In Print: The Great Stars Series
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 8, 2010
Ingrid Bergman (Great Stars)
Humphrey Bogart (Great Stars)
Gary Cooper (Great Stars)
Bette Davis (Great Stars)by David Thomson
Faber and Faber Inc., $14 each (paper)
First of all, to clear up any confusion: David Thomson, the British film historian, should not be mistaken for David M. Thompson, the British film and TV producer, or David Thompson, the mass-market adventure writer, or even David Bordwell, the renowned film theorist who writes standard-bearer film school texts with his wife, Kristin Thompson. There's just the one David Thomson – you know, the one who wrote the invaluable The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition – but you could hardly be faulted for wondering if Thomson had cracked the nut on human cloning or was perhaps running a small sweatshop of writer drones in his basement: How else to explain his astonishing output? In just the last two years, he's produced, in addition to regular columns for the UK's Guardian, the chatty Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films; a memoir, Try to Tell the Story; and November's book-length study The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. He waited all of five days to put his stamp on 2010 with these four slim new releases, first published this summer in England and part of (one hopes) an ongoing Great Stars series.
The series is trim in scope, page count (the longest tops off at 144 pages), and even design; each book could fit in a roomy pocket. As the leading lights of their era, the stars tend to have walk-on parts in one another's books, which makes sense, since so often they were partnered, onscreen and in bed. It appears there were very few stars Cooper didn't double-bill in the boudoir with, although Davis managed to avoid it. Then again, if she'd won the hard-fought part of Scarlett O'Hara and he'd landed Rhett Butler (shudder to think, but David O. Selznick seriously considered him), there's a good chance that distinction would have been gone with the wind.
The books follow the same schema as Thomson's Biographical Dictionary: a chronological dispatching of the star's filmography with a dash of character psychology. He diagnoses Bergman's film choices, for instance, as the product of a gravitational pull toward self-punishing parts: "[S]omething in the noble Ingrid craved being degraded, or brought close to ruin – anything that would require long, painful moral rehabilitation." Meanwhile the case for (or, more often, against) Cooper comes down to his clothes fetish and obsessive cocksmanship (Thomson rather lingers on what was, legend has it, an especially fine piece of equipment). "Gary Cooper was not the brightest soul, not the most intelligent or steadfast man," Thomson writes in closing. "He could be weak, timid, self-indulgent, a snob, lazy, indifferent, an opportunist. None of which ever stopped him looking like Gary Cooper." Unfortunately the book is too short, and its purpose too precise, to explore anything more than the outsider's perspective of Cooper's famous good looks; one is left wondering how Cooper himself felt about looking so good, or if he worried that was all his legacy would amount to.
There are small annoyances: Thomson likes to reimagine the plots of films to suit his tastes (as with Davis' poorly aged women's pictures) and wastes time with what-ifs (as in, what if Bergman had played Streetcar Named Desire? Easy: Blanche DuBois' honey drawl would've tasted a lot like Swedish meatball). And, as anyone who's ever wanted to throw the New Biographical Dictionary against the wall knows, Thomson can be infuriating with his cut-downs and flat dismissals.
Still, a more formidable film scholar you'd be hard-pressed to find, and beyond that, it's simply a joy to read his writing, so witty and articulate and tart. Tender, too: He writes most affectionately about Bogart, the supposed toughie with a soft heart who ended his days so ravaged by cancer he moved between floors in his home's dumbwaiter. Of High Sierra, Thomson writes, "There it is, the Bogart snarl, the willingness to put himself on a plate, like a cooked sausage, grinning at the mustard." How delicious is that?