David Thomson’s latest book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, is touted as a one-volume history book, but it is really 372 pages of one man’s ponderings on the symbiotic relationship between America and the movies.
Thomson, the author of the popular The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and the excellent Showman: The Life of David O. Selznik, is not concerned with original research here. There are no footnotes or bibliography, although there are source notes at the back of the book.
Whether the reader likes the book will have more to do with whether he or she likes Thomson rather than his or her interest in Hollywood. Because while Thomson has a deep knowledge of film scholarship and loves the movies, it is also equally apparent that Thomson is in love with his own voice.
Although his writing is witty, sharp and lively, it often sinks to the prose equivalent of scenery chewing. Here is an excerpt from Thomson’s mash note to Technicolor: “I love Technicolor for its expressiveness, its moist aliveness, its damson and creme brulee mix as lipstick meets cheek, and its passion – because it is, often, better than life.”
As his rhapsodic style suggests, Thomson does not belong to any particular school of film theory or criticism. His approach is holistic, skimming through the myriad elements of film history, including unions, D.W. Griffith, the studio system, scandals, ancillary rights — even the French New Wave, for good measure.
Perhaps because he has written two books on the subject, his writing is clearest and his arguments most trenchant in the chapter “Divorce Hollywood Style,” which focuses on Selznik and the making of Gone With the Wind.
Unfortunately, most of The Whole Equation is less compelling. His theses are that the “whole equation” is collaboration between audience and movies, that history in America in the time of the movies cannot be separated from movies themselves, and that the urge to create movies is inseparable from the desire to make money. These ideas are not particularly original or captivating.
So, why read the book? If anything, the value of The Whole Equation is in its many references to books and movies that should be in the library of those interested in films and filmmaking.
Make a list and mine the book and source notes for books such as Victor Navasky’s Naming Names and Aljean Harmetz’s Round Up the Usual Subjects, and films such as John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven and Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear.
The Whole Equation starts with a paean to Chinatown, another of those must-see movies, and Thomson weaves its story about greed, water, Los Angeles and the career of screenwriter Robert Towne throughout. It’s an effective device. But you can spot Thomson’s cringe-inducing ending of the book with the famous, cliched line from the movie all the way from Chapter 1.
Thomson’s greatest asset as a film scholar is his enthusiasm for his subject. However, even great enthusiasm can’t compensate for 22 overstuffed chapters musing on what is essentially old territory, not to mention odd ruminations on the invention of lip gloss and how psychotherapy is to blame for bad acting. Take a hint from Thomson himself and read Lillian Ross’ book Picture, on the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage.
More than 50 years after it was first published, Picture is still the definitive book on the language, politics and idea of Hollywood, told in a clear voice and a style unadorned by self-indulgence.Ed. Note: Paula Hunt is a sportswriter for the San Antonio Express-News.