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).
To Die For was Ryan’s ‘might-have-been’: it was Kidman’s real beginning, even though she had already acted in 16 feature films at the time of its release. ‘Nearly everyone recognised it as Nicole’s triumph or emergence,’ Thomson writes, with his own mixture of knowingness and innocence. Without it, there might have been no The Portrait of a Lady, no Moulin Rouge, no The Others, no accepting an Oscar for her maudlin act with a prosthetic nose as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. By portraying a starlet so cleverly, Kidman acted her way out of any assumption that she herself was nothing but a starlet. By projecting Suzanne’s wickedness with such fun, she eliminated the suspicion, engendered by her marriage to Tom Cruise (‘there is no irony or grey in Tom Cruise’) that she might be rather humourless. In To Die For, she – Suzanne/Nicole – dared to make fun, not just of herself, but of her pathetic, lust-driven, star-fixated audience, of which Thomson is very happy to be a part. For him, the ‘best thing’ about To Die For is ‘the sweet, tender way in which it acknowledges our asking “What if?” as we look at movies or television, at this or that empty, pretty smile’.
One of the notable features of this wonderfully engaging (and much maligned) book is the way it gives Thomson’s own lust for Kidman a walk-on part in her various movies. It is not that Kidman is his favourite sweetheart: he prefers ‘Catherine Deneuve, Julia Roberts, Grace Kelly and Donna Reed’, stars he fears to write about because he cares too much; but he will freely expose his passion for Kidman’s ‘elegant Australian bod’. This was a high-risk strategy, and Thomson can’t say he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for, since, as he admits in his first chapter, he had already been berated in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani for his ridiculous ‘crush’ on Kidman, as expressed in his history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation (2004). He knows that when he admits to loving Kidman, he will provoke a mocking ‘leer’ in his readers: he knows people will laugh at him. Sure enough, they did. When this book was published in September, Thomson was accused of being an obsessive fan, a stalker, a dirty old man, a heavy breather. Much has been made of various passages in which he writes of Kidman’s bottom – her ‘very pretty bare bottom’. He confesses that ‘millions of us could recognise the sweet curve of her bottom in the dark. Millions more have had that palpable illusion help them make it through the night.’ He even suggests that ‘you may know the curve of her bottom as well as you know your child’s brow’ – and no doubt he does.
Before writing Thomson off as a creep, it pays to watch a few Kidman films back to back. Her bottom does feature to a significant degree. We see a good deal of it in Dead Calm (1989), the eerie Australian thriller where she plays the ingénue wife of Sam Neill on a yachting trip gone horribly wrong (‘When Hughie sweeps off her sailing shorts, the exposure of Rae’s bottom is arousing,’ Thomson notes.) There it is again, pink and bare, in Billy Bathgate, where she is the moll of Dustin Hoffman’s hopelessly unconvincing gangster boss (1991). And again in that schlocky piece of nonsense, Malice (1993), where she works in a childcare centre and wears ‘baggy jeans and flannel shirts’ by day but takes them off later on for a love scene with her deceived husband (Bill Pullman). Thomson is not so keen on her bottom here. In itself, it is ‘pretty’ and ‘enough to bring credit to any actress’ but it is ‘so guarded by a separate close-up that we don’t necessarily trust it to be Nicole’s’. More authentic is the bottom in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), where it wriggles in full view out of an evening dress with Kidman’s face and torso recognisably attached. In The Human Stain (2003), the ill-conceived adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, in which we are supposed to believe that Anthony Hopkins is a black man and Kidman a humble janitor, we see the Kidman rear from a different angle as she ‘is stretched out quite naked, amber, curved, ripe and Giorgione-esque’. In Birthday Girl (2001), an uneven comedy in which Kidman is a Russian mail-order bride, she gives us yet another lingering bottom shot, which Thomson, exercising heroic restraint, doesn’t even mention.
So, you see, Thomson is not the only one to have observed that Kidman has a pretty bottom, or that she is prepared to show it on film more than other actresses. Does Meg Ryan even have a bottom? Until In the Cut, we couldn’t have been sure. It may be vulgar and embarrassing of Thomson to go on about Kidman’s bum quite so much, but it would be hypocritical to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that we haven’t noticed it, or that we only go to see a Nicole Kidman film to admire her beautiful mind.
Thomson, who has been ‘labouring with movies for six decades now’, deploys his lustful reflections about Kidman to express his feelings for film in general. He has come to the conclusion that it is not essentially ‘an entertainment, a business, an art, a storytelling machine’, but ‘a dream, a sleepwalking, a séance, in which we seem to mingle with ghosts’. He compares it to drug-taking. Film gives us the ability to ‘entertain the idea of strangers in our minds’. This can be a good thing – a kind of human sympathy – but it is also more compulsive. In the dark of the movie theatre, you either become the person on screen or believe you possess them. The true calling of the film lover is to be one of ‘those who would always protect and preserve desire by ensuring that it is never satisfied’.
This impulse – to ‘protect and preserve desire’ – is the reason Thomson takes little interest in either the minutiae of Kidman’s life or the question of what she is really like. There are no revelations here about the terms of the Cruise-Kidman divorce, though there is a priceless description of Cruise’s confident yet hollow laugh. As in Thomson’s incomparable Biographical Dictionary of Film, the life is made from what is on screen. This is not a Hollywood biography in the conventional sense. Thomson doesn’t want Kidman to have an ugly side; or if she does, he’d rather not know. ‘I love her – so long as I do not have to meet her,’ he announces, disarmingly. In fact, he did meet her; but only after an entire draft had been written; and he carries on writing as a stranger, composing ‘a love letter, from someone in the dark to one of those beauties in the light’.
Those whose lusts point in different directions from Thomson’s might ask whether Kidman merits such a tribute – at least for now. Lauren Bacall, her co-star in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), denied that Kidman was a ‘screen legend’: ‘She can’t be a legend, you have to be older.’ Thomson is not dealing in legend, though, but in the power of desire. Kidman isn’t just a star, or even a legend; she is a hegemon. How did she achieve the status she has now, at the top of the A-list of Hollywood actresses, and how has she kept it for so long? If you think Kidman doesn’t deserve a whole book, name another Hollywood actress working now who exceeds her starriness. Thomson lists some of her rivals:
In the last few years, at least, we have hurried off to see and be smitten by Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Elisabeth Shue . . . Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry and so on. There are so many of them, and so many more who want to be in their places and who might do anything to be in their places.
He might have mentioned: Cameron Diaz, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank, Drew Barrymore, Kirsten Dunst, Anne Hathaway, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Winslet, but no matter: none of them has achieved the range and starry power that Kidman still possesses, despite a string of recent disappointments – Cold Mountain, The Stepford Wives, The Interpreter, Bewitched. Bullock is great at silly blockbusters, less good at anything resembling art. Blanchett is the opposite, all art with not enough silliness. Pfeiffer and Roberts have faded.
Thomson does not pretend that this rating of female stars is not an ugly business, akin to prostitution. ‘For just as the young flesh comes, so it goes. And the audience that loved to think of going to bed with x or y once, blithely consigns the same women to the scrap heap.’ Beauty is only part of it. Elisabeth Shue, Thomson argues, was as beautiful as ‘Ryan, or Pfeiffer or Kidman’, and ‘gave a magnificent performance’ in Leaving Las Vegas, yet had a career that ‘didn’t take’, maybe because she didn’t ‘want “it” badly enough’, maybe because ‘she had a weight problem that was difficult to control.’ Thomson has been accused of unseemliness for referring to her weight, but it is no more unseemly than the movies themselves. Nor is it really the point. Taking your clothes off may be part of what ‘it’ takes, but it isn’t all of it; Julia Roberts never exposed her bottom as Kidman has done, yet Thomson worships her even more fervently. Too much exposure too soon, however comely the bottom, and you can end up like ‘Jessica Simpson and Denise Richards’, the kinds of ‘would-be’ who have always been part of the ‘supporting atmosphere’ of the movies. Being able to act helps. Scarlett Johansson was being written up as the next great hope before The Black Dahlia and The Prestige revealed that, when miscast, she can seem wooden and phoney, despite her wondrous lips.
Kidman’s long reign has been the result of a fragile combination of tenacious good looks, talent, the right parts, a kind of bravery and ‘stupid luck’. One piece of luck was the way her divorce from Cruise, in 2001, played out in the public mind. Cruise, who swiftly became involved with Penelope Cruz, was perceived to have behaved badly. (He was also thought to have given a poor performance in Eyes Wide Shut, the strange Schnitzler adaptation he and Kidman made with Kubrick, though his gleaming self-assurance seemed just right when I watched it again.) Kidman had a miscarriage, and became an object of sympathy, the year she swung from the ceiling in a showgirl’s costume in Moulin Rouge (2001). Again, there is a telling comparison with Meg Ryan, whose career slide coincided with her affair with Russell Crowe in Proof of Life (2000), an affair in which she somehow seemed in the wrong at just that ‘stage in growing older where her looks suffered’, Thomson writes. Proof of Life was not much of a film; and Ryan, implausibly soignée despite the fact that her character’s husband has been kidnapped by South American drug fiends, is one of the worst things about it. In 2001, Kidman had never appeared so desirable or so sympathetic; while Ryan was ceasing to be, as Thomson puts it, again sparing no feelings, ‘the orgasm we’d all like to share’.
Kidman’s turn in Moulin Rouge proved that she could sing and dance as well as act, but it might not have been enough to secure her crown; later that year, however, she appeared in an unrecognisably different role, as a neurotic English mother, Grace, in a Jamesian ghost story called The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar. Grace lives in a large and spooky house on Jersey, in 1945. Her husband has gone away to fight and she is left alone with her two cadaver-pale children, who suffer from a rare allergy to light which means that all the curtains in the house have to be drawn. Three strange servants arrive and frightening things start to happen. Almost to the end, Kidman, though filled with a desperate dread, remains horribly in control. The Others is the opposite of Moulin Rouge in many respects. One is all bleached and foggy; the other is blindingly bright. In one, she is constrained in buttoned-up suits; in the other she wears not much besides her underwear and red lipstick. Kidman was eager to make Moulin Rouge; The Others, apparently, she made against her will: the story was giving her nightmares and it suddenly seemed an unfortunate part for a soon-to-be single mother. She wanted Julianne Moore or Sharon Stone to take her place but the film company ‘said they would sue’ if she dropped out. So she made both films, and dazzled in both. But nothing is so dazzling as the fact that she made the two films together.
Thomson gives Kidman most of the credit for her success; we should not, he says, underestimate ‘how truly “smart” and professional she is’. He compares her with Ingrid Bergman and says that, like Bergman, she is one of those rare actresses whose enthusiasm for the avant-garde can get certain pictures financed, and made, and even seen, which might not otherwise be possible. Her decision to make Dogville by Lars von Trier is one example – Thomson compares it to Bergman’s decision to give up a lucrative Selznick contract ‘to go to Italy to make a film with Roberto Rossellini, because she believed in his startling neo-realist ways’. Unlike Bergman, though, Kidman is not ‘a wreck through and through’. She ‘is a cover girl, too, and someone who should know that whenever a film earns just $150,000, it better be quick and there had better be a couple of locked-in deals at $10 million or so to oil it’. Hence her willingness to make the dreadful Bewitched (2005) with the comedian Will Ferrell, a lamentable feature version of the 1960s sitcom. Thomson is brutally and rightly harsh about it: ‘One has only to look at two shots of Kidman and Ferrell to feel the dead, smothering hand of politeness that bonds (and traps) two aliens getting $17.5 million for this foolishness.’ The real sin, in Thomson’s view, is that it is a film about magic made by people who find the idea of magic risible. Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay, told reporters they needn’t waste their time asking if she believed in witchcraft. Thomson compares this with Steven Spielberg, who hired ‘a reliable UFO expert’ to advise him when making Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ‘And some asked Spielberg if he believed in unidentified flying objects. No, he replied, but I believe in people who believe in them.’
This distinction is important for Thomson because acting and films themselves are kinds of ‘magic’, which only really exist in the heads of those who believe in them. Hence his insistence on the ‘what ifs’ of Kidman’s career: not simply the films that she considered making, but the parts that he, in his fevered state, imagines her to have played. He casts her in his head as the nameless heroine in ‘a savage pastiche of Hitchcock’s Rebecca’. Tom Cruise would play a more sinister version of Maxim de Winter, and Anjelica Huston would be Mrs Danvers, while Kidman herself ‘moves in clear stages from a freckled Australian tomboy with a stammer to a lustrous blonde icon . . . an actress likely to devour her competition’. Another of Thomson’s scenarios sees Kidman playing a maid to Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour. ‘In fact, I have dreamed this film with such intensity that it matters to me more than many films I actually have seen.’
Sometimes, these dreams become so vivid that the reader is left unclear what is actually on celluloid and what takes place only in Thomson’s brain. His account of Birth (2004), Kidman’s best work in his view, though it went ‘unseen and forgotten’, is a striking instance. In the film, directed by Jonathan Glazer, Kidman plays Anna, a crop-haired Manhattan woman whose husband dropped dead while out jogging ten years earlier. She is poised to remarry, when a ten-year-old boy appears claiming to be her husband. Her family is appalled, but Anna comes to believe him and, in the film’s most famous scene, takes a bath with him. As with Spielberg and the UFOs, we don’t exactly believe that a ten-year-old boy can be the reincarnation of a dead man; but we believe that Anna believes it, especially in a powerful scene in a concert hall where the camera fixes on Kidman’s soulful face listening to Wagner, absorbing, second by second, the impossible truth of it.
Thomson says he likes the film more every time he sees it; but finds the opening, where we see Anna’s husband jogging towards the tunnel where he will die, unsatisfactory. He suggests that Glazer should have abandoned the jogging and started instead with another scene, one where Anna menstruates – ‘images of bright, lusty blood in a dulcet bathroom’ – and then shows ‘her strenuous care in tidying it all away so that no one in the place might know’. I hadn’t seen the movie when I first read Thomson’s chapter, and when I came to watch it, I waited and waited for a disturbing menstruation scene, but there wasn’t one and I wondered whether I had been watching the right film. For Thomson this is the glory of cinema, the sense it gives of contingency and necessity, of the ways in which everything is as it should be in a movie that works, while holding open the possibility that everything could be so different. No one involved in the movies should ignore this. Not even the stars themselves:
I wonder if Nicole doesn’t go to see In the Cut, ‘her’ film, the one Meg Ryan ended up doing – the nearly complete failure – and, watching the crushed beauty of Ryan’s naked performance in a mixture of horror and envy, say: ‘I could have done that!’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.