A diffuse, uneven take on the American movie experience, rather surprising from the author of the cogent appraisals of US films and filmmakers in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).
Thomson (Nevada, 1999, etc.) continues to nail some topics with great precision: his appraisal of Marlon Brando confronts the actor’s pretentiousness, a trait most of the obituaries overlooked. But often these rather self-indulgent essays swoop through many, many subjects in confusing ways: Los Angeles in its early days was “a paradise,” then “it wasn’t a paradise,” then it was “a semi-paradise.” Some images turn virtually phantasmagoric; the usher in Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie, Thomson suggests, eventually returns to the screen “where she belongs.” The author draws his title from Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, suggesting that the Hollywood “equation” includes not just films and directors, but greedy businessmen, stars, artists, and audiences, all of them seeking transformation through celluloid. It’s hardly a novel premise: Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America and Ethan Mordden’s The Hollywood Studios develop the theme far more coherently. To be sure, Thomson occasionally brings his subject into sharp focus in chapters, for example, on film noir and the validity of the term “golden age” as applied to Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. But, overall, the discussions are arguable (“Gone with the Wind is not art, not anywhere near it”), mistaken (Frank Sinatra sang “Love and Marriage” in a TV musical adaptation of Our Town, not in The Tender Trap, as Thomson states), and highly subjective in their choices of subjects. The author’s gaze fixes primarily on Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Irene and David Selznick, with some notice taken of other figures like the brothers Warner, D.W. Griffith, Orson Wells, and Darryl F. Zanuck.
Disappointing, except for some flashes in selected short subjects. (Photos)