David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, sixth edition, is the odd reference book every movie lover should own.

The Book Every Movie Lover Should Own

The Book Every Movie Lover Should Own

Reviews of the latest films.
May 23 2014 6:21 PM

The Book Every Movie Lover Should Own

The sixth—and possibly last—edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

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The days of that kind of publishing miracle—not to mention the days of bound reference books that people pull off shelves to consult and periodically replace with updated editions—would seem to be numbered. Thomson implies in the book’s introduction that this sixth edition may be the book’s last. (Then again, he suggested something very similar in the foreword to the last edition four years ago.) This new introduction begins with a melancholy salute to the dictionary’s original editor, the late Tom Rosenthal, who stood up for the project when it began to veer far afield of the tidy reference volume originally conceived by the publisher. Describing Rosenthal’s initial reaction to the manuscript, Thomson writes, “[I]n his most splendid and grave way he agreed … that it was growing into some kind of monster, the fate of which he could not predict, but he felt it was arresting and passionate, and he said I should proceed.” We should all have such an editor once in our lives. Readers have Rosenthal to thank for the existence and longevity of this strange, passionate monster of a book, which, love it or hate it, belongs on the shelf of every serious cinephile.

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After going through the sixth edition compiling quotes for this essay (and falling down the usual 20-minute rabbit hole with each entry), I had such a pile of unused gems that I want to append a quick list of short passages, to give a sense of the range of Thomson’s voice and opinions on cinematic personalities past and present.


 On Lena Dunham:

“A few things can be established: Tiny Furniture, no matter that it cost $65,000 and employed her own family members … was a stylish comedy poised neatly between mumblecore and Lubitsch. She is a very smart scriptwriter. She has as good an eye as her ear. And she has no hesitation in showing off her body the way John Ford displayed Monument Valley.”

On Joaquin Phoenix:

“In several ways, he provokes comparisons with Brando in his evident dismay over acting. But he has never delivered the precision or the beauty that belonged to Brando. I have the feeling that he may end up naked and silent in a Lars von Trier picture, hoping he’s not there, with his mouth twisted like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Or will he be our greatest actor?”

On James Franco:

“… [I]f anyone can get films made of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury in this world and time, you have to hand it to that guy—it doesn’t matter if the films are any good, he is an operator. … He is immensely sympathetic and entirely implausible; he has over ninety credits already—and I promised only a few hundred words. He is Gatsby—and better him than Leonardo DiCaprio!”

On Howard Hawks:

“Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bonnard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world. ... The dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance and gesture—between Grant and Hepburn, Grand and Jean Arthur, Grant and Rosalind Russell, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard …—are Utopian procrastinations to avert the paraphernalia of released love that can only expend itself. In other words, Hawks is at his best in moments when nothing happens beyond people arguing about what might happen or has happened.” 

On John Cazale, who played the doomed Fredo Corleone in The Godfather and died of bone cancer in 1978:

“I don’t have anything else to say except that it is the lives and work of people like John Cazale that make filmgoing worthwhile. In heaven, I hope, there will be no stars, just supporting actors. And one of the great strengths of American film is such people. But it is a weakness, too, in that the code continues to insist there are more important people. There are not. So watch Cazale in The Godfather: Part II addicted to daiquiris and the women he can’t keep in order—he is the only hope in that terrible family.”

Correction, May 23, 2014: Due to a production error, the original photo accompanying this article was mistakenly of a different David Thomson.