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  • Written by David Thomson
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  • Written by David Thomson
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On Sale: December 10, 2008
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48879-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

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Chapter 1

Strangers


I am talking to an Australian, a woman, about Nicole Kidman, and the crucial mystery is there at the start: “I’ve known her twenty years, and I’ve spent a staggering amount of time with her, but I feel I don’t know her. Because what she gives you is what you want. A lot of actors are like that. They don’t exist when they aren’t playing a part.”

This book is about acting and about an actress, but it must also study what happens to anyone beholding an actress—the spectator, the audience, or ourselves in any of our voyeur roles. And the most important thing in that vexed transaction is the way the actress and the spectator must remain strangers. That’s how the magic works. Without that guarantee, the dangers of “relationship” are grisly and absurd—they range from illicit touching to murder. For there cannot be this pitch of irrational desire without that rigorous apartness, provided by a hundred feet of warm space in a theater, and by that astonishing human invention, the screen, at the movies. And just as the movies were never simply an art or a show, a drama or narrative, but the manifestation of desire, so the screen is both barrier and open sesame.

The thing that permits witness—seeing her, being so intimate—is also the outline of a prison.

This predicament reminds me of a moment in Citizen Kane. The reporter, Thompson, goes to visit Bernstein, an old man who was Charlie Kane’s right-hand man and who is now chairman of the board of the Kane companies. Thompson asks him if he knows what “Rosebud,” Kane’s last word, might have referred to. Some girl? wonders Bernstein. “There were a lot of them back in the early days . . .” Thompson thinks it unlikely that a chance meeting fifty years ago could have prompted a solemn last word. But Bernstein disputes this: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember.

“You take me,” he says. “One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Bernstein seems to be single—to all intents and purposes he was married to Charlie Kane. I daresay some beaverish subtextual critic could argue that the girl in the parasol stands for the sheet of paper on which the young Kane sets out his “Declaration of Principles.” Yet the reason why the anecdote (and the actor Everett Sloane’s ecstatic yet heartbroken delivery of it) has stayed with me is that it embodies the principle of hopeless desire, and endless hope, on which the movies are founded. Of course, most little boys (even those of an advanced age) feel pressing hormonal urges to satisfy desire. And I would not exile myself from that gang. Still, there is another calling—and film is often its banner—that consists of those who would always protect and preserve desire by ensuring that it is never satisfied. For those of that persuasion—and it is more than merely sexual—there is no art more piquant than the films of Luis Buñuel, one of which is actually entitled That Obscure Object of Desire. (In that light, let me alert you not to miss this book’s vision of Belle de Jour as if Nicole Kidman had played in it. In fact, I have dreamed this film with such intensity that it matters to me more than many films I actually have to see.)

Anyway, the subject of this book is Nicole Kidman. And I should own up straightaway that, yes, I like Nicole Kidman very much. When I tell people that, sometimes they leer and ask, “Do you love her?” And my answer is clear: Yes, of course, I love her—so long as I do not have to meet her.

Now, that proviso could be thought hostile; it might even conjure up possibilities of an aggressive streak, a harsh laugh, or even a regrettable body odor in Ms. Kidman that one would sooner avoid. That’s not what I am talking about, and it’s nothing I have ever heard suggested. I suspect she is as fragrant as spring, as ripe as summer, as sad as autumn, and as coldly possessed as winter. Much more to the point, you see, I am suggesting that getting to know actresses is a depressing sport. The history of Hollywood could be composed as a volume of melancholy memoirs all made ruinous when Alfred Hitchcock, say, actually met Tippi Hedren, or whomever. Actors and actresses are seldom marriageable and too little thanks has been offered to the profession for the steadfast way in which its members sacrifice themselves to each other. It is as if they understood the spell put upon them and knew that anyone raised in any other craft or system would collapse with incredulity if confronted by the endless fascination performers only find in themselves. They go to the altar— they do not alter.

Laboring with movies for six decades now, I am coming to the conclusion that this medium has been steadily misunderstood. Yes, it has some semblance of being an entertainment, a business, an art, a storytelling machine—and so on. But all of those semirespectable identities help obscure what is most precious and unique, and what is absolutely formulated by the simultaneous presence and denial on the screen: that a movie is a dream, a sleepwalking, a séance, in which we seem to mingle with ghosts. And here is the vital spark: whenever we seem within reach of these intensely desirable creatures, their states and moods, we ourselves resemble actors as they come close to redeeming their terrible vacancy by assuming parts, or roles.

In other words, 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. 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. I daresay this sounds a touch odd or obscure at first—or maybe it is just alarming—but it will creep up on you as this book proceeds. It is an insidious process, such as ought to be banned everywhere by churches, schools, parents, and the law (all those institutions that claim to be looking after us). 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.

And yet there is something enormously positive and creative that can come from it, a mixture of calm and insight. It is to see that we can entertain the idea of strangers in our minds—if only by wanting to be them, or be like them. The movies are about beholding strangers and in the process losing touch with those real people one happens to meet and has the chance of knowing. I believe now that I learned to fall in love by watching actors and actresses, and that is not a wholesome training. It is one that prompts a rapid dissatisfaction with the thing or the person present, or possessed. Their charm can never compete with the allure of the unattainable. Thus, to follow desire is to give up the ghost on relationship. Just as you reflect on that, and consider how far it is a restlessness that has you in its grip, you will remember from so many life lessons that it is also a very bad thing. This is very dangerous territory, even if most of us are already there—in other words, there is still a weird kind of polite respectability that is possible in life from denying it.

Let me tell you a story that helps explain this. In my last book about the movies, The Whole Equation, I was feeling my way toward this point of view, and I included a chapter, “By a Nose,” which concerned Nicole Kidman in The Hours. I offered it as a testament from a fan, a love letter, from someone in the dark to one of those beauties in the light. As a matter of fact, she was not my true favorite. Indeed, I feared in advance—and I still think it likely— that if I were to write about my real favorites, my movie sweethearts, I would be rendered speechless and helpless, because the fantastic intimacy is too great. So, yes, I do like Nicole Kidman, but not quite as much as Catherine Deneuve, Julia Roberts, Grace Kelly, and Donna Reed (I am tracing sweetheartism back to when I was about eleven).

Nevertheless, when Michiko Kakutani reviewed The Whole Equation in the New York Times, she saw fit to call my “crush” on Kidman ridiculous. (You see how brave authors must be.) Well, maybe, but I am owning up to it, because I think it is the only way to get at things that need to be said (somehow in all the turmoil of desire, I have retained the semblance of some educational purpose). Going to the movies and believing may be foolish, or worse. It may be crazy. But I think even book reviewers have been formed by its risk.

At the moment, as I try to write this, just behind one layer of my computer screen there is an AOL home page in which I have the chance to catch up with the diet secrets of Jessica Simpson and Denise Richards. There are their pictures—lean yet carnal—Jessica and Denise, would-bes who maintain a presence not always in movies, per se, or shows, but in celebrity newsbreaks, in fashion follies, dietary secrets, and scandal scoops. That supporting atmosphere is as old as movies, but it is more intense now just because of the Internet. Moreover, one of the most intriguing things about Nicole Kidman is that at least one of her ample size ten feet is firmly planted in that electronic wasteland. Nicole can be great and serious. She is an Oscar winner. Sometimes you can believe she might play any part. But she is also heart-and-soul a sexual celebrity, someone who, close to forty, is not just ready or eager but proud to give her sexy come-hither look to some magazine. Her appetite for life is not snobbish, or elitist, not ready to act her age. I mean, we do not see Vanessa Redgrave or Meryl Streep or Miranda Richardson (her colleagues as actors) in glamour pictures, not these days. Yet on the Internet you can get a lubricious roundup of every nude or seminude scene Nicole has ever done. You may know the curve of her bottom as well as you know your child’s brow. Nicole does expensive perfume ads; she does eye-candy covers; she will drop her clothes if only to air out that elegant Australian body (she does wish she were a few inches shorter, with those inches added on her breasts—but there you are, she is very human). That’s another reason why the world, for just a few years, has been crazy about her. How can I put it? Let’s just say she has not flinched from the duty of a great celebrity to be on public display. There are thousands of hits on her every day, not real hits, blows to the body, but the hits of our day, the fantasy contacts, the “I want to know more about Nicole” pressures on the mouse.

I daresay that as she grows older she will become weathered, a great lined old lady like Katharine Hepburn, a mistress of the art of acting and of the cult of her own high-mindedness. But this book was conceived and composed while she was still hot and hittable, and likely to be in every tabloid and on every magazine cover because the rumor industry—our essential river of story—could not leave her alone. Even if she becomes that great old lady, Dame Nicole Kidman, in those greedy eyes of hers the hunger will persist for the good old days when she was in everyone’s virtual bed. Millions more have had that palpable illusion help them make it through the night.

But note this, please. She is, as I write, in addition to everything else, a fun-loving thirty-nine-year-old with a cheerful eighteen-year- old’s attitude. I mean, she has not grown up or old—she has been kept young by attention. She would like to go skiing; and for a moment at least she might like to go with you! One of the more hideous things about what happens to actresses and celebrities is that, somewhere around forty, the tissue-paper safety net dissolves and the star suddenly has to go from being a nymph to being an adult. Nicole’s own name is already part of that terrible future, and I daresay she wakes up some nights screaming because she felt it was about to happen. (Not that I can be there to witness it—or stop imagining it.)

But just because of that vulnerability, it would be improper or cruel for a biography to grind too remorselessly close or fine. Let her live while she can. Why pretend to be censorious over every fleeting love affair, or any toke she might take? Let time take its course. Let her awkward teenage years off lightly, and know that, as with all actors and actresses, the idea of the real life is, anyway, the ultimate tragedy, the terminal desolation. They are too busy being the center of attention to have a life. So, I will be gentle and tender on passing over some things. If I elect to say little about the movie Far and Away, for instance, then understand that there are films made for no other reason than that the people involved were in love. It is their business. Sometimes it ends up looking like Pierrot le Fou or an Ingmar Bergman picture. Sometimes it’s Far and Away— enough said. It is so very much more interesting to explore films not actually made, such as Nicole Kidman as Belle de Jour or Nicole Kidman in Rebecca. In a way, the best admiration we can give her is to imagine other parts she might play. That is adding to her creative soul.

One final word. You will want to know, “Did I talk to her?,” no matter how ardently I have stressed the point about staying strangers. Well, at the very outset, I approached her through her representatives, asking for an interview. There was silence, and then there was a Well, yes, she is interested. But she was so busy . . . and time passed. So I began to write the book, and I had an entire draft done before hearing a word from her. What happened? Well, what do you think happened? One day in February 2006, my phone rang and I heard, “It’s Nicole,” as if she were a languid, superior, but amused prefect who had called a naughty boy to her study to see what he had been up to.


From the Hardcover edition.
David Thomson|Author Q&A

About David Thomson

David Thomson - Nicole Kidman

Photo © Lucy Gray

David Thomson, author most recently of “Have You Seen . . . ?” is a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Movieline, The New Republic, and Salon.  He lives in San Francisco. 

David Thomson is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Author Q&A

Q: You are a well-known film scholar and historian. Why did you decide to do a book about a movie star—and why Nicole?

A: I think most people most of the time go to see movies because of who’s in them. We have always done this. And we have our favorites. We fall for movie stars when we’re very young. And I think critics often forget how vital the looks and persona of a star are. As for Nicole, I admired the way she had gone from being “Tom’s girl” and a bit of a joke, to a person who could get difficult films made. She took charge of her own career. Yet she still has huge appeal and charm and sexiness—she’s a natural flirt. That goes right back to the basis of film: find a pretty girl and photograph her. Plus she has the authentic aura of stardom. She glows. She is tall and thin and unquestionably beautiful. She’s not like us—until she smiles and you see there’s an ordinary side.


Q: This book is more than simply an insightful analysis of one of the most famous actresses working today, it’s also a portrait of what it is to be an actress and the professional and personal choices one makes along the way. Did you set out to create that portrait or was it something that just happened?

A: From the outset, I wanted it to be a book about acting, about film, and about actors putting on a show. Despite the way that, as a culture, we adore actors and actresses, I still think that we don’t understand what a rare breed they are—how their becoming “parts” for us, strangers, means running the risk of losing themselves. From the moment I began to know actors, I found this process frightening, yet magical. I think of them as explorers of the inner life. But like geographical explorers—people who go out into far and strange spaces—sometimes they don’t come back. They get lost. It’s not uncommon, but I think Nicole has made a pledge to be other people—and along the way she becomes just the actress, the player. Her real self fades. Maybe she is doing what she does because she was always afraid of being no one—of being empty. You can romanticize taking on another person, but it’s actually a fearsome challenge, because you lose yourself. Your whole life is dedicated to pretending. Now, if you put it like that, it sounds unpleasant or uneasy—something we don’t really want to be part of. I couldn’t quite get into this—or not directly—but I think already there’s a way Nicole Kidman isn’t quite there. She’s “Nicole.” She is the part. Her husbands and children must sometimes look at her and marvel that they have this great light as their wife or mother! This is so hard to talk about when people are still alive—but I’ve tried to imply it. And for her the sacrifice is the risk of your whole life slipping away for maybe thirty seconds here or there of eternity that has your name on it. By normal, humanistic standards, it’s a shameful bargain, but it’s what actors do.


Q: The book is also a study of what happens to the audience, the spectator, and you talk about the importance of the actor and the spectator remaining strangers for the “magic” to work. Why is that critical?

A: Well, it follows directly from the previous question. To watch actors from our vantage point—the ideal one—is to see the best: the beauty, the smarts, the ability to deliver another character—a whole story. That is how they move us. And so we fall for them, love them. But that’s a danger because, as I’ve said, there is so much less there than meets the eye. They do not have their own inner life. They wait to create imaginary ones. And they are only really happy when doing that. This may sound extreme, or even comic, but look at the celebrity of famous actors and you see it time and again. That is why someone like Katharine Hepburn—and it’s why I talk about her in the book—gave off this image of her famous self that was actually impenetrable; she was very ambitious to be an actress, which wasn’t necessarily her.


Q: At the beginning of the book, you quote a woman as saying she’s known Nicole for 20 years but doesn’t really “know” her because a lot of actors “don’t exist when they aren’t playing a part.” Do you think that’s true of most actors and of Nicole, in particular?

A: I think it’s generally true of actors. They are friendly quite often, but there isn’t a large, unknown persona there. All that energy goes into being other people. I think it’s true of Nicole to the extent that she is very ambitious and determined. It’s not that she does all this to secure some private, inner being. She does it to be other people and to be loved and admired by strangers. So if you get close to her you find that odd inner emptiness which doesn’t fit with what she gives you as an actress—that sense of a great secret depth. In a way, it’s the norm with actors. Yet it can sound frightening when spelled out. The really intriguing thing is how far the way we admire and adore actors is letting us become more like them. In other words, the actor has become a model for real life—and that’s one of the things accomplished by the age of film.


Q: You talked to Nicole towards the end of writing this book and clearly she offered her own thoughts on what things meant to her. Were you surprised by her take on aspects of her career or the films at all?

A: No. She gave me answers that I think she had worked out, answers she thought I wanted—actors try to give you what you want. And for me she was earnest, thoughtful, taking her profession seriously. I think it’s very rare for actors to be able to tell you what they do and she values her spontaneity. For instance, she prepares, she makes this journey into a part. It’s a very awkward journey which has to be done alone; she has to cut herself off from “company.” And then she starts to do things like the character she is becoming. She falls in love with her characters. I think that would be her major romantic passage in life. And I doubt she has much sex when she’s doing that. So, do you see, in a way the romance is always narcissistic: you are the person you love.


Q: You talk about the film To Die For as an important turning point in her career, and the character of Suzanne Stone as bearing similarities perhaps to Nicole herself. What is it about that film and her role that makes this true?

A: Above all, the determination to succeed and be known—to step out of life into that world of being “on.” She’s quite edgy about this because she realizes that Suzanne is not exactly a sweetheart. But as she talks about it, she can’t conceal her delight about Suzanne. She read that script and knew she was made for it. And the talking to the camera bits—which she found difficult—were actually the secret destination, the gift of the part. She saw that she could commune with the camera and own it. So in The Hours, say, where she plays a very unhappy and unworldly character, she has one advantage: the camera is there to watch her. There is stuff like that in Birth, too, where she seems to know: if I wait, the film has to wait for me. It’s power. Great stars have it.


Q: You talk about the relationship between an actress and her director as being almost a platonic love affair. Is that usually the case?

A: Time and again, something happens between directors and actresses. The whole process is built around it: the idea of their secret being shown to the world. And actresses often need to feel they are doing what they do for just one person—instead of millions. So a kind of romance occurs—platonic or not.


Q: Unlike all the speculation over the years about the nature of Nicole’s marriage to Tom Cruise, you believe it was a real marriage and that they were very much in love. Do you think acting in romantic roles with other people is part of what damages a relationship with two such high-profile actors?

A: I think one of the things that makes such unions hard is the speed with which the world makes up stories about them—Tom and Nicole went through the modern celebrity grinder in a rare way and it gets worse all the time. I do think they always saw how at first the other was “right” for them—in the public gaze. But I think they did their best to be really in love and have fun together. In time, I think she learned from him just what was required in taking charge of yourself. That’s what broke them up. She realized she could be as big as him if she became as strong and as self-centered. He wanted a beautiful, bright, obedient consort. She wanted a teacher. It worked. Then it stopped. And I think Eyes Wide Shut was the process that brought it to an end—because the characters they played were so close to themselves.


Q: Which are your favorite films of Nicole’s? And your least favorite?

Q: My favorites are To Die For, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Moulin Rouge, Dogville, Birth, and her new one, Fur. The ones I like the least would be Stepford Wives, The Interpreter, and Bewitched. In other words, I think she’s born to take risks—not play old-fashioned romantic leads. Her nature draws her to difficult, adventurous people, people for whom creativity is vital and may be self-destructive. It’s very interesting that she got married again just before Fur debuts—because Fur is about the need of a person like her to transcend marriage. The real marriage may be an attempt to deny or defy that. But there she is on screen wrapped up in finding a deeper self.


Q: In your discussion of The Hours, you say that “this is a story in which every character and player is supporting the larger thread of the work. And it is an immense gift to the artistic conscience of actors to let them play small parts sometimes. There is no better education in the nature of drama or art.” Can you elaborate on that idea?

A: In an ideal world, in a company of actors, there should be exchanges—i.e., an actor is engaged for a repertory season, and he plays two big lead parts, Hamlet and Antony, say. But he also takes on two smaller parts as well. Why? It’s a myth that there are bigger and smaller parts. All are as valuable as each other. And it is wonderful for equality in the company to swap roles like that. The whole enterprise is what’s important. And stardom is in many ways a dangerous and counter-productive system.


Q: You compare Nicole’s taking on the experimental Lars Von Trier film Dogville to Ingrid Bergman’s romantic impulsiveness in going to Italy to make films with Roberto Rossellini. How are these adventures similar?

A: Well, Bergman was a world star—she had done Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight and so on. But she was a questioning actress who felt that that the Hollywood way of doing things was limited. There was something romantic and artificial about it. This is at the end of the war and she realizes that Rossellini—for one—is making a new kind of film. It is called neo-realism and it says, look, the world is so real we have to show people that. So she sees one or two of these pictures and says I have to work with you. Super, he says, I always wanted to work with you—because, ironically, Rossellini longs to make the Hollywood kind of films. She gives up so much—husband and child, wealth, fame and goes to Italy, makes five films with him, marries him, has a huge scandal. But it does alter the arc of her career. Now, Nicole is adventurous like that. She gets to the top position among actresses in America and says, What can I do differently? She starts discovering foreign directors, kids (Birthday Girl). She branches out. Now she’s cooler than Ingrid so she doesn’t need to fall for von Trier—he’s a brute anyway, whereas Roberto was a charmer. Indeed, she won’t even do a sequel to Dogville. But when all is said and done Dogville is a fascinating departure, a good film and another way ahead. Can you see that Tom would never do a Dogville? Whereas Nicole leaped at it.


Q: You talk about the love scene in Cold Mountain between Nicole and Jude Law as being “anachronistic” because rather than appearing as two shy virgins, they come across as two experienced movie stars. Do you think it’s the fact that they are stars that stands in the way of the film being more faithful to the book?

A: Well, in part it’s that. But it’s also the way it’s filmed. The love scene in Cold Mountain looks like a modern love scene with two beautiful bodies. Stars. Whereas, I think to do that scene you have to say to yourself—wartime: he’s wounded—she’s a wreck. They’re not perfect. They’re not sexual icons. If you read the book, the sex scene creeps up on them. They aren’t in charge of it. But there’s a failure in filming Nicole all through—she’s too bright and clean.


Q: Towards the end, you write that you’ve written this book to “honor desire.” What exactly do you mean?

A: That’s a huge question and very difficult to answer. I think to keep it simple—it’s a love letter. It’s a way or urging her do this, do that. Do more. Be greater.


Q: What part would you most like to see this talented actress play in the future?

A: A great villain. A devious mass murderess, killing the men who fall for her. With an edge of humor to it. I think she’s funny and sometimes neglects that. But she’s very smart and I’d like to see a great black comedy about her using her power. A variant on To Die For—I really would like to see her remake Mississippi Mermaid.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Compulsively readable . . . an entertaining romp through [Nicole Kidman’s] life and career that’s also a smart commentary on celeb culture.”
--Christopher Kelly, The Star-Telegram

“Illuminating . . . part astute analysis of our relationship to the film image and our cultural fixation on celebrity and part insightful film criticism . . . [a] starry-eyed love letter.”
--Tara Ison, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Thomson is probably the single most gifted film writer alive . . . an extraordinarily knowing meditation on movies as purveyors of dreams and desires”
--Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“Rewrites the celebrity biography into a savvy exploration of myth-making . . . Dangerously smart, Thomson never lectures. He throws little gems and thought-provoking insights in the midst of the liveliest conversation. A passionate storyteller, he peppers his analyses with sassy anecdotes . . . and biting remarks on politics, celebrity culture and their commodification of human dramas. Bold, provocative, irrepressibly funny . . . will delight those who enjoy a book that has guts and brains.”
--Cécile Alduy, San Francisco Chronicle

“Film critic David Thomson has a crush on Kidman and he doesn’t care who knows . . . a shrewd book about the nature of screen acting, fantasy and stardom.”
--Newsday


From the Hardcover edition.

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