To Die For
By David Thomson
Knopf. 284 pp. $24.95
Not long ago, someone asked me that old chestnut about which book I'd take to a desert island. I was expected to say, oh, Middlemarch or Middle Earth or Khalil Gibran. I answered David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film -- on the grounds that it was the least exhaustible book I could think of. And if a fellow has to wake up every morning under the same coconut tree, he could find worse company than Jean Arthur and Howard Hawks and Kenji Mizoguchi and Cary Grant. If you can't smuggle Margaret Sullavan onto your desert island, then meditating on her is the next best thing.
Consider this, too. The essays in Thomson's dictionary -- wide-angled and fine-grained, lyrically intuitive and closely reasoned -- are more than viewing aids, they are parallel artworks. And, best of all for the desert-island reader, they come robed in melancholy, for Thomson understands at some level that he is chronicling cinema's decline and fall -- and, of course, his own. Each critic is killed by the thing he loves.
Those who share that love find themselves in the backward position of wishing that today's movies and movie stars could be worthy of their greatest critics. Nothing in "The Da Vinci Code" was as dismaying as watching New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane empty his quiver into it. And nothing speaks so strongly to our diminished field of play as seeing David Thomson hash out an entire book on the subject of Nicole Kidman (after already devoting a chapter to her in The Whole Equation ). It smacks of disproportion, unseemliness: Professor Rath burying his nose in Lola Lola's garter. The mind quickly glides toward worthier obsessions, toward Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Julianne Moore, even Charlize Theron. But Thomson isn't budging. It's Nicole or nothing. "I don't say she's the greatest actress ever, or even the best of her time," he says, only "the bravest, the most adventurous, and the most varied of her time."
Ardor, at least, hasn't swamped his critical faculty. He sifts through Kidman's catalogue with persistence and jagged bolts of insight. Nobody sees things quite the way David Thomson does. Suzanne, the homicidal anti-heroine of "To Die For" (still Kidman's best performance) "is photographed like an advertisement for ripe fruit," with "an excess of light the way carefully concealed banks of light fall on the produce in a supermarket." Satine, the doomed showgirl of "Moulin Rouge," descends "on a strawberry red umbilical cord . . . strutting her long white thighs as if they were the hands on life's clock."
Thomson is particularly fine in shaking out the gold and dross from "The Hours," which he regards less as a paean to Virginia Woolf than as "a kind of tribute to the tradition or example set down by Meryl Streep." As for Kidman's Oscar-winning performance, he is both admiring and skeptical. "This Mrs. Woolf," he writes, "is too fierce and strong to go into the river. . . . [She] might have proved a sturdy figure in some resistance movement, tender in sensibility yet prepared to learn how to break a Nazi neck."
There is, yes, a vein of disappointment in Thomson's mash note, the sense of a field running gently fallow. As the years pass and the betrayals mount -- "The Stepford Wives," "The Interpreter," the Kabuki spectacle of Botox-Kidman rising up at awards-show podiums -- you can feel Thomson kneading his scalp at each misstep. Did she have to pose for that In Style cover? Did she have to whore herself out to Chanel No. 5? For the love of God, did she have to make "Bewitched"?
Chivalrously, he tries to attribute Kidman's erratic progress to phenomena outside her control: The problem of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, let's say, or the "total and uncomplaining addiction to being someone else" that eventually cripples every actor. He wants Kidman, in short, to be the alabaster emblem of the cinema's own contradictions, but the more he plumps for her larger relevance, the more he reinforces how private his obsession really is.
Which is undoubtedly all obsession can ever be. In a revealing moment, Kidman even invades Thomson's dreams, dressed as the Catherine Deneuve prostitute from "Belle de Jour" and pleasuring a Gestapo officer and an "elderly Chinaman." Thomson awakes, refreshed, and pours himself a cup of tea. "Then my wife came in. We greeted each other quite fondly. She wondered what I might like for dinner. I gave the matter every thought and I was about to answer. Then she yawned and said how tiring her afternoons were these days. Perhaps she'd let herself have a nap before dinner, if I didn't mind waiting. She took off her earrings and was asleep before I could reply."
An oddly poignant set piece: slumbering spouses and phantom love affairs. It made me wonder whom his wife was dreaming of. And it left me rooting for David Thomson to stay awake. ·
Louis Bayard is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Pale Blue Eye." He writes frequently on film.