The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a reference book written by film critic David Thomson, originally published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd in 1975 under the title A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema.[1] Organized by personality, it is an exhaustive inventory of those involved in international cinema, whether contemporary or historical, elite or esoteric. Beyond its scope, the tome is most notable for infusing subjectivity into its fact-based form; the technique may best be described as a playful deconstruction of the "reference book." It is currently available in its sixth edition, released in May 2014.[2]

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Fourth Edition
cover of the 2004 paperback edition, featuring a still from the film To Have and Have Not
AuthorDavid Thomson
CountryUnited States
GenreFilm criticism, Reference Book
Publication date
November 16, 2004
791.4302/8/0922 22
LC ClassPN1998.2 .T49 2004
Preceded byA Biographical Dictionary of Film, Third Edition 
Followed byThe New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Fifth Edition 

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film has garnered wide acclaim throughout the releases of its various editions; in a 2010 poll by the British Film Institute, it was voted the greatest of all books about film.[3]


Fourth edition press notes from Random House:

For almost thirty years, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film has been not merely “the finest reference book ever written about movies” (Graham Fuller, Interview), not merely the “desert island book” of art critic David Sylvester, not merely “a great, crazy masterpiece” (Geoff Dyer, The Guardian), but also “fiendishly seductive” (Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone).
This new edition updates the older entries and adds 30 new ones: Darren Aronofsky, Emmanuelle Béart, Jerry Bruckheimer, Larry Clark, Jennifer Connelly, Chris Cooper, Sofia Coppola, Alfonso Cuaron, Richard Curtis, Sir Richard Eyre, Sir Michael Gambon, Christopher Guest, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Spike Jonze, Wong Kar-Wai, Laura Linney, Tobey Maguire, Michael Moore, Samantha Morton, Mike Myers, Christopher Nolan, Dennis Price, Adam Sandler, Kevin Smith, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, Lew Wasserman, Naomi Watts, and Ray Winstone.
In all, the book includes more than 1300 entries, some of them just a pungent paragraph, some of them several thousand words long. In addition to the new “musts,” Thomson has added key figures from film history–lively anatomies of Graham Greene, Eddie Cantor, Pauline Kael, Abbott and Costello, Noël Coward, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Gish, Rin Tin Tin, and more.
Here is a great, rare book, one that encompasses the chaos of art, entertainment, money, vulgarity, and nonsense that we call the movies. Personal, opinionated, funny, daring, provocative, and passionate, it is the one book that every filmmaker and film buff must own. Time Out named it one of the ten best books of the 1990s. Gavin Lambert recognized it as “a work of imagination in its own right.” Now better than ever–a masterwork by the man playwright David Hare called “the most stimulating and thoughtful film critic now writing.” [4]

Although it looks very much like a dictionary or encyclopedia, each of the book's approximately 5,000 brief biographical sketches is highly subjective: a typical entry may begin with a birthplace and filmography but always concludes with something closer to criticism and memoir as the author examines his connection to the subject's career both academically and personally.

Thomson’s entry on Tom Cruise, for example, opens by considering the actor’s age, recognizing that detractors see him as “representative of all that is most immature in American cinema today.” Thomson notes that Clark Gable was a rising star at thirty: “Now, in our collective recollection, Gable may seem older, worldlier, and more grown-up than Cruise was at thirty. But when did Gable ever risk playing the jerk to whom Cruise was totally committed in The Color of Money? When was Gable as uninhibitedly tender as Cruise managed in Risky Business? And could Gable have survived the black-hole narcissism of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?” The entry closes with the actor’s late-90s comeback, calling his work in Magnolia, “his most searching and self-critical performance,” and abandoning objectivity altogether: “So, after bad years, I remain hopeful, even if all the [Mission:] 'Impossibles' put a greater load on things that might be.”[5]


The Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd-published first edition—the 600-page Biographical Dictionary of Cinema[1]was followed by Biographical Dictionary of Film, published by William Morrow & Co in June, 1980;[6] the third, entitled A Biographical Dictionary of Film, would be released on November 17, 1994, by Andre Deutsch Ltd. 328 pages longer than the first edition, it added 200 new entries including Molly Ringwald.[7]

The 2004 edition was a major overhaul. Although the book's first edition contained 600 pages, the fourth was enlarged to 1,080 pages, updating older entries and adding 30 new personalities. The book's cover art was reworked and the word "new" was added to its title.[4]


  1. Thomson, David (2004). A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (Hardcover). Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd. ISBN 0-375-70940-1.
  2. Thomson, David (2014). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. ISBN 0375711848.
  3. "Sight & Sound's top five film books". British Film Institute. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  4. Thomson, David (November 17, 1994). "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fourth Edition" (Hardcover). Random House. Retrieved 2010-07-07.
  5. Thomson, David (March 2009). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fourth Edition, Second Printing (Paperback). Knopf. pp. 198–199.
  6. Thomson, David. Biographical Dictionary of Film: Second Edition (Hardcover). William Morrow & Co. ISBN 0686632346.
  7. Thomson, David (November 17, 1994). A Biographical Dictionary of Film: Third Edition (Hardcover). Andre Deutsch Ltd. ISBN 0233988599.
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