By Ray Young
Published in the midst of a wave of actress bios that included volumes on Liz Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn, David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman
dispenses with much of the obligatory facts and hearsay of the subject’s childhood and ascent to stardom to direct his gaze upon her as an ethereal image and he as a victim of want and desire. The approach invited plenty of critical drubbing, and the author himself fired off a response to the editor at New York Times
to defend his work against book critic Lawrence Levi
Underlining the propensity of critics to create mountains from molehills, feuds such as these make life interesting. And Mr. Thomson, himself stepping over that invisible line that separates the critic from mere mortals, allows his pesky humanity, with all its dirty lust issues and fantasies, to influence and guide his hand, eye and possibly his heart. It may be a sign of impending breakdown when, scattered throughout the pages of Nicole Kidman
, he invents imaginary scenarios for her to act in, as if he were playing with dolls.
He admitted to harboring an infatuation with either her or her image in his earlier book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), in a chapter titled “By a Nose” (a reference to the well-publicized prosthetic she wore in The Hours
), which pondered the expanse and sway of a medium that freely places its minions under the spell of false gods. That passage was also knocked in the pages of the Times
—book critic Michiko Kakutani
called it “a long, ridiculous riff”—making one wonder if their lofty staff is elevated beyond the general horniness that’s a whopping concern for the rest of us.
Above: Nicole in Moulin Rouge!
Not that Nicole Kidman is merely eye candy and not a good actress. Her performances in Birth, Dogville, The Others, The Human Stain, Birthday Girl, The Hours, and Moulin Rouge! attest to the considerable range and talent and magnetism. But she’s also a striking beauty, standing 5’ 10 ½” with milky alabaster skin and red hair, her slender and athletic frame contrasting the amazons and anorexics who run rampant in Hollywood. In the early 1990s, during her media-circus marriage to Tom Cruise, the tabloid press used her to different advantage, nurturing the rumor of an asexual union between two alleged gay superstars. (Nicole, it appears, is straight; the jury’s still out on Tom.)
Mr. Thomson’s purpose, or dilemma, extends toward something else entirely: “…acting and being at the movies are mirror images, and they are the persistent, infectious forms of nonbeing that have steadily undermined the thing once known as real life in the last hundred years,” he writes. “So the study of acting is less a record of creative process or artistic eloquence; it is a kind of drug-taking, very bad for us—yet absolutely incurable…It is an insidious process, such as ought to be banned everywhere…On the other hand, it has entered the bloodstream; it goes on and on—and some would say we are hopelessly lost to fantasy already, and so thoroughly immersed in desire that something like real, practical improvement (surely a good thing?) has been befuddled.”
Three minutes of hobnobbing with the staff in any workplace, or dinner with a large gathering, would surely support an accusation that the media, and mostly television, has had a Body Snatchers
effect on the social skills and interaction of a people obsessed with appearance and deportment—provided one can get past the bullshit that comes with everyday performance to make the call. Not that we’ve ever been completely honest, truthful beasts, even in times predating mass market culture; but Mr. Thomson’s book, intentionally or not, broaches the systematic dwindling of genuine humility, where pretense and phoniness—the stuff of the movies—overtakes and consumes us.
This is where Ms. Kidman could actually be nothing more than a generic constituent in the author’s strata. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
(Knopf, 2004), Mr. Thomson revealed a boyhood crush on Donna Reed and a lifelong attraction to Angie Dickinson—soothing, sexually aware maternal figures. Revelations of hot blood percolating within the intelligentsia is rarely voiced when art is scrutinized and honored. But nearly three-hundred pages on Nicole Kidman could be something else altogether, an obituary for old-fashioned stardom, the spectator’s last link to classic, literary-minded Hollywood and its drying well of manipulation.
In America, Europe and Asia, film stars seldom possess the longevity, acumen or clout that was once common among the chosen few. Mr. Thomson surely recognizes this, and reasons that Ms. Kidman’s apparent workaholism—she starred in three films and produced Meg Ryan in In the Cut
all in the space of 2003—masks a fear of failure, the dread of losing our attention and, ultimately, our approval. How else to explain the schizophrenic jump from Virginia Woolf in The Hours
and a persona laid bare in Eyes Wide Shut
to the fatuousness of Bewitched
and the woefully mishandled Stepford Wives
Above: “It has always seemed to me that the most fruitful way to proceed with Eyes Wide Shut
would have been to have every major woman…played by Nicole,” writes Mr. Thomson. “After all, Nicole can create so many different looks—so many partners.”
I admire Nicole Kidman a great deal. Like many others who were not overly impressed at first, The Hours gave sufficient reason to take notice. She began in Australia (born in Hawaii, she was raised in her parents’ native Sydney), mostly in fluff along the lines of BMX Bandits, made when she was sixteen-years-old. “This…clearly resembles the cheerful, good-natured, and very high-minded feature films that run on the Disney Channel and which often star Hillary Duff,” observes Mr. Thomson. “But don’t expect to see Ms. Duff in Mrs. Dalloway.”
The author hedges the prospect of a limited intellect: “As a student, she was acceptable without being outstanding. Still, we know from her later life that she read Mrs. Dalloway
(without enthusiasm) and The Portrait of a Lady
(without really understanding it).” Her art grew from instinct and passion rather than design (hence the erratic résumé), held together by the naiveté and enthusiasm that could ruin a career if not strategically reigned in. After appearing nude and erotic in Billy Bathgate, To Die For
, and famously onstage in The Blue Room
, she decided against starring in In the Cut
, a story laden with sex, rape and masturbation, from a novel she initially optioned to make with Jane Campion.
All of which makes her something of an enigma, a Rosebud-style puzzle for the author to piece together, only to arrive at a flurry of speculation over who she is, what her body of work may or may not represent, and the awareness that she could have gone so much farther fifty or sixty years ago under the tutelage of a studio mogul. Mr. Thomson offers an odd but heartfelt homage, in which Ms. Kidman’s personal history matters less than his devotion (or addiction) to celluloid heroes and dreams.