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The Whole Equation: A History of Holywoodby David Thomson
Synopses & Reviews
With the same style and insight he brought to his previous studies of American cinema, acclaimed critic David Thomson masterfully evokes the history of America's love affair with the movies and the tangled history of Hollywood in The Whole Equation.
Thomson takes us from D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and the first movies of mass appeal to Louis B. Mayer, who understood what movies meant to America — and reaped the profits. From Capra to Kidman and Hitchcock to Nicholson, Thomson examines the passion, vanity, calculation and gossip of Hollywood and the films it has given us. This one-volume history is a brilliant and illuminating overview of the wonder in the dark — and the staggering impact Hollywood and its films has had on American culture.
"The 'whole equation,' a phrase borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, refers to the balancing of financial acumen, artistic aspiration and sociological savvy that movie moguls needed to keep Hollywood flourishing during the Depression. It's also what Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) aims to achieve in his idiosyncratic chronicle of American filmmaking. He explores personalities (Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick) and specific films (von Stroheim's Greed, Spielberg's Jaws) to explain the 20th century's shifting sensibilities. Thomson addresses seminal effects from the last 100 years — from the ramifications of sound and color to the chilling consequences of the McCarthy hearings — to explain the culture of moviemaking. His writing is lyrical, but his pronouncements hyperbolic. (His ire against psychiatry, manifested in a dislike of Method acting, is particularly pronounced; its influence on an acting style, claims Thomson, 'could yet destroy a society.') Thomson is considerably frustrated with current films and what he sees as moviegoers' lowered expectations. His melancholy metaphor for survival in Hollywood is the 1974 film Chinatown, where 'the lone seeker of truth is told to shut up at the end.' This fascinating, sometimes frustrating love letter to Hollywood doesn't shirk from exposing the blemishes on Thomson's inamorata. 23 photos. Forecast: Knopf will release an expanded edition of Thomson's Dictionary of Film in November, which could spur additional interest in this title, which will have a 75,000 first printing." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Thomson's engrossing book blows the dust off forgotten scandals (the mysterious death of Jean Harlow's probably gay husband) and offers vivid examples of money's toxifying power, proving over and over that some things never change. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Thomson definitely does not belong to the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of film criticism....This is history seen through the lens of the movies and movie criticism undergirded with thoughtful research and scholarly reflection." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[D]iffuse, uneven....Thomson continues to nail some topics with great precision....
"What Mr. Thomson does most powerfully in this volume is conjure the magic of movies....And he suggests that 'the trick of movies' may have less to do with art than with a drug-like bewitchment of our brains." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Much of what passes for critical thinking in The Whole Equation is at best contradictory or at worst crackpot....Since those who make films and those who watch them all seem to be losers in the eyes of David Thomson, he's got an awful lot of history to cover." The Washington Post
"[A] big-hearted and occasionally ornery ramble....The Whole Equation, like Hollywood movies, can be uneven, but it can be astonishing, too. It is astute and often fascinating." Boston Globe
"The Whole Equation is movie history for people who don't much like movies....I do wish...that [Thomson] would abandon his...pose about movies not being quite 'good enough' for him, that has become a feature of his recent writing." Los Angeles Times
"As Mr. Thomson unreels the history of film in a series of flashes forward and back, budgets are broken down, boardrooms are spied upon, scripts and personalities pass before us in fascinating and unprecedented review." Wall Street Journal
"Thomson too often comes off as droningly dictatorial....His prose is lively and readable in some places but radiates condescension and academic showiness in others. His passion is real, but it's often smothered in pomposity." Stephanie Zacharek, The New York Times Book Review
"The Whole Equation is a challenging, enthralling, instructive montage of the lurch and sway of the industry, the push and pull of the creators and the sociological impact of the movies they made." Boston Herald
"The Whole Equation almost confirms Thomson's fear that books are superior to movies: It's sometimes better to read Thomson on movies than to see the movies he's writing about." San Jose Mercury News
"Thomson's book manages, at just over 400 pages, to be both meandering...and oddly compact....Thomson can be an outrageously self-indulgent writer, but he drops so many acid bombs and keen observations that he's worth indulging..." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A] frustrating concoction of cautionary tales and facts and figures, written in a dense elliptical prose that seems to have been scrawled in the dark during a movie screening....Thomson doesn't really tell us something we don't already know." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Once again, with his intelligent eye and sharp wit, David Thomson has managed to bring the reader inside and underneath the world of cinema, this time creating a remarkable one-volume compendium of the history and the magic that we call Hollywood." Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Films
"[W]hile 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." San Antonio Express-News
"Although the book starts naturally enough with Charlie Chaplin, it is largely nonlinear, which tends to add to the narrative's richness, as do Thomson's frequent perceptive and cogent analyses." Library Journal
Taking his title from a line in The Last Tycoon, Thomson sets out to explore the American movie business in all its complexity, all its component parts, from the invention of film until the present day. What is "the whole equation"? In the author's words: "It embraces the majesty, the business statistics and millions of us being moved, the art and the awfulness. It accommodates the artistic careers, the lives of the pirates, the ebb and flow of business, the sociological impact — in short, the wonder in the dark, the calculation in the offices, and the staggering impact on America of moving pictures. Which is to say, also, the thunderous artillery of America unleashed on all the world."
And to be sure, it's essential to follow the money, which Thomson always does, making clear that the urge to tell the stories that are movies is inseparable from the urge to make money, and that the movies redefined greed — there was just so much money to be made. We start when D.W. Griffith yields final say on his films to a movie executive, making the essential point that it's always the studio that owns the work. We see Chaplin, who understands the whole equation, rising and then losing his way when he, the artist, not the mogul, has the final say — another essential point. We learn how Louis B. Mayer mastered the whole equation, and dominated the golden age of film, understanding both how to make a star and the dreamlike state of moviegoers, trying to escape reality.
About the Author
David Thomson taught film studies at Dartmouth College and served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Film Comment, Movieline, the New Republic, and Salon. He was the screenwriter on the award-winning documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind. His other books include Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts, and three works of fiction. Born in London, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and their two sons.
David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is available from Knopf in hardcover and paperback, and Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles is available in Vintage paperback.
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