The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition by David Thomson, Knopf, 1,154 pages, $29.95 paper. It is important to understand that perfection was never quite the point here. To find unimpeachable biographical accuracy, other film encyclopedias – literary and digital – beckon.
When, for instance, David Thomson’s entry on Harvey Weinstein tells us that he was born in Buffalo in 1952, the entry is specifically wrong (he was born in Flushing and brought up in New York) but metaphorically right. Harvey was indeed born professionally in Buffalo as one half of rock promoters Harvey and Corky. This is where he learned to deal with some of show business’ biggest and most demanding people (Frank Sinatra, for instance). And where he jumped into cinematic idealism with both feet – a showing of Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece “Napoleon” with the soundtrack to be performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by Carmine Coppola, say. It’s also where he came up against audience realities.
All of it was a kind of elementary school for a future film mogul – especially the film he and his brother wrote (“Playing for Time”) to explain, in a cinematic fantasy, their justification for murdering a downtown movie palace (the once noble Century Theater) by abusing it as a neglected rock emporium.
Thomson admits the biographical “imprecision” but he’s certainly got the essence right in his eloquent and characteristically witty mini-essay on Harvey Weinstein: (“He is the living, bursting, sometimes perspiring proof that pictures is a business for those who have to act like moguls, khans and tsars. Harvey is a throwback – if you could pick him up.”)
The successive new editions of Thomson’s biographical dictionary have, literally, had no equal since the first edition was published in 1975. Nothing quite stirs up debate among film’s most passionate audience the way a new edition of Thomson does. (Try reading, for instance, his lordly English dismissal of Richard Lester’s Beatles film “A Hard Day’s Night.”) But few have ever been more insightful about both great figures and young emerging talent either (read him on Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper). A new edition of one of the essential books.
– Jeff Simon