Shot mostly silent, in black and white, and with the squarish, Academy-ratio framing that predated widescreen cinematography, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a Frenchman’s tribute to old-school Hollywood filmmaking. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, one of those silent-film actors who scoffed at the popularity of talking pictures until their careers hit the skids. Bérénice Bejo, who co-starred with Dujardin in Hazavanicius’s secret-agent comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, is fangirl-turned-starlet Peppy Miller, who looks to George as a mentor. But George, a generation her senior, refuses to embrace the talkies and his career fades to black as Peppy becomes a marquee name in her own right. As you might imagine, this situation leads to professional jealousy, personal resentment and, eventually, redemption through the love of a good woman.
Having tackled Thomson’s ego-stroking celeb bio Nicole Kidman (and, let’s face it — his ego wasn’t all he was stroking when he rubbed out that tome), I found myself trying to think what Thomson’s writing was like, lo those many years ago when I considered him one of the very best writers on film. The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood helped me remember. It’s a worthy goal Thomson lays out for himself. He wants to write a film history text that concentrates on money and personality, showing the ego trips and business sense that worked way behind the scenes to determine not just what movies were made in the classic Hollywood system, but how they were made and with whom. His constant companions in this endeavor are F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose unfinished novel The Last Tycoon seems to shed some light on the movements of the Hollywood machine, and Robert Towne, whose failure to make a third Jake Geddes film strikes Thomson as a kind of tragedy. For long stretches, Thomson’s insights are credible, and he has an impressive command of the old-school Hollywood anecdote. But there’s a lot of strained weirdness, as well, like Thomson’s eagerness to dismiss silent film as a meaningful art form, and what seems to be a general distrust of moviemaking-as-art in general. The prose occasionally grows quite purple, though never with the page-filling obstinacy of the Kidman book. Though it gets to be hard going in its latter passages, The Whole Equation does evoke a century-long businessmen’s melodrama on a scale suiting Hollywood — conjuring sex and money, ambition and regret, Thomson suggests the wondrous darkness at the heart of American film.