Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic.
David Thomson set out to write a gay history of the movies. But his new book, “Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire,” turned into something quite different. It is a strange and scrambled history of sex onscreen, covering subjects from the latent eroticism of buddy films to the regulation of sexuality in movies to how the #MeToo movement changed Hollywood.
In service to his original idea, Thomson fills the book’s early chapters with vague, erudite patter about the gay subtext in various Hollywood films, with varying levels of plausibility. Violence in the films of Martin Scorsese? Gay. The shootout scene between father and adopted son in “Red River”? Gay. James Dean striking oil in “Giant”? Also gay.
But Thomson changes directions partway through the book. He began the project during the #MeToo movement, and he decided that any book about sex and film needed to address it. “I began to see,” Thomson writes, “how a book originally aiming to be an account of gayness in movies had to lead to something larger and more threatening. This might be a book to undermine . . . the legend of American male supremacy.”
Thomson’s book is unlikely to strike the death blow to male supremacy. To the contrary, “Sleeping With Strangers” is steeped in the sexism of Hollywood. The author rarely considers women’s views, and the index offers this sad little entry: “women’s films, 116, 120.” Thomson seems to believe that male sexual cravings are inherent to the medium — and are required to make great art: “The revelations of 2017, the litany of sexual harassment, never quite got to a key question: what are the movies without male lust? Could the whole show lapse, like dinosaurs?”
In his discussion of sexual predation in Hollywood, Thomson cites a biography of the actress Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad that claims Wood was raped by a powerful older man in the film industry; the allegation was based on interviews with Wood’s friends and contemporaries. ¿ He asks readers to “consider these possibilities”: First, that Wood “was deeply imaginative, or ‘hysterically’ so.” Second, that actual events can become exaggerated or “enlarged in the creep of self-dramatization.” And third, that because “publishers do not like to believe stars lead dull or empty lives,” a biographer might “polish the germ of a story.” This is couched in a lot of polite hedging (“I do not seek to question Ms. Finstad’s integrity,” etc.), but he means that Wood was either a hysteric or an exaggerator, or that her biographer made it up.
Whatever happened to Wood, Thomson turns the focus on her and her desires. In a description of an alleged relationship with another man when she was underage, he writes: “Natalie wanted to be noticed by [a] powerful and attractive man, and all she had going for her were her amazing eyes, her bursting need, and being sixteen.” This description manages to be callous, lecherous and confusing all at once.
The oddest thing about “Sleeping With Strangers” is that Thomson sees himself as an enlightened critic of male sexual behavior. His book is littered simultaneously with feminist truisms and overt sexism. Three pages after his attack on Wood’s credibility and motives, he writes, primly, “But perhaps it is time to believe women and to wonder why their testimony is often disparaged.”
Another pained and inconclusive section addresses allegations against Thomson’s close friend, the director James Toback, accused of predatory behavior by a staggering 395 women. Toback has denied wrongdoing. Thomson condemns Toback but explains, “You couldn’t really be in [Los Angeles] then without noticing young, slim, attractive women and their aptitude for being approached.” “Aptitude” is such an odd word choice here — does it mean a skill, implying a desire to be approached? Or a fittingness, as if something about them makes them naturally suited to be approached, the way a flower is suited by nature for bees?
While Thomson professes to be surprised and saddened by Toback’s predation, he is not so much shocked by what Toback and others did as by the fact that, for all this time, women minded.
Thomson also seeks to contextualize the behavior of stars such as Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. (tough lives, great work, etc.) and conflates Harvey Weinstein’s predation with his habit of fussing over movie edits: “He sometimes imposed himself on actresses, but he interfered with edits and numbers, too.”
Thomson will ogle onscreen women (or “nymphs,” as he calls the younger ones) in a lecherous way. Of Jean Harlow, he writes, she “had striven to look like a creamed pastry, a balloon inviting our pinprick.” (He is also guilty of a clinging biography of Nicole Kidman, full of sentences like this: “I suspect she is as fragrant as spring, as ripe as summer, as sad as autumn, and as coldly possessed as winter.”)
“Sleeping With Strangers” is an odd, confused cultural artifact. It presumes to explore how our desires are fired as we watch movies in the dark. But it seems rather to be a product of a dim awareness that certain behaviors and attitudes are no longer acceptable, along with an inability to imagine a world without them.
By David Thomson
Knopf. 348 pp. $28.95