Author’s obsession with the actress pays off in an entertaining romp through her life and career that’s also a smart commentary on celeb culture.
In his eccentric, compulsively readable new book, Nicole Kidman, film critic David Thomson takes us through the life and career of the Oscar-winning actress, film by film, magazine cover by magazine cover. Thomson — who confessed to a deep crush on Kidman in his previous book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood — resorts to the usual biography-of-an-artist tricks: He obsesses over the childhood details that might have informed Kidman’s adult life; he extrapolates wildly on seemingly simple statements she has given to the press; he tries to discern clues to her real life from her on-screen performances.
But Thomson also goes much further than conventional biographers, by trying to locate Kidman within the context of our celebrity-obsessed contemporary culture. An entire chapter is devoted to Kidman’s appearance on the cover of Italian GQ; another lingers on a Lagerfeld dress she chose for a red-carpet event. (“[T]he off-white of the dress, the bone-white dazzle of her shoulders, and the blondness of her hair were so integrated as to be nearly spiritual,” he writes.) Thomson tries to create meaning from ephemera — the photo shoots, the dresses, the blockbusters — and, amazingly, he succeeds. Maybe that’s because, for the modern celebrity, the ephemera is all they (and we) have to cling to.
Nicole Kidman (in stores Tuesday) begins, as is Thomson’s wont, with a lot of fuzzy pseudo-philosophizing about acting and performance and iconography. The author of the famed A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson tends to take very grand intellectual leaps about the artists he writes about, and he also has a knack for taking the most circuitous route imaginable to reach his larger conclusions. (Arguing that Kidman tends to consciously alter her public persona depending on who she’s talking to, he tells an endless anecdote about meeting Tuesday Weld at the San Francisco Film Festival in the early 1980s.)
But once Thomson directs his attention squarely on Kidman, the book quickly finds its very entertaining groove. He begins in Australia, where Kidman grew up in a Sydney suburb and displayed a fierce ambition even in grade school. Thomson suggests that Kidman’s success was inevitable, but that it took years for her to find the right part: Hollywood isn’t used to beautiful women in their early 20s who display such raw, unrelenting determination.
That part, of course, was To Die For, when she played a fame-obsessed TV weather woman who has an affair with a teenager (Joaquin Phoenix) and plots to murder her husband (Matt Dillon). A satire about the American thirst for both celebrity and tabloid melodrama, To Die For is uneven and undercooked. But even if you don’t love the movie, you’ll appreciate Thomson’s chapter on it. He offers a detailed analysis of Kidman’s razor-sharp, very funny performance — and shows us how and why this was the role that finally allowed her to let go of her inhibitions onscreen.
Indeed, the best chapters are ones that offer scrupulous readings of Kidman’s individual films: Thomson makes hilarious mincemeat of the studio thrillers Malice and The Interpreter; he offers up thoughtful defenses of Jane Campion’s misbegotten adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady and Lars von Trier’s incendiary indie Dogville; he beautifully describes Anthony Minghella’s ambitious, but finally very muddled, Cold Mountain and makes us understand why Kidman’s performance in it was such a sore disappointment. (Thomson does seems too enamored of the fruit-loopy thriller Birth, where Kidman plays a widow who falls in love with a 12-year-old boy who may or may not be the reincarnation of her late husband. But every critic is allowed at least one lapse in judgment.)
Even more fascinating are the chapters that delve into Kidman’s marriage to Tom Cruise and why it might have ultimately failed. Much of what Thomson serves up here is idle speculation and gossip (“Was Tom upset that Nicole saw too little of the children and sometimes became impatient with them?”), but it’s speculation with serious intellectual underpinnings. In Thomson’s view, Kidman — like many actresses — is too boundlessly self-obsessed to ever truly give herself over to a husband and family. Her first and only true love is the people who line up to see her movies.
What would Kidman think of a book like this, which makes some truly outrageous assertions (that, for instance, Stanley Kubrick pitted Cruise and Kidman against one another during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut), with very little supporting evidence? (Thomson did interview Kidman for the book, but very little of the interview made it into the finished product.)
Is it even fair to approach a living subject with such open-endedness — to see Kidman’s life as a blank canvas on which a critic can embellish and draw his own conclusions?
Probably not. But in a world where celebrity (and especially celebrity journalism) is often just a whole bunch of hype, smoke and mirrors, Thomson’s book is a compelling antidote. It’s much less a biography than a trippy meditation: The author doesn’t necessarily help us understand who Nicole Kidman is, but he certainly goes a long way in explaining why we can’t stop talking about her.