How To Die For Changed the Game for Nicole Kidman

For some reason, a hell of a lot of people seem surprised to remember that Nicole Kidman is an excellent actress. Way back in 2017, following the success of HBO’s Big Little Lies, Anne Helen Petersen, then of Buzzfeed, noted how Kidman’s career was marked by repeated doubts of her talent, followed by realizations of her true excellence. As Petersen put it, “No woman with as much talent as Kidman should be forced to re-argue, over and over again, that she is a force to be taken seriously.” Certainly, her vast and varied filmography has shown her mettle, with far more daring and abrasive project choices than any other Hollywood A-Lister in her age range.

It’s tough to imagine how anyone could dismiss the work of the woman who starred in Birth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Paperboy, and Eyes Wide Shut, to name but a mere handful of her riskiest works. For too long, Kidman was seen as little more than Mrs. Cruise, the statuesque plus-one of Hollywood’s biggest leading man. Frivolities like Days of Thunder and Far and Away didn’t help her to break out of that expectation. Things changed dramatically by the second half of the 1990s, thanks to critically rhapsodized roles in The Portrait of a Lady and Eyes Wide Shut. However, the film that kicked down the door for Kidman came in 1995, thanks to Gus Van Sant and a tabloid tale gone horribly wrong.

Van Sant did not want Kidman for To Die For, a biting black comedy inspired by the case of Pamela Smart. He had originally cast Meg Ryan in the main role of a wannabe star whose hunt for fame leads her to seduce a dumb teenage boy into murdering her husband. She seemed to make more sense for the part of an all-American sweetheart with an amoral streak, more so than the Australian who was constantly described as “cold.” But Kidman fought for the role, knowing it was a rare opportunity for her to do more on-screen than what she’d been given before. If the world thought she was chilly, an accessory more than an actress, To Die For could refute all of that, and it did.

Suzanne Stone is a ruthless woman disdainful of the small town mentality she’s grown up surrounded by. Her dream is to become a major celebrity via the field of broadcast journalism, emulating the likes of Barbara Walters or Connie Chung. She shoehorns herself into working as a weather girl for her town’s tiny and hopelessly unambitious cable station. Soon, her jock husband wants her to give it up in favor of starting a family, and she responds in the most natural manner: she sleeps with a himbo high school student (a very young and gormless looking Joaquin Phoenix) then convinces him and his friends to murder her hubby.

Presented in a mock tabloid style, akin to a slightly less tawdry Inside Edition, To Die For reveals its ending early on before showing the audience, wilful voyeurs to Suzanne’s hunger for the spotlight, how she got the attention she craved. Kidman revels in the slick performativity of Suzanne, a woman who never stops acting as though the camera is rolling, regardless of where she is or what she’s doing. William Holden’s character in Network once described Faye Dunaway as “television incarnate.” It’s a mantle Suzanne has adopted with zeal, although where Dunaway was slammed as seeing “of life [is] reduced to the common rubble of banality”, Suzanne sees it all as glitz and flashing lights. The evolution of 24-hour news coverage, coupled with the concept of the celebrity trial, is her domain, and it revels in its sleaze.

Throughout it all, Suzanne is undoubtedly a star, someone made for television at this hyper-specific moment in the culture. Kidman embodies that brand of merciless glamor, equal parts intimidating and subservient to the camera (real or imagined). She is not deluded so much as she is pragmatic to a fault. Kidman makes her wide-eyed with scheming glee, smarter than the goons she surrounds herself with but nowhere near as worldly as she believes herself to be. Throughout To Die For, we see the ensemble comment directly to the camera on Suzanne, reducing her to the kind of punchy quotes that make for perfect sound bites. Yet Kidman never reduces her to such in her performance. Her vaulting ambition doesn’t allow her to fawn at the feet of a man who tries to seduce her under the guise of career advice.

Almost 30 years later and the revelation of Kidman’s performance in To Die For has become merely one of many notches on her career bedpost, one that is consistently evolving as she enters her fourth decade in the industry. She still surprises, but is taken for granted at the same time. It’s in Suzanne Stone where we see the canniest version of Kidman, the actress who plays with and actively spits on the persona shoved upon her by a public that prefers one-sentence quips to anything with more dimensions than two. The landscape of news and entertainment has changed drastically since 1995 – and not always for the better – yet the cold black heart of To Die For has retained its scathing edge. Kidman’s performance revealed a new world just around the corner, and she seemed to be one of the few Hollywood actresses truly prepared for it.

“To Die For” is streaming on The Criterion Channel and Tubi.

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