Andrew Johnston
December 13, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

David Thomson’s strong opinions and acerbic prose made his New Biographical Dictionary of Film uncommonly enjoyable for a reference work, and those qualities ensure that The Whole Equation is no less entertaining. Using Chinatown and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (the source of the title) as moral touchstones, Thomson puts a contemporary spin on Hollywood’s origins by crunching the numbers in Greta Garbo’s contract, dissecting the budget of Gone With the Wind, and psychoanalyzing pioneering producers Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick. Less a proper history of the American film industry than a meditation on its significance, Thomson’s engrossing book blows the dust off forgotten scandals (the mysterious death of Jean Harlow’s probably gay husband) and offers vivid examples of money’s toxifying power, proving over and over that some things never change.

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