2002)
ISBN: 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


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