Nicole Kidman, Still To Die For
How the Australian A-lister stays true to her indie roots
For many A-list actors, blockbuster franchises and hit TV shows are their bread and butter, while starring in smaller indies and darker thrillers is seen as taking a risk. For Nicole Kidman, the inverse is true. In the midst of an acclaimed career that spans over 30 years, numerous awards, and twice as many nominations, Kidman's roles in HBO's Big Little Lies and the billion-dollar-grossing Aquaman seemed like a huge risk for an actress whose collaborators have included visionaries like Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, Baz Luhrmann, and the late Stanley Kubrick – to name but a few. It wasn't always this way for Kidman, who delivered a fascinating double-header in 1995 with roles in Batman Forever and To Die For – the latter of which kicks off the Alamo Drafthouse's monthlong Kidman career retrospective at the Ritz on February 4.
Gus Van Sant's dark crime comedy marked a turning point in the career of Kidman, completing a femme fatale trilogy of sorts preceded by a pair of memorable thrillers: the 1989 Australian psycho-thriller Dead Calm (screening Feb. 18) and the seedy 1993 medical malpractice neo-noir Malice (Feb. 23). Van Sant's film was a fitting conclusion to this chapter in Kidman's career, simultaneously turning the page to a new era in which she would come to be defined by challenging roles that often defied genre and expectations. Based on Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name, To Die For starred Kidman as Suzanne Stone, a local weather reporter with dreams of becoming a world-renowned television journalist. With her pastel dress suits, meticulously curated appearance, platinum hair, and a career-minded tenacity that borders on zealous, Suzanne epitomizes blonde ambition. After working her way up from part-time secretary to full-time weather reporter, the only thing standing in between Suzanne and her dreams is a husband (Matt Dillon) who wants her to give them up to become a conventional housewife and mother. And so Suzanne does the only sensible thing: She seduces a high school burnout named Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix, in a role that similarly marked a turning point in his career) and his two pals to murder her husband.
Through interviews Suzanne conducts with the teens for a TV documentary, Van Sant employs a cinema verité style that allows Kidman to transcend the limitations of the traditional narrative format. As Suzanne, she effortlessly vacillates between flirtatious and sultry, vivacious and manic, ambitious and ruthless, divine and deadly – the ultimate femme fatale. But Kidman also displays a mastery of her relationship with the camera, playing to it and with it in a way that becomes almost sublimely metatextual: She superficially preens to the studio cameras while delivering evening weather reports, cognizant – but never apparently aware – of Van Sant's camera beyond the "camera." Her performance echoes through Jimmy's naive eyes as she speaks from behind the lens, consciously manipulating him as both subject and sexual prey. Kidman's fierce depiction of Suzanne's near-banal complexity when the cameras are "off" in the traditional narrative sequences ties everything together perfectly.
More than a mere narcissistic opportunist, Suzanne is ambitious, committed to her craft, and ultimately unpredictable – someone who isn't all that different from Kidman herself, in a sense. In short order, Kidman followed To Die For with a formidable series of roles in films like Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge!, and Dogville, solidifying her as an actress prone to taking risks in an industry that increasingly does not. Perhaps the only predictable aspect of her career is that she consistently takes roles that challenge both herself and the viewer, as well as the viewer's perception of Kidman as an actress.
Alamo Drafthouse presents To Die For: Five Films Starring Nicole Kidman at Alamo Ritz throughout February, starting with To Die For, Feb. 4, 7pm.
More details at www.drafthouse.com/austin/program/to-die-for.