Pink and Bare

Bee Wilson

  • Nicole Kidman by David Thomson
    Bloomsbury, 311 pp, £18.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 7475 7710 2

To understand Nicole Kidman, David Thomson argues, you need to see a film called In the Cut. Not because Kidman is in it. She isn’t. The film stars Meg Ryan, is directed by Jane Campion and tells the story of how a lonely creative writing teacher, Fran, becomes involved with a cop (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a string of particularly gruesome murders. As the film (which is based on a novel by Susanna Moore) unfolds, and the relationship is depicted in ever more lurid bedroom poses, Fran begins to suspect that the cop himself is guilty of the murders. Many people, Thomson included, think that it is Ryan’s best performance, ‘bravely naked in uncommonly unglamorous conditions’. In her earlier roles she was bubble-haired, blonde and childish: here she is a drab brunette who looks her age. In box-office terms, the film was a disaster. It took around $4.7 million (on a budget of $12 million), which compares feebly with her biggest hits, You’ve Got Mail ($116 million) and Sleepless in Seattle ($126 million). It left many people, and this includes Thomson, concluding that ‘Meg Ryan is no longer what she was.’

Enter Nicole Kidman, who very nearly starred in the movie in Ryan’s place. When the novel came out in 1995, Kidman read it, optioned it for a screenplay and had several meetings with Susanna Moore. The book appealed to her, she said, because it was about ‘a generation of women in their thirties who are now lonely’. She told Movieline that she was determined to make the picture of In the Cut, despite the fact that ‘a lot of people have told me not to.’ But before the film was underway, Kidman got cold feet and backed out, opening the door for Meg Ryan to make mincemeat of her nice-girl-has-fake-orgasm image. So In the Cut became a Meg Ryan film? Not to Thomson. In his view, it is a mistake to see actors’ careers as ‘the sum of those parts they choose to play’. Their careers are defined as much by the parts they don’t play: ‘parts that fall through at the last moment, or parts that were just the fever of a heady weekend’.

These might-have-beens, according to Thomson, determine the mysterious process whereby some people become stars and others don’t, and the equally mysterious process whereby some become bigger stars than others. In 1994, Meg Ryan was a far more powerful actor than Kidman, whose most visible achievement to date had been marrying Tom Cruise and starring alongside him in two turkeys, Days of Thunder (1990), a shallow stock car racing drama, and Far and Away (1992), a risible Oirish romance, on which Thomson is too kind to pass judgment, except to say that ‘there are films made for no other reason than that the people involved were in love.’ Ryan, by contrast, had not only faked her orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (1989) but had also taken a couple of turns opposite Tom Hanks in romantic comedies, at a time when Hanks was becoming the biggest male movie star in the world, and done a widely admired emote-a-thon as an alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), just to confirm her actorly credentials. As Thomson writes, ‘six years older than Nicole, Meg Ryan was at that time several lengths ahead of her in terms of career.’

Around this time, Ryan turned down the chance to earn $5 million to star in a little film called To Die For, a Gus Van Sant picture about a murderously ambitious small-town TV presenter. The script tells the story of Suzanne, a terrifyingly perky TV weathergirl, who becomes convinced that she must kill her useless husband (Matt Dillon) if her career is to go anywhere.

Meg Ryan was worth the role of Suzanne, though a shrewd observer might have wondered if she had the naughtiness it required or the same need to be famous. Meg Ryan could have done it; she might have been grand; but it wasn’t obvious that she had energies just waiting for Suzanne, let alone the propensity for mocking self-awareness . . . Irony had never seemed Ryan’s forte.

For Ryan, To Die For was just another might-have-been. Not taking the part didn’t bring her down immediately; she went on to star as a faintly absurd war hero in Courage under Fire, which nevertheless did well. The discarded part of Suzanne went to Kidman, who had to put herself graspingly forward to get it, just as Suzanne thrusts herself into the spotlight of local TV. Where Ryan would have got $5 million, Kidman was given $2 million. ‘Nicole,’ Thomson writes, ‘jumped at Suzanne Stone, the way a cat might pounce on a wounded bird – with a view to sport as much as appetite.’ She was perfect for the part, in her itsy-bitsy pastel suits and Carole Lombard blonde wig. In conspiratorial pieces to camera, she breathes her acid ambitions. Somehow, she manages to seem stupid and knowing at the same time. Largely thanks to Kidman’s performance, the film carries off the naughtiness required to make a black comedy truly funny as well as dark (compare Gus Van Sant’s previous outing, the woefully unfunny Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, starring an almost unwatchably whimsical Uma Thurman).

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