Acting Naturally: The Magic in Great Performances
By David Thomson
(Knopf, 288 pages, $30)
Eighty-two years old this month, David Thomson has written some 50 books about the movies during the last 50 years — among them a history of Warner Bros., a study of Psycho, meditations on Nicole Kidman and Humphrey Bogart, full-dress biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles (I’ve actually read the latter), sizable tomes entitled How to Watch a Movie and Why Acting Matters, and flat-out doorstops with titles like The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, The Whole Equation: The History of Hollywood, and “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. (Yes, 1,000 films.)
The only reason Thomson drags Trump into these pages is that he, like millions of others, suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome.
But the Big Daddy of Thomson’s oeuvre, first published in 1975 and now in its sixth edition, is The Biographical Dictionary of Film, an unutterably massive collection of lively, opinionated short essays on several hundred cinema figures from the French actress Isabelle Adjani to Paramount founder Adolph Zukor. Not a few of Thomson’s longtime readers consider him the best film critic alive; as someone who’s read him only sporadically, I can say only that I’ve found his Biographical Dictionary both entertaining and useful for years — my copy is the 1994 third edition — even though I’ve been taken aback by the often quirky critical judgments contained therein.
Thomson’s latest book, Acting Naturally: The Magic in Great Performances, is relatively short, thoroughly unsystematic, and intermittently engaging. When I reviewed a little book about Falstaff that Harold Bloom put out in 2017, a couple of years before his death at the age of 89, I wrote that it “approximates the experience of sitting in a comfy chair in Professor Bloom’s living room while he holds forth meanderingly—by turns ecstatic, wistful, whimsical, and penetrating.” Much the same could be said about Acting Naturally, which Thomson describes as “a love letter, not just to actors, but to their magic”: it wanders in more or less stream-of-consciousness mode from autobiographical recollection (during his boyhood, he recounts, the “mystery” of the cinema experience “was something I had instead of religion”) to verdicts on various actors (Alfre Woodard, winner of four Emmys, three SAG awards, and one Oscar nomination, is “not properly appreciated”) to generalizations, some more cogent than others, about the thespian’s craft: “What is good acting? It is making us watch very closely, as if we were doing it ourselves. And it is a way of making us feel that our precious spontaneity may be written.” Meaning what? I’m not sure I know.
He’s uncontroversial on Meryl Streep — “She was and remains our outstanding actress…. Streep is uniquely brilliant at being in a movie” — but, much later, seems to qualify his praise: “She is a very great actress, but does she move toward being so emphatically right that we can hardly breathe?” If so, doesn’t this suggest that she may not be so good after all? Anthony Hopkins, for his part, “is one of those explorer-actors who seem to have been to remote and perilous places without being afraid or having their confidence reduced.” The basis for this pronouncement being…? Denzel Washington and Stanley Tucci are “reliable angels” — actors whose company one enjoys. Well, we all have our favorites. Harrison Ford, as opposed to the stunningly versatile Gary Oldman (Mason Verger in Hannibal, Churchill in Darkest Hour), is one of those “presences” that are “so secure that no one is going to expect them to act (as in being something different).” Fine, but is this big news or a commonplace? And some familiar supporting actors are “oddly endearing, like faithful dogs we liked to see around the house.” Would even a dog-loving actor be thrilled with this comparison?
Thomson talks about close-ups (invented in 1913), which he describes as “isolating and revelatory,” and which, he says, “effectively discovered the potential of dream or rapture, madness or heightened aspiration in movies.” Hmm. He talks about makeup, some uses of which are now verboten (playing Othello onstage in 1964, Olivier employed a pancake called “Max Factor 2880” and a topcoat called “Negro No. 2”). He kicks around the topic of casting, criticizing PC casting (e.g., the premise that only a gay actor can portray a gay character) and noting that before signing Julia Roberts for Pretty Woman — a choice that in retrospect seems inevitable — the producers considered “Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meg Ryan, Jennifer Connelly, Molly Ringwald, Michelle Pfeiffer, Karen Allen, Diane Lane, Emily Lloyd, Winona Ryder, and names that are no longer remembered.” Ouch. But what’s his point, other than that the producers of Pretty Woman lucked out in a way that their confrères on other projects didn’t?
At length, Thomson compares Hollywood to foreign dream factories. In the opening minutes of a French classic like The Rules of the Game, released in 1939, “we can’t decide what it is about” or which characters matter — all of which, he contends, could make some Americans uncomfortable, partly because they’re used to tidier presentation and partly because American movies “are defiant about preferring ego to society,” focusing in laser-like fashion on a single individual whom “the audience could cherish,” such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (both also 1939). In GWTW, Thomson writes, “everything revolves around Scarlett…. she is a triumph of the will.” (This, it turns out, isn’t his only reference to Riefenstahl.)
Similarly, Thomson ponders the massive gulf between Gilda, a typical Tinseltown star vehicle of the mid-1940s, and Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s pioneering work of postwar Italian neorealism — which came along at a time when, after the nightmare of war, there “was a growing sense that the immense fantasy projection in the golden age of movies had undermined critical intelligence, social theory, and the true quality of experience.” We experience Bicycle Thieves, Thomson posits, as “a window on reality” — even though, he adds, we’re aware that De Sica has manipulated us as surely as any Hollywood helmsman: the real world, for instance, isn’t in black-and-white, and doesn’t come with a musical score.
Ultimately, however, Thomson doesn’t exalt neorealism above more traditional types of filmmaking. Bicycle Thieves, he notes, came out the same year as America’s Letter from an Unknown Woman and Red River, and Britain’s The Red Shoes and Kind Hearts and Coronets. All four of those pictures, he quite correctly asserts, are today “still as fresh as wet paint” and “make cleverer use of screen presence, latent personality, and what we call acting” than de Sica’s offering. Indeed, Thomson concludes that “[i]t is the striving for candor or reality in Bicycle Thieves, as opposed to the artfulness of those other creations, “that seems limited now. Pretending suits our tricky souls better.” Not bad.
Alas, one of the few individuals to whom Thomson returns repeatedly in Acting Naturally isn’t a professional actor at all. It’s Donald Trump, whose inclusion in this book is supposedly based on the conceit that he is an actor, who, like all members of the profession, traffics in lies. But the only reason Thomson drags Trump into these pages is that he, like millions of others, suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome. “That golden president,” he professes, “had not the least care about governing a country: politics and ideology were upstaged by his ego. But he took over the screen and let us see how far we had become its idolaters, blind to so many truths of realism.”
That’s just for starters. Elsewhere Thomson refers to Trump as “that demon,” claims that “[i]t is Trump’s flagrant dishonesty — his being so heartfelt a liar — that wins him so much love and following,” and contrasts him with Queen Elizabeth II: she “has made a lifetime out of underplaying, while Trump plunges into the Grand Guignol of horrific narcissism.” In short, Thomson is just one more prominent figure about whom one finds oneself asking: how could somebody who’s purportedly so smart be, when it comes to DJT, so staggeringly dumb?
Still, these moments of ill-informed nastiness about the ex-president aren’t this book’s lowest points. Discussing the friendly testimony given before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 by director Elia Kazan, who’d been a Communist during his Depression-era youth, Thomson makes this curious statement: “To be so much of a lefty in the 1930s had seemed natural enough, and its wistful answers may still be the most persuasive response to our aching questions about America’s destiny.” Hold on a second — exactly what is Thomson saying in this sentence? Is he actually giving Stalinism a thumbs-up? Further on, quoting a letter in which Kazan publicly admitted his former communism, Thomson says: “You don’t have to dislike Communism or its several manifestations in life to hear the humbug in this or the pressure of convenience.” What? And then: “Communism has often conducted itself appallingly. Nonetheless, it remains a possible way of running a country like the United States that can overcome the tyranny of money and the corruption of power, and give more of us the chance of a chance.”
What kind of Red perfidy is this? Obviously I haven’t read enough of Thomson’s work — I wasn’t even aware he harbored such views. Then again, some of the entries in his Dictionary should’ve clued me in: for example, he writes there that The Godfather, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and Taxi Driver all “remind me of Triumph of the Will” (there’s Triumph of the Will again!) and his entry on the legendary director Frank Capra dismisses him as a fascist and condemns James Stewart’s eponymous hero in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as “a tyrant.”
A quick online search confirms that Thomson has long been, shall we say, very broad-minded about communism: writing in the Guardian in 2002, he deplored the fact that in some circles, filmmaker Chris Marker’s communism (Marker made documentaries celebrating Castro, Mao, and the USSR) “is an utter condemnation, an excuse for thinking no more, let alone allowing winding lines to lead you where they may”; later the same year, Thomson told an interviewer that “the Communist Party was the only place to be when the fascist dictators of the world were building their various fortresses and their armies,” because the democracies “were letting so many of their own people starve on the streets.”
You’d think Thomson was totally ignorant of Stalin’s crimes. Hell, maybe he is: this is a man who’s spent altogether too much time watching movies and thinking about acting, of all things, and not enough time learning and reflecting upon more important matters. How, in any event, is an obsessive cinephile going to learn about the reality of Stalinism when there’s never been a single major film about the Gulag, and only one very recent one (Mr. Jones, 2020) about the Holodomor?
READ MORE by Bruce Bawer:
A Man Called Otto Is Worse Than the Original
Three Cheers for Red, White, and Blue
Operation Finale: A Terrific Film on the Capture of Eichmann