August 18, 2019

Hollywood's Closeted Sexuality

“”We all of us sleep with strangers in our heads,” David Thomson declares near the beginning of Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. That sentence as aptly describes the physical experience of dreaming as it does the omnivorous nature of sexual fantasy. Much of Thomson’s work over a career now into its fifth decade—he’s 78—has dwelled in the ambiguous space where dreams, fantasies, and movies overlap. To call the London-born, San Francisco–based Thomson a film critic isn’t quite right. Nor does the label of film historian fit, exactly, though his knowledge of the cinematic past is certainly formidable in its depth and detail. Rather, he’s an autobiographical essayist who approaches movies as a psychic toy set to be dismantled and rearranged according to the dictates of his own voluminous memory and florid imagination.

Thomson, the author of more than 30 books—including biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles and monographs on Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Gary Cooper—has been called the greatest living writer about film. He’s also been dismissed as a loquacious show-off in love with his own meandering voice. When the latest edition of his best-known book, the monumental and monumentally weird The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, was released in 2014, I allied myself more closely with the former camp than the latter. This labyrinthine reference work can be infuriating, but it is a one-of-a-kind compendium of thumbnail biographies of performers, directors, writers, and the occasional cinematographer or costume designer. Thomson sums up not the life or career of particular creators, but his impressionistic experiences with their work.

Thomson’s approach to the collective psychosocial phenomenon he sometimes designates simply as “movie” (“ ‘movie’ was a place people longed to be”) is guided by a deep-seated critical principle: Desire is a form of understanding. At its best, this method inspires passages of lively first-person prose. The lengthy dictionary entry on James Dean, Thomson’s generational compatriot and one of his favorite actors, includes a sense memory of the plush pile carpets and easy-to-evade usherettes at the Granada Theatre, in the South London district of Tooting, where he sneaked into a showing of Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. His commitment to letting himself love what he loves and hate what he hates can make for soaring arias of praise as well as scathing dismissals. Sarah Polley’s direction of Julie Christie in Away From Her “has shown us that certain characterizations in fiction may be as far-reaching as explorations into space, higher mathematics, or the genome project.” The Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is “brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name.””

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