The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood

David Thomson,
The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
ISBN: 0 375 40016 8
U.S. $27.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Alfred A. Knopf)

David Thomson’s new book is less a history of Hollywood than a tentatively gonzo, utterly unsystematic elaboration of a particular idea that interests him: that the urge to create art and the wish to make money are, in the history of Hollywood, inseparable. That’s what the “whole equation” in the title reduces to. But Thomson’s take on this is so personal and idiosyncratic that the book itself complicates the equation, because Thomson becomes an insightful third term that colors just about everything he says about the other two.

The book is a delight to read even if it at times exasperates or annoys. Thomson is passionate about Hollywood and the movies. He never condescends to or holds at arm’s length the business side of his equation. He begins with an account of Robert Towne’s screenwriting career, which peaked with Chinatown (USA, 1974) and then declined. While Thomson sees Towne’s downward turn as symptomatic of Hollywood, he seems to regard it as inevitable, in the nature of the thing, not something to be deplored or denounced. He makes a point of explaining how Towne’s Chinatown script, good as it was, was improved by significant changes during the production.

Thomson spends most of his time on the studio era, about which he has no delusions and yet which he extols. He includes several accounts of actors and directors who, chafing under the restrictions of the studio system, and desiring greater artistic autonomy, tried to work independently, but then returned to the fold – for reasons both economic and artistic. The clearest-cut example is James Cagney, who worked for Warners for over a decade, made some exceptional films, and complained constantly. He left in 1942 to work independently. In seven years, he made four films, all duds. Then, in Thomson’s words, he “staggered back to Warners,” where he made a good film again (White Heat, 1949). Howard Hawks produced Red River (USA, 1948) independently in order to make a film that was right and beautiful, but he paid dearly for it by getting entangled in financial problems and earning very little on a great film. As the studio system crumbled in the latter half of the century, greater independence did not necessarily lead to better films or greater profits for filmmakers. George Lucas may have gotten obscenely rich for the vacuous Star Wars (USA, 1977), but My Big Fat Greek Wedding (USA/Canada, 2002) cost 5 million, earned 240 million, yet finished in the red by 10 million, according to Thomson. Making films independently requires an inordinate effort raising money, which itself entails significant costs down the line.

Any book as personal as this one puts the author at risk of exposure. Early in the book, Thomson repeatedly professes his love for Nicole Kidman, based entirely on her screen presence – an endearing confession – but by the end of the book, he seems to have forgotten all about her, just as Casablanca (USA, 1942) forgets about the supposedly beloved Sam in the latter third of the movie. Thomson sometimes takes his history too personally, wishing Elia Kazan had apologized for his famous testimony and proclaiming not to begrudge a fat payday Billy Wilder got for a film, as if Thomson’s approval of either man’s behavior mattered. He is overly fond of the word “fuck,” which he strains to use, giving an impression he wants to be hip. He can be slippery in his assessments, glibly praising or quickly dismissing films without giving clear reasons why.

But such irritations are a small price to pay for the enjoyments the books offers. Thomson has a gift for the well-turned apercu, for example, that sound allowed actors to be silent, that Marlon Brando’s career illustrates “the process that allows you to shift from making movies to making deals” (250), that “the most special effect in movies is always the human face when its mind is being changed” (361), or his definition of film noir as “night with shadows”(29). His comparison of Citizen Kane and The Best Years of our Lives (USA, 1946) is cogent and sharp. His lament for the loss of Technicolor is revealing and moving.

I don’t think Thomson delivers fully on what his book’s title suggests. An “equation” implies a solution. Thomson doesn’t solve an equation here; he elaborates a paradox. His “theory” on the inseparability of art and commerce in the movies reminds me of Jean Renoir’s famous remark about Westerns – that they are always the same, which gives the director a tremendous amount of freedom. That the restrictions of the studio system seem inextricable from the production of some great movies is a similar paradox. Thomson does not explain it. He explores it, relishes in it, shares his extensive knowledge of it, and exults in it. That’s ultimately where the pleasure and reward in this book lie.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →