Cheap Shots

Our friend David Wingrove drew our attention to David Thomson’s Guardian obit of Jennifer Jones, which he thought in rather poor taste. I’d read David Edelstein’s rather vile obit of Brittany Murphy so nothing could shock me. But as David says, the striking thing about this piece is that it’s all about how Jones refused to be interviewed by Thomson for his Selznick bio. Jones is judged and condemned on those grounds alone. Consider:

“Well, she’s dead now, at 90. Gore Vidal told me maybe 10 years ago how he’d recently had dinner with Jennifer Jones and complimented her on … her looks? Her cooking? Her jokes? Never mind now. But she did tell him that she was actually three years older than her official age. So was she 93 or 90? What’s the difference if you hardly recognise anyone any longer and if you prefer not to talk to the biographer of the husband who named you Jennifer Jones, who got you your Oscar and turned your life into such a melodrama?”

What does that paragraph boil down to? The last sentence — “What’s the difference” ie “Why should we care about you?” “if you prefer not to talk to etc” ie “if you won’t talk to me?” Pretty incredible. I think it would’ve been nice if Jones had shared her memories with Thomson, and it might have made for a fascinating addition to film history. But I don’t believe she owed those memories to anybody or any such nonsense — they were her own, private, to do with as she pleased.

I think the reason that paragraph reads so snooty and self-important is that Thomson is just not that careful any more what he writes. It pains me to say this, because my contact with Mr T, when I sent him a copy of LA FIN DU JOUR in hopes of changing his mind about Julien Duvivier, was entirely pleasant and I found him gracious and charming. Asked to write something about Thomson’s new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, I shied away, because looking at the opening pages on Amazon I found them disturbingly shaky. For a while Thomson has seemed rather middlebrow in his tastes, his skills as a writer exceeding his verve as a thinker, but now his prose itself is starting to slacken. Consider ~

“People liked his films: in the fifties Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and North by Northwest had all been hits, suspense stories served with the black cream of Hitchcock’s humor.”

That image: black cream. Ugh! And WTF? It won’t do, on a basic level. I’ll pass over with merely a snide snicker the passages in his book on The Aliens Quartet which devolve into an extended sexual fantasy about Sigourney Weaver eating strawberries and cream without a top on — we can put that down to male menopause. What ties together the ugly thought unintentionally revealed in the Jones obit with the casually askew imagery of the Hitchcock piece is a lack of care. Thomson has more or less admitted he doesn’t care so much about movies as he used to* — maybe he should find something he can write about passionately. Something needs to happen.

*His dismissal of Abbas Kiarostami based on a screening of one movie would be enough to confirm this even if he hadn’t come out and said it.

22 Responses to “Cheap Shots”

  1. Thomson has always been too glib for words. The only time I ever came close to agreeing with him was his view of Kubrick as a director who made movies for people who don’t watch too many movies. Although I don’t necessarily share this view today, since I respect Kubrick more today as an artist. He also didn’t understand Chaplin and deserves some kind of bounty on his head for his number on Orson Welles.

    Jennifer Jones has been far better served at the Self-Styled Siren’s online salon.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this!

    I am still sickened by Thomson and his treatment of Jennifer Jones. She was a true screen icon, who gave unforgettable performances in at least half-a-dozen classic films (THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, DUEL IN THE SUN, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, GONE TO EARTH, CARRIE, BEAT THE DEVIL). If she chose not to discuss her private life with the likes of David Thomson, that was well within her rights…and probably shows admirably sound judgement on her part!

    As another screen immortal, Jeanne Moreau, said to an interviewer who pressed her to answer a question because ‘you owe it to film history’…”I don’t owe a goddamn thing to anybody!”

  3. I’m curious as to just what are Thomson’s thoughts/feelings re. Duvivier, exactly?

  4. Good thing you stayed away. Thomson is to be avoided. It woudl never occur to him that Gore Vidal enjoyed having a perfectly charming dinner conversation with Jennifer Jones. Obviously they knew so many of the smae people they had a lot to talk about. A number of years back she appeared at an AFI tribute to gregory Peck that I was lucky to have attended, and she took everyone’s breath away — still lovely in her later years and very much a star.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    All this sloppy, self-important nonsense from a man who confuses great acting and eternally luminous star power with, er, Nicole Kidman!

  6. I got Thomson’s book on Welles as a gift one birthday. I read it, and while I never throw away a book lightly (insert Dorothy Parker joke here), it seemed to “disappear” in the same place that those religious tracts I get handed to me in public places. Luckily today, we have recycling bins so I can greenly dispose of similar works.

  7. Thomson really does embrace the mainstream fear of Welles which is a such a big thing in middlebrow American culture, manifesting itself in belittling and sniping (Me & Orson Welles manages to fall into this despite th filmmakers’ apparent idolation of OW — very strange).

    Simon Callow’s Welles series of books seem to be improving as they go on, and his research is impressive.

    Thomson on Duvivier: “A man who always managed to look spruce but seldom original or interesting.” I must say, he was very polite and gracious when I suggested JD was worth another look. And the first edition of his Biographical Dictionary is pretty interesting, and impressively encyclopedic. I usually disagree with him but I find the entries very readable and stimulating. (The entry on Jennifer Jones is thoughtful and admits her effectiveness in roles for which her particular qualities as a person suited her.)

    The newer stuff is progressively diluting the book’s good qualities though.

  8. What a nasty piece of writing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Thomson, as his America in the Dark (which somehow found its way to a small library in ’70s rural Ireland) was the first piece of serious film criticism I ever read. But his increasingly turgid self-consciousness, as well as the laziness pointed to by David Cairns above, has turned me off more and more as the years go by. I recently found a copy of Suspects, which – when it came out – struck me as an original and remarkable piece of writing. Sadly, it doesn’t hold up terribly well. Metafictional playfulness now being the norm rather than an exception, it has been overtaken by the times, and it just feels a little pointless. I must keep an eye out for the first edition of the Biographical Dictionary, though.


    A giant of the cinema has passed. Everybody go out and get the DVD of Triple Agent — his last really great film.

  10. Gee, that’s sad. I liked a good number of his films. The New Wave is getting very sparse now. I don’t know, but I figured Godard would live longest just from sheer bloody-mindedness, but he’s even older than my mother.

  11. I didn’t see that Triple Agent recommendation in time, just rented Lady and the Duke, and Romance of Astree and Celadon. Had been thinking about renting Lady and the Duke this week in any case because of some remarkable images spotted in a best-of-decade round-up.

    Speaking of remarkable images, I dig the Pontypool shout-out on The Auteurs today. Added a few (much more obvious) of my own in the forums.

  12. Always good to see Thomson taken down a peg. I’m amazed you got through this without dredging up the mindblowing Kidman bio, a raging hard-on in prose form from someone who can no longer get it up for his wife, if at all. (Now there’s a cheap shot!) Many of the earlier pieces are valuable, but his ego seems to have dulled much of the sensitivity or respect he once had. I pretty much always cringe reading his weekly column in Guardian, but perverse fascination keeps me going back…

    And, indeed: R.I.P., M. Rohmer.

  13. I believe The Lady and the Duke is a favourite of Arthur’s. I’ve been meaning to check it out myself, partly for the trivial reason of the Scottish connection.

    I haven’t read the Kidman book, but could never understand why Thomson writes about modern movie stars (unless for cash). I do think Kidman can act, under the right circumstances, but her life is hardly an open book, so without access to any interesting facts, why bother?

  14. Those sorts of bios (like the Kidman book I mercifully never read), remind me of excessively fawning bios I’ve read in magazines, they make me yell at the author “Get a room and get it over with, I don’t want to read your masturbatory fantasies!”. There were some lulus I read when The New Yorker went to pot. Even Wolcott irritates me at times. Arlene Croce could write about dance without making you think she’s drooling with lust while doing it.

  15. Lust has its place, I guess, but I would think a relatively minor place in criticism. Even porn criticism.

    Actually, since I’d forgotten all about the Kidman bio, I now want to read it.

    Paul, you can buy any edition of the BioDic, it’s just that the more recent ones have more unnecessary pieces, but they still have all the good ones. I remember picking up Suspects and being disappointed that he hadn’t woven the characters together into a PLOT. Felt like he hadn’t DONE THE WORK.

  16. david wingrove Says:

    Thomson’s championing of the sublime Nicole (watch THE OTHERS or FUR if you don’t believe me) is one of the few points in his favour, in my view. That being said, I’ve no wish whatsoever to actually read the book.

  17. christian Says:

    Thompson might be the worst critic I’ve ever read. Anybody who fawns over an ice cube like Nicole Kidman has some synapses loose.

  18. Kidman is effective in some things, including Birth, To Die For. But there does seem to be something faulty in anybody who would think that rated a whole book’s worth of slavering.

  19. david wingrove Says:

    Ah…but what an alluring ice cube she is!

  20. Argh! What a nasty read!

    On one hand, as a film-goer I’m always curious about the lives of those making films, but curious as one must get, I also think that I’d rather have them discussing their work than their private lives (which they have the rght to keep private).

    Dissing Miss Jones in such a way just because she once said “No” is rather miserable.

  21. Jenny Eardley Says:

    I don’t think the Guardian should have accepted his copy.

  22. Yeah, but he’s David Thomson, I can’t imagine what he’d have to write to have his copy rejected. Hopefully he was just out of sorts that day and will get over himself soon. In my own personal dealings with him I found him very gracious and gentlemanly, so this peevishness seems out of character.

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