two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
user_rating: 
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A History of Hollywood

A-WholeEquationThe title is taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of Hollywood, The Last Tycoon, "[Hollywood] can be understood … but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." In an effort to solve the equation, Thomson explores Hollywood during the Depression and beyond. In this cultural history of American filmmaking, he examines landmark changes in the industry, from the introduction of sound and color to postwar film noir and the effects of McCarthyism. He focuses on personalities (from Louis B. Mayer to Charlie Chaplin, Harvey Weinstein, and Nicole Kidman), film theory, and movies (from Chinatown to Jaws), and shares no small amount of gossip. Yet throughout its history, Thomson argues, Hollywood has struggled to reconcile the "whole equation"—financial acumen with creative vitality—which has led to moviemaking’s present-day contradictions.
Knopf. 416 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0375400168

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Charles Matthews

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The opinions are what kept me engaged. There are hundreds, and he tosses them around like a boy with firecrackers. … The Whole Equation, like Hollywood movies, can be uneven, but it can be astonishing, too." David Freeman

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The sheen and sparkle of Thomson’s prose, the way it gracefully asserts his particular sensibility, deserve celebration. That said, however, I think the conceit driving his book—Fitzgerald’s romantic belief that there actually is a ‘whole equation’ that will explain the movies—is nonsense." Richard Schickel

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Thomson is a cynic, a snob, and an almost epic distiller—excellent qualities, certainly, in a 21st-century film critic. … His analysis is particularly sharp when he’s waxing elegiac about the days when a trip to the theater was one of the signature shared experiences of American life." Brad Zellar

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"It includes brilliant flashes of insight and patches of lovely writing ... [But it’s] hard to trust a critic who one minute laments that modern audiences don’t respond to black-and-white movies, and the next displays such outright dumbness about the special, and often mysterious, code of silent-movie acting." Stephanie Zacharek

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 of 5 Stars
"This book is 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." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003) claims that the strange bedfellows art and money created American film, but that full understanding of this union "is too hard" to grasp. Critics agree: Thomson may have bitten off more than he can chew. His range is amazing, and so are his digressions. Known for his incisive, biting insight into film, Thomson doesn’t disappoint here. His beautiful prose, impressive knowledge, and passion for film float the book. But distracting details, a perpetual crankiness, and highly subjective claims (about the advantages of the old studio system or the lack of art in silent films, for example) may stop a reader cold. For many, it may be better to pass on Whole Equation and go to the movies instead.