To Die For screens on SBS Viceland Monday 22 May (and will be available afterwards at SBS On Demand). Scroll down for details.
In the recent “Kidman World Cup” Variety film critic, Guy Lodge, conducted a series of mini-polls on Twitter to uncover which of Nicole Kidman’s film performances is considered the best by her fans. The eventual winner was Gus Van Sant’s black comedy, To Die For (1995) in which she plays the fame hungry Suzanne Stone-Maretto.
In profiles about Kidman – of which there has been a recent spike due to her acclaimed work in HBO’s series Big Little Lies and high anticipation over upcoming roles in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer – To Die For is often named as a ‘breakout’ role. It’s an odd descriptor, of course, given that Kidman had been acting steadily in films for several years prior to her performance here. As many commentators have noted, Kidman has always been an actor to be reckoned with, but has been required to repeatedly prove this to critics and audiences.
Whether we call it a breakout performance or something else, Kidman’s performance in To Die For certainly signals a turning point in her career. After her international debut in Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989) when she was 19, she featured in a series of Hollywood films of average success, usually playing wives or girlfriends on the sidelines of the action. These included two films alongside her then husband Tom Cruise – Days of Thunder (1990) and Far and Away (1992) – which positioned her, in the eyes of the world, as little more than a rather tall accessory on the megastar’s arm.
But To Die For changed the Kidman conversation. Her performance was seen as a revelation of previously unknown talent. It is true, as Anne Helen Petersen recently suggested that the description of female performances as ‘revelations’ is problematic and intrinsically sexist. Mostly male critics have described Kidman as a ‘revelation’, not just in To Die For but also in The Hours (2002) and Dogville (2003), and almost every other film she’s ever made. This suggests that her talents are too easily forgotten or subsumed by other conversations – about her husbands, her looks, and her babies. But none of this prevents a discussion about Kidman’s performance in To Die For as one that does in fact reveal something important about her as an actor to us.
It’s interesting to speculate that Kidman had an inkling of the public’s view of her and how it needed shaking up when she took the part in To Die For. She lobbied Van Sant for it after Meg Ryan dropped out. She knew she wasn’t at the top of his list of replacements, but convinced the director by claiming, “I’m destined to play this part.”
It’s a statement that rings true in her performance as Suzanne, bringing together all the qualities that make Kidman so interesting to watch. It’s a performance that makes clear that Kidman isn’t concerned with popularity; she’s not afraid to alienate us or to be unlikeable. Kidman’s haughtiness, which often translates as iciness, is essential in this role. But there is much more. Kidman unveils a flair for mischievous humour. Suzanne is a character able to deliver tart barbs with a sting. Yet behind this devilish exterior there is also Kidman’s capacity for vulnerability. A key scene with George Segal’s conference speaker suggests both Suzanne’s hunger to succeed, but also the extent to which she is out of her depth. Her intensity is tightly coiled, her face expressive. Suzanne could be a one-dimensional monster, but Kidman’s intelligence moulds her into a far more emotionally complex creature.
Kidman is also sexy in To Die For, more earthy than elegant. Her Suzanne is a great physical performance, all pouting lips, wide eyes, slinky hips, and lithe legs. She uses her body to draw attention to herself. It aids her in winning her husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon) from other women. He sees her as “pure, delicate, and innocence.” Her ability to inspire desire is part of the arsenal that seduces the three teenagers – Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell (Casey Affleck), and Lydia (Alison Folland) – who will do her bidding. But it also plays with the audience, teasing and tempting us just as fiercely as her actions repel.
The film’s mockumentary format allows Kidman to effectively give a performance within a performance. There is the Suzanne we see in flashbacks, a hollow woman playing at being smart. There is also the Suzanne who speaks directly to the camera, performing an even more surreal version of her ruthless self.
Suzanne’s opening monologue, delivered face on and in close-up, positions her before a white background. Kidman vacillates between perkiness and insolence, performing multiple roles. She is simultaneously the innocent, grieving wife, and the cold, calculating sociopath. The boundary between these identities is open and porous. Kidman’s voice, elevated and sweet, suggests butter won’t melt in Suzanne’s mouth. She smiles a lot here, and throughout the film. It’s a smile that helps her get what she wants. But it’s also a smile that compels us to ask whether anything resembling a real human being lurks behind this carefully applied mask.
In her work since To Die For, Kidman has repeatedly strengthened these virtues. But she’s also unveiled new ones. The real Nicole Kidman has been revealed to us, over and over, in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Birth (2004), Rabbit Hole (2010), The Paperboy (2012), and Paddington (2014). Importantly, Kidman shows us that ‘revelation’ doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It would be more problematic, really, if Kidman was never described this way, suggesting she had become predictable, one-note, dull, no longer searching. But Kidman is the antithesis of this. She’s a constant revelation – taking risks, pushing boundaries, embracing the absurd, digging into passion, and having fun.
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