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On the Sofa

David Thomson: ‘Babylon Berlin’, 2 August 2018

... Lucy​ and I had been through the whole of Babylon Berlin – or so we thought – all sixteen episodes, swallowing three a night. We were bingeing, and greedy for more just to get away from that other consuming and insoluble show, playing on MSNBC night after night, where Rachel Maddow and the others were trying to persuade us that it was all beginning to be over, the Trump thing, that it would all be over very soon, because of the investigation, the Mueller thing ...

The Nephew

David Thomson, 19 March 1981

Charmed Lives 
by Michael Korda.
Penguin, 498 pp., £2.50, January 1981, 0 14 005402 2
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... This book suggests how an odd mixture of Hungarian nerve, social bluff and show-business instinct once commanded the British cinema. In Michael Korda’s telling, however, the panorama of picture-making is not always alight with understanding or information. The author may have been born on the night in 1933 when his uncle Alexander Korda’s first great success, The Private Life of Henry VIII, opened, and that could have made Michael a good-luck charm in Alex’s eyes ...

On the Red Carpet

David Thomson, 7 March 2024

... For​ years now, the television audience for the Oscars has been in decline. In 2023, the Academy’s big night had 18.7 million viewers; in 1998, the Titanic year, it was 57 million. This is getting to be like the last stages in musical chairs. Folklore says the Academy hires good-looking suits and gowns to fill the theatre seats when stars and quasars retreat to the bar or take meetings ...


David Thomson: Alcatraz, 26 March 2009

... been here far longer than I have: how did people look at the prison without feeling dismay? David Ward and Gene Kassebaum have compiled an immense study of the prison in what they call the gangster years, from its foundation in 1933 to 1948.* Drawing on interviews with inmates and guards that the government gathered decades ago, they have reconstructed ...

Deal of the Century

David Thomson: As Ovitz Tells It, 7 March 2019

Who Is Michael Ovitz? 
by Michael Ovitz.
W.H. Allen, 372 pp., £20, September 2018, 978 0 7535 5336 7
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... of ‘Whatever happened to … ?’ So who was he? Michael Ovitz was born in Chicago in 1946 to David, the son of Jewish Romanian immigrants. David was a liquor salesman for Seagram’s but he worked weekends too, selling patio furniture to support his family after they moved to Encino in the San Fernando Valley. ‘The ...

Why Goldwyn Wore Jodhpurs

David Thomson, 22 June 2000

The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper 
by Dominick Dunne.
Crown, 218 pp., £17.99, October 1999, 0 609 60388 4
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Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers 
by Maria Cooper Janis.
Abrams, 176 pp., £22, November 1999, 0 8109 4130 9
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... movies and now the video footage. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was working on the life of David O. Selznick, the man who produced Gone with the Wind, Rebecca and Duel in the Sun. It was a great help, yet a daunting obstacle, that Selznick had kept virtually every bit of paper that passed through his office. But the family archive had other ...


David Thomson: LA Rhapsody, 27 January 2022

Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis and Los Angeles, California 
by Matthew Specktor.
Tin House, 378 pp., $17.95, July 2021, 978 1 951142 62 9
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... year before Bonnie and Clyde; he will have been eight when Chinatown appeared, and ten or so when David Bowie recorded the song that gives this book its title. Specktor’s mother was a screenwriter whose career was short-lived; later she was a drinker who snarled at her son for asking her to stop. By then she was divorced from his father, who was a leading ...

How Movies End

David Thomson: John Boorman’s Quiet Ending, 20 February 2020

by John Boorman.
Faber, 237 pp., £20, February, 978 0 571 35379 8
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... We’re not​ dealing with an ordinary man, or a conformist. There he is in the abandoned shell of Fort Point in San Francisco, this fierce and frightened man, looking like Lee Marvin. The fat parcel of money he has been demanding throughout the film is at his feet. All he has to do is pick it up. Instead, he fades into the darkness. What kind of movie is Point Blank? And what kind of book is this, written by the man who made it?It would be hard to deliver a brief biographical sketch of John Boorman that was tidy or plausible ...

Martinique in Burbank

David Thomson: Bogart and Bacall, 19 October 2023

Bogie and Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair 
by William J. Mann.
HarperCollins, 634 pp., £35, August, 978 0 06 302639 1
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... Were​ they art, or publicity? Can we settle on ‘magic’? Humphrey Bogart was born on Christmas Day, 1899. Lauren Bacall died on 12 August 2014. So the span of William Mann’s well-researched dual biography is some 115 years. But a case can be made that the ‘greatest love affair’ promised by Mann amounted to no more than 216 minutes in the busy years of the mid-1940s ...

Red silk is the best blood

David Thomson: Sondheim, 16 December 2010

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-81), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes 
by Stephen Sondheim.
Virgin, 445 pp., £30, October 2010, 978 0 7535 2258 5
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... Stephen Sondheim is America’s master of musical theatre, as long as we are prepared for the work to be brilliant but not relaxed. His is a voice of solitude struggling to believe in company, and that of a lifelong game-player, so be careful about taking this book at face value as an autobiography, or as giving the whole story. Regard it as pointing a way out of the woods that may only take us deeper into them ...

Merely an Empire

David Thomson: Eighteen Hours in Vietnam, 21 September 2017

The Vietnam War 
directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
PBS, ten episodes
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... Roger Harris​ is from Roxbury, in Boston. For decades he taught in the school system there. He wears a grey pinstripe suit; his smart bow-tie has a purple streak. He looks patient yet tough, as durable as a former athlete. But he had days in 1967 as a young Marine near the DMZ in Vietnam – the demilitarised zone, aka the ‘dead Marine zone’ – that he can’t talk about:You go over there with one mindset and then you adapt ...

What does a chicken know of bombs?

David Thomson: A Key to Brando, 5 December 2019

The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando 
by William J. Mann.
HarperCollins, 718 pp., £22, November 2019, 978 0 06 242764 9
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... An​ actor wants to wake up tomorrow as someone else: that’s the delight and the horror in what is sometimes called a profession or an art, as if its risks can be controlled. An actor can be anyone, if he can stand the pace of change and its rootlessness. Cinema as a medium urges us to view ourselves as actors presenting ourselves. So Marlon Brando could be a paraplegic after the war, he could be Zapata, Napoleon, a mafia don, or Lee Clayton, swanning around the Missouri Breaks country in a dress, a bonnet and an italic Irish accent ...

It’s me, it’s me, it’s me

David Thomson: The Keynotes of Cary Grant, 5 November 2020

Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend 
by Mark Glancy.
Oxford, 550 pp., £22.99, October, 978 0 19 005313 0
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Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise 
by Scott Eyman.
Simon and Schuster, 556 pp., £27.10, November, 978 1 5011 9211 1
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... In a way, that is the awful truth: the romantic dream is itself a lie. In Bringing Up Baby, David Huxley is brilliant and inept. He learns to have fun with madcap Susan, but he is consigning himself to a nocturnal forest of insanity. In Only Angels Have Wings, Geoff is a flamboyant but cold leader who refuses to be sentimental, and is reluctant to tell ...


David Thomson: ‘Vertigo’ after Weinstein, 21 June 2018

... In​ 2012, five years before the wave of accusations against predatory men in the movie business, the film critics of the world – as chosen by the magazine Sight & Sound – voted to give the accolade of ‘best picture ever made’ to a piercing dream of male supremacy and female servitude carried to the point of murder. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and plainly the critics did not vote in pre-emptive defiance of last year’s outbreak of dismay at the way men have run movies at the expense of women ...

What does a snake know, or intend?

David Thomson: Where Joan Didion was from, 18 March 2004

Where I Was From 
by Joan Didion.
Flamingo, 240 pp., £14.99, March 2004, 0 00 717886 7
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... This is not a long book, except in its view, which is like the view from a Sierra peak, where the omniscient author can see all the way from the Nevada desert, violet and dun, to the biblical meadows, the pretty colours and the plenty that will be California. The art direction of that great trek westwards was perfect – art direction usually is. And now here comes Joan Didion, a little bit like the doomsayer on the wagon train (Walter Brennan, with teeth), but too arresting to be ignored, to tell us the prospectus, like the prospect, was a hoax ...

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