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To Die For

The early ’90s featured quite a few sleazy erotic thrillers released in the wake of Fatal Attraction, most notably Basic Instinct in 1992. In the late ’90s, we had several movies that dissected the shallow and materialistic nature of American life, perhaps best exemplified by The Truman Show in 1998, as well as Fight Club and American Beauty in 1999. And let’s not forget the O.J. Simpson murder scandal in 1994, the ongoing development of which was making headlines every day.

At the intersection of all these trends in their various stages of pop culture relevance, there was To Die For in 1995. Here we have Nicole Kidman playing Suzanne Stone, a high-pitched and squeaky clean young woman with nothing going on behind the eyes. She’s obsessed with fashion, makeup, plastic surgery, etc. She models her life after celebrities and gossip rags. She’s eerily, creepily polite to the point where so much of her dialogue sounds like it could have been (and probably was) ripped straight from some motivational speaker. Put simply, Suzanne is so obsessed with being a television personality that she’s essentially made herself into television personified.

It’s interesting to note that reportedly, Nicole Kidman lobbied very hard to get this role. When Meg Ryan turned down the lead, Kidman was eager to scoop it up for a fraction of the pay. And sure enough, Nicole Kidman in her prime puts in a performance so beautiful and scary that it’s impossible to look away. It really is hard to tell if Suzanne is smarter than she looks, or if she’s precisely as dumb as she looks. Time after time, Kidman plays Suzanne’s naivete in just such a way that it’s borderline impossible to tell whether it’s all a calculated ploy or sincere ignorance.

It also helps that the film was directed by none other than Gus Van Sant. In fact, this is the movie that led directly to Van Sant’s career-defining work on Good Will Hunting, after Casey Affleck got cast in this picture and passed along the script co-written by his brother. As for the score, we’re hit with a prime slice of ’80s-’90s Danny Elfman kitsch, ideally suited for the fucked-up headspace of our main character.

(Side note: I was very amused to find that Tom Peterson and his wife Gloria were given a third-act cameo through one of their famed commercials. Not that it makes any sense for them to have appeared in the film’s New England setting, but it’s still a sweet little inside joke from Gus Van Sant to his fellow Portlanders.)

But for me, the piece de resistance is the screenplay, which was written by none other than goddamn Buck Henry. Seriously. The same guy who gave us The Graduate; What’s Up, Doc?; and the original “Get Smart” wrote this movie. One of the funniest film and TV writers in recent memory wrote this erotic thriller/sociopolitical satire. And he has a cameo role. How could anyone pass that up?

(Side note: Oh, and David Cronenberg pokes his head in for a cameo as well. Yeah. That David Cronenberg. I don’t dare spoil any more than that, but god damn was it a shock to see him in this picture.)

Anyway, the film was based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (here making a cameo appearance as a lawyer), which was in turn inspired by the real-life story of a woman who conspired with her underage lover to kill her husband. In the movie, the underage lover is Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phonenix), alongside his equally stupid, horny, angsty little buddies (Casey Affleck and Alison Folland).

The unfortunate murder victim is Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), a handsome ignoramus who’s dumb enough to buy into Suzanne’s sweet-sounding bullshit no matter how many family members insist that it’s a bad idea. Granted, it’s entirely possible that Larry’s working-class family is inherently uncomfortable around the bourgeoisie lifestyle Suzanne tries to cultivate. Though it’s equally possible that they don’t like her because… well, in terms of personality, there’s nothing there to like.

Alas, it turns out that Larry really is in over his head. Suzanne very quickly needs a bigger adoring audience than he can grant her, and his desire for a gorgeous young woman to raise a family with eventually gets in the way of her career plans. So naturally, Larry has to die.

The premise and its themes are even more timely today, as Nightcrawler and even Birdman will attest. Here in the 21st century, we’re positively flooded with narcissistic “celebrities” who became a big deal for no better reason than because they keep telling everyone that they’re a big deal. Moreover, never mind killing your spouse, we’ve got people committing mass homicide just to let the world know that they exist. Or as Suzanne puts it:

You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.

Even without getting into reality TV — in which thousands of people still fight aggressively for only a few seconds of air time — we’re living in the Internet Age. Hundreds of millions of people are uploading their crappy song covers, their idiotic stunts, their amateur porn, their sloppy webcomics, and their pitifully ignorant film reviews, all with the hope that ANYTHING will go viral and earn just fifteen seconds of fame.

To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Suzanne herself points out, everyone came from somewhere and we all start out at the bottom. You’ll never know what you can do unless you try, and it’s marvelous to think that the most beloved musician of 2030 could be mangling “Smoke on the Water” on a secondhand guitar right now somewhere. That said, ambition must always be tempered with patience and caution. There’s always the possibility (if not the certainty) that karma will somehow act against those who break the rules going too far too fast.

Fame is fleeting, beauty fades, and we all die. And even if there’s some recording of us left behind, why would anyone watch it? If we’re remembered by legions of people, what are we remembered for? The greatest artists and celebrities were always those who used their fame to enlighten and entertain others, or to pass along some message they believed very strongly in. But for Suzanne — and for those like her — fame is merely an end in itself. At best, she leaves behind absolutely nothing, as every empty spectacle she’s ever attempted fades right into the ether. At worst, she leaves behind a few stupid teenagers dumb enough to follow her sociopathic example.

Oh, and this is also a story about a gorgeous woman who seeks fame and celebrity status by any means necessary. So it should come as no surprise that sexism is another very prominent matter of discussion. And again, the film’s commentary on that is still all too pitifully relevant.

Of course, when a comedy legend like Buck Henry is writing the screenplay, it’s going to bring a hefty amount of comedy to go with the withering and whip-smart social commentary. Most of this comes as part of the semi-mockumentary plot structure, as the film is intercut with one-on-one interviews in which the characters themselves give us their interpretations of what happened. It sounds clumsy, but when characters give conflicting reports on top of each other, the contrast makes for some very effective dry humor. Especially when it’s used in such a way as to take the piss out of Suzanne.

In point of fact, it’s really a shame that this film was marketed so heavily as an erotic thriller. Granted, the premise sounds exactly like the kind of sleaze that would have been greenlit in the wake of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. But actually watching the movie, there’s virtually zero explicit nudity and the sex is either obscured or entirely offscreen. The movie works far better as a pitch-black comedy made to satirize obsession with fame and celebrity culture. And on that level, it works beautifully well. I’d guess that this is a huge reason why the film was a critical hit at the time of release, though it only barely made back its budget at the box office and audiences let it slip into obscurity.

To Die For is a strange little movie in many ways. There’s the central premise involving a hopeless narcissist seducing a teenaged boy into homicide. There are the various heightened characters, to say nothing of the heightened Danny Elfman score. And of course there’s the fact that this is a black comedy satire (never an easy sell) masquerading as an erotic thriller.

Still, anyone who seeks this movie out with adjusted expectations will find that this movie has held up superbly well, with dry comedy and whip-smart commentary that has only grown more relevant. And it certainly helps that Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix both turn in some of the best performances they’ve ever done. In a more fair world, this would’ve been a career-defining movie for the both of them.

If you’re in the mood to go looking for a hidden gem, definitely give this one a shot.

 

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