The accelerating nuttiness of CNN this past week put me in the mood for a film about the fine line between on-air personality and psychopath - and this is one of my favorites. The cameras turn, the flashlights pop, and Suzanne Stone is in heaven, Not literally, of course: she's actually at the funeral of her late husband. who is in heaven, having been prematurely dispatched there by Suzanne. But fame is fame, and, when you've been pining for it all your life. why quibble about the details? In 1995, ten minutes after the OJ trial, the world of the "media circus" was almost beyond satire, but To Die For shrinks it to its most pitiful, localized basics and skewers it brilliantly.
The roots of this splendid Nicole Kidman turn lie, unofficially, in the Pamela Smart story, the case of a media coordinator at Winnacunnet High School in New Hampshire who ran the drug-awareness program "Project Self-Esteem". So far all the details sound like rather too obvious a parody: "media coordinator", "drug-awareness program", "Project Self-Esteem"... But it gets better: Mrs Smart managed to persuade her 15-year-old schoolboy lover and his pals to kill her husband by impressing the lads with her knowledge of heavy metal. In 1990 the case riveted a state otherwise rather lacking in memorable murder cases.
Long ago Joyce Maynard was one of those impressionable young female fans of Catcher in the Rye who caught J D Salinger's eye and was invited to move in to his pad in Cornish, New Hampshire. So she knows the state, and kept the setting. But her novel rewrote Pamela Smart's story into that of Suzanne Stone, an ambitious weather girl at an unwatched local TV station, and made the tale a black comedy on tabloid culture. That too is something Miss Maynard can give at least a couple of pointers on: at the time she lived a couple of hours south of me and the last time she'd been in the paper was an essay she wrote about her silicone implants ("My journey into the land of large breasts"). I saw her in the local bookstore round about the time To Die For came out and they certainly made brushing past her in a narrow aisle something of a challenge. Anyway, like the implants, Buck Henry's screenplay firmed up and enlarged on Miss Maynard's raw material, transforming Suzanne's ascent to micro-stardom into a droll amorality tale on the vapidity of celebrity. Gus Van Sant originally wanted Meg Ryan in the role, which would, I think, have been disastrous. When Miss Ryan bailed, Nicole Kidman fought hard for the part, and made it a breakthrough.
The film is strung together with pseudo-documentary sound bites delivered to camera. This has become, thanks to "The Office" et al, something of an over-mined seam, but it was relatively new in 1995 and still effective, as Suzanne, her family and colleagues recycle their version of events expressed entirely in the glib clichés beloved of news crews and talk-show hosts. Whenever the characters struggle for a simile, it's drawn from what they see on screen, as if that's the only way they can make sense of real life: "It was like, y'know" ...a soap opera, or a talk-show, or a zombie movie. Gus Van Sant films the plastic TV studios in heightened, lurid colors, leaving reality looking literally like a pale, wan imitation. New Hampshire isn't quite Dorothy's monochrome Kansas dustbowl, but the telly set is definitely Oz. As Suzanne likes to say, "What's the point in doing some thing good if nobody's watching?"
So, when her boring husband Larry suggests she should give up doing the weather and work in his restaurant, using her media skills to help organize the karaoke night, it seems to her entirely natural that her thoughts should turn to murder. The film's title comes from the vernacular expression that something is so devoutly desired that it is "to die for". For Suzanne, celebrity is to die for. Her wrinkle is that the one to die for it should be her hubby.
Ever since she was a toddler, she's wanted to be on television. Not because she wants to do anything on TV; she just wants to be on it. Once upon a time, when the medium was young and its practitioners came from vaudeville, radio, magazines, they were celebrated because they could sing or dance or ask a question without it having to be written out by a researcher. But TV has bred its own uniquely distilled celebrity: people who have no special skill or talent, TV stars who are famous just for being on. And, even without the camera, Suzanne is always on. The perky smile, the upbeat manner, the rising inflections at the end of phrases, the candy-striped hostess suits: even in private, even in bed, Suzanne has an on-air persona. Off-camera she still talks as if she's reading a prompter. Nicole Kidman gives a wonderfully funny performance as a wannabe TV personality whose personality is constructed entirely from TV. It's a strange combination of monstrous ambition and quaint naiveté: on camera, she indicates weather patterns on the map in the clunkingly shifted arm movements of a particularly stiff Barbie doll. She's shrewd enough to dote on middle-aged telly pro George Segal because he can advance her career, but not sufficiently insightful to understand why he finds her ridiculous. Kidman gives a very physical reading - pouty lips, slinky legs, a cloyingly innocent vocal tone - but you sense the character's intimations of the hollowness inside. It's a very skillful performance: a deep reading of someone utterly shallow.
To Noël Coward, TV was for being on, not looking at. But To Die For came along at a time when multi-channel proliferation was democratizing celebrity and inverting Coward's rule: No matter how dumb watching Jerry Springer is, it's not as dumb as being on it. And, as Suzanne's friend Lydia wonders with genuine perplexity, when every one's on TV, who'll be left to watch? Nobody sees Suzanne's weather reports on an all but unwatched channel except for Jimmy, a sloe-eyed, slow-brained delinquent so devoted that, henceforth, mere mention of sunshine, precipitation, or any other routine meteorological effect produces the overwhelming urge to masturbate. Besotted by her televisual perfection, he agrees to commit murder for her. "Your dick's bigger than your brain," a cop tells him. Jimmy beams with pride. "It's not a compliment," explains the detective. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, the inarticulate, bewildered Jimmy is the film's other great characterization - although we should also credit Matt Dillon as Suzanne's ill-fated husband: as he's done in other situations, Dillon makes a weirdly compelling performance out of a guy of no interest whatsoever.
I'd dispute some of the local color: Lydia the unprepossessing friend is a little on the svelte side, and the shacks down by the clam flats don't look shacky enough. But even a satire on celluloid glamorization tends inevitably to glamorize just by the mere act of adaptation. One line from the novel that's gone missing in the movie is the one where Suzanne fantasizes about her life story being filmed with Julia Roberts - "or that actress that just got married to Tom Cruise in real life - can't think of her name". Actually, Suzanne, that would be Nicole Kidman. Recalling that line prompted the thought that one of the problems with based-on-a-true-story stories is that increasingly in true stories everyone already behaves as if it's a movie. In the Pam Smart case, the detective Daniel Pelletier walked into her school office one day. "What's up?" said Mrs Smart.
"Well, Pam," said Detective Pelletier, "I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is that we've solved the murder of your husband. The bad news is you're under arrest."
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