David Thomson's career as a film critic has been a performance worthy of Brando or Olivier.by Clive James / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Make way for Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier and David Thomson. Other great actors are mentioned in David Thomson’s new book, but surprisingly few. Mainly the text is confined to memorialising these three. And if you doubt that David Thomson counts as a great actor, consider that he has built a reputation for being profound out of a whole lifetime of doing almost nothing except watching movies. You and I did the same, but we get called frivolous. David Thomson gets revered. It’s a tribute to his serious face, transported carefully to centre stage and looking all of us in the eye, daring us to call him crazy for being eager to discuss the divine stature of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, a movie, which, he says, he has seen “five or six times.” What was he hoping to find, Richard Gere’s eyes?
His old head at least as full of screen performances as mine, Thomson strangely chooses, for the focus of his new short treatise, a skimpy handful of stage performances dating from his very early years. Some of them he actually saw, but only a few. Out there in Australia, I heard about Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but couldn’t see it. Thomson, about six years old at the time, couldn’t have seen it either. He did see Olivier on stage as Shakespeare’s Othello—I saw that too, the year I got to England—and earlier he had seen Olivier as Archie Rice in the Royal Court production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. Even though Thomson was only 15, it must have been a formative experience, with every detail of Olivier’s sweat-wet make-up clear to the future critic’s piercing scrutiny.
But he never saw Brando on stage in Streetcar: if he had, half the book would have no other subject. He saw Brando’s Stanley the way I did: in the movie. He must therefore have shared my general impression of a classically good-looking young man eating the script and eructating it back to the atmosphere in a series of slurred burps and aphasic grunts. According to Thomson, though, Brando was a revolution. That’s the way the book is organised, in fact: Olivier is the last of the ancien régime and Brando is the whole of the revolution including Napoleon.