He Lost It at the Movies

The starry-eyed film criticism of David Thomson.

In 1954, Robert Warshow, who settled the frontier of pop-culture commentary with landmark pieces in Commentary and the Partisan Review, wrote an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship that made a case for the importance of spiritual response and animal appreciation to his craft: “I have had enough serious interest in the products of the ‘higher’ arts to be very sharply aware that the impulse that leads me to a Humphrey Bogart movie has little in common with the impulse which leads me to the novels of Henry James or the poems of T.S. Eliot.” The connection is subtler than the fact of their being both forms of art, he ventured. “To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must first of all be a personal one.  A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” *

At the risk of damaging the goods in the handling, let’s elaborate Warshow’s statement to say that movie critics (like moviegoers) should be allowed (and encouraged) in their hopeless dreams, raw enthusiasms, excited hunches, occult systems, dirty secrets, and basest fan-magazine fantasies. The peculiar brilliance of the critic David Thomson is to recognize such impulses, as if instinctively, and to cross-connect them with the kinks that animate directors’ work and with the needs that shape an actor’s self-image. When writing on world cinema, he is as resonant as anyone, but when writing about American movies, he seems to be charting the nervous system of Hollywood with tingling consequence. It surely helps that, raised in Britain and writing from California, he’s a familiar spirit in a strange land.

The occasion for this fond assessment is a new series of monographs—”Great Stars,” publisher Faber & Faber calls it—inaugurated with trim tributes to Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart. The impulse that leads Thomson to a Bogart movie has to do with the dialogue between the off-screen Bogart and the big-screen Bogie. In his typically tart and evocative prose, Thomson ventures that Bogart’s upper-middle-class upbringing informs Philip Marlowe’s “immense caustic integrity”; that his contempt for his studio helped him “put on Baby Face’s fixed sneer” in the gangster melodrama Dead End; that his long-held feeling of himself as a failure is a source of his power as an existentialist sentimentalist. Thomson, embracing a role as a mythographer, uses the story that Ronald Reagan was considered for the part of Rick Blaine for a meaningful digression: “Why, if Reagan had had that part, you can surmise, there would have been no need for him to be president, too.” He prints both the facts and the legend.

Thomson is a writer capable of producing twin doorstops— The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and “Have You Seen … ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films—which read as encyclopedic bundles of intimate correspondence. His volumes on Orson Welles and David O. Selznick are authoritative biographies lit up with authorial personality. The Welles bio ends with the author in conversation with an imagined reader or second self: “So film perhaps has made a wasted life? One has to do something.” His Warren Beatty book, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes, goes beautifully around the bend. Chapters searching out the story of the actor’s life alternate with a fictional tale of a screenwriter on a quest in a movie-mad dystopia worthy of J.G. Ballard.

Writing about Nicole Kidman, Thomson has gone unapologetically over the moon. Many moviegoers can agree that she is a fine actress whenever her forehead does not seem fixed under a porcelain glaze. Many readers will respond warmly to Thomson’s observation that has Hollywood remiss for having not quite done right by her “naughty-flirty presence”: “Here is a unique sensibility, seductive and devouring, and all too often Ms. Kidman would be fobbed off with earnestness or cuteness.” But few people care to follow him in openly responding in kind to her “sheer lust for the camera.” In 2006, introducing his brief biography of Kidman, Thomson wore the stains of rotten tomatoes flung at him as a badges of honor: “When Michiko Kakutani reviewed The Whole Equation in the New York Times, she saw fit to call my ‘crush’ on Kidman ridiculous. … Well, maybe, but I am owning up to it, because I think it is the only way to get at things that need to be said (somehow in all the turmoil of desire, I have retained the semblance of some educational purpose).”

Self-aware in his very enthrallment with the dreams Hollywood inspires, exploits, and crushes, Thomson is all the more sensitive an analyst of them. Thus, at his most acute moments, he conjures beauty and horror in equal measure. See the first paragraph of one of the Great Stars books: “Around the middle of the twentieth century, the advances in photography and self-knowledge came together in a generation of people who loved to be photographed, but who may have confused the process with love itself. Take Ingrid Bergman.” His singular knack is to give the sense of understanding The Day of the Locust * better than Nathanael West himself while also secreting a copy of Photoplay inside of his Cahiers du Cinéma. This is a great feat of perspective, the gimlet-eyed critic acknowledging himself as a starry-eyed fan, his gaze piercing Hollywood’s silver smog.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2010: The article originally misstated the title of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Feb. 17, 2010: The sentence originally misquoted Robert Warshow’s definition of a critic. (Return to the corrected sentence.)