This month sees the release of the sixth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published for the first time in 1975. The book—now 1,154 pages long, with over 1,400 entries, more than 100 of them new to this edition—stands as a monument of film criticism, but a strange sort of monument, as if one had passed through the columns of a respectable-looking neoclassical temple to find the secret entrance to a tangle of graffiti-covered tunnels. The most idiosyncratic and deeply personal of a filmgoer’s journals masquerading as a reference work, Thomson’s “dictionary” has enjoyed a nearly four-decade-long cult following (and provoked heated brawls among cinephiles, some of them in the pages of this magazine) precisely because of its author’s passionately subjective voice and stubbornly non-canonical choice of material. In 2010, it was ranked the No. 1 best film book ever written by a Sight and Sound critics’ poll.
I know some people—including some of my most discerning cinephilic friends—find this book off-puttingly opinionated and self-important, a gaudy shrine to its author’s mercurial taste. They also contend that it’s lazily and inconsistently updated, with multiple editorial and factual errors—a point I freely concede. All I know is that in the 20 or so years I’ve had some edition or other of the New Biographical Dictionary on my shelf, I have yet to open it without reading at least three more entries than the one I was looking up. It’s a reference book into which I can pleasurably disappear into at any moment, and that’s not nothing, in this world.
From Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff, these mini-bios cover whichever figures in film history Thomson bloody well feels like talking about, for as long he feels like talking about them. Waiting to see who’ll be included in each new update, based on Thomson’s seemingly mercurial criteria, provides the slow-burn suspense of being a follower of the New Biographical Dictionary. One of the main innovations of this sixth edition is the inclusion of several figures better known for their work in television than in movies, two mediums whose increasing convergence Thomson readily recognizes. An admiring entry on Bryan Cranston ends with this brief disquisition on the future of cinema: “It’s hard to believe that the movies today would have the courage and the persistence to do someone like Walter White. Long-form television is the narrative form that has transcended movies in the way, once, the novel surpassed cave paintings.”
A British-born critic and film historian who lives in San Francisco and writes primarily for the New Republic, Thomson, now in his early 70s, can be dismissive, peevish, and prickly. He can sound obnoxiously fusty and sometimes flat-out sexist when writing about women—when tracking the careers of contemporary actresses, he has an annoying tendency to check in on the status of their sexual appeal. (To be fair, Thomson can be nearly as judgey when it comes to the physiques of aging actors: pity the Robert Redford of 1993’s Indecent Proposal, about which Thomson writes that “the script was so undeveloped, and the sex so absent, we were left with time to see how far Redford resembled used wrapping paper.”) And he can be breathtakingly catty, while pulling that Dorothy Parker trick of simultaneously being dead-on right: Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables performance is “a shameless play on the equation between our tears, her Oscar, and makeup no cat would drag in.”
But the felicities of this half-dictionary, half-diary are to be found in Thomson’s careening, confiding prose and the minute precision of his observational eye, particularly when gazing upon something he loves. Like, for example, the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in her debut role in To Have and Have Not, “watching everyone as if she had been up all night writing the script.” Or Bruce Dern’s eyes in Coming Home, “lime pits of paranoia and resentment.” On old Hollywood, especially, Thomson’s erudition and intimate attachment to his subject shine through. Nearly the entire entry on Eleanor Powell consists of a description of how, locked in solitary confinement for the rest of his life and allowed just one movie scene, Thomson would choose to watch Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire tap dancing to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in Broadway Melody of 1940. It’s a free-associational reverie that ends on the startlingly abstract image of “Powell’s alive frock” swishing around her legs for an extra half-turn after the dance is over, “like a spirit embracing the person.”
The New Biographical Dictionary contains a seeming infinitude of moments like that—poetic digressions that leave you wondering (or, if you’re a hater, shaking your head) at the unlikely publishing miracle by which one person’s private jottings somehow Trojan-horsed their way into something called a “dictionary,” which the author was then allowed to revisit, rewrite, and build upon for the next 40 years.