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‘To Die For’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995

It's hardly an earthshaking revelation that we live in a culture where fame (or its cheaper companion, notoriety) is the secular equivalent of sainthood. But "To Die For," Gus Van Sant and Buck Henry's brilliant satire, makes that discovery seem like a clarion call from the heavens or—more appropriately—a rock-'em, sock-'em TV sound bite.

Henry's script, based on Joyce Maynard's novel, is assured, sophisticated and mercilessly glutted with funny zingers. Van Sant's fluid, subtly wicked direction is a personal redemption of sorts; he's the one responsible for the legendarily abysmal "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." But what gives the movie its sharpest, sweetest edge is Nicole Kidman.

As Suzanne Stone, the scheming, murderously ambitious TV news personality who'll stop at nothing to claim her place in the celestial skies next to Barbara and Connie, she whets, smooths and sharpens what could be the finest role of her career.

In a place called Little Hope, N.H., we learn immediately that there has been bloodshed, and that cable TV weathergirl Kidman (a "seductress," according to screaming tabloid headlines) is a possible suspect in the murder of her oafish, sweet-natured husband, Matt Dillon. Then the complete story unfolds in a "60 Minutes"-meets-

"Rashomon" faux-documentary format, in which we hear testimony from Kidman (who addresses the camera directly in the newscaster style she has geared her whole life toward); Illeana Douglas, Dillon's tell-it-like-it-is, ice-skating sister; and many others, including Kidman's and Dillon's parents and a teenage girl (Alison Folland) who played a significant role in the tragedy.

It starts when small-town beauty Kidman seduces and marries Italian-American husband Dillon, a dumb dreamboat and about the biggest catch she can get in that place. Kidman's pie-in-the-sky dream to head a prime-time TV show has to start somewhere. So, without a trace of television experience, she persuades the local cable TV station manager (tubby Wayne Knight of "Seinfeld") to hire her as a gofer. She soon parlays the grunt job into a regular stint as the weather reporter. She also produces a hilariously trite cable special called "Teens Speak Out!" for which she enlists painfully inarticulate students Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Folland.

But when Dillon, set to inherit his father's Italian restaurant, asks his wife to drop the weather slot and start making babies, Kidman's big plans are threatened. The course of action she decides upon is, well, pure Oprah.

Director Van Sant, who made "My Own Private Idaho," "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Mala Noche," reasserts his impressive filmmaking status—and establishes his comedic abilities. There's a brilliant piece of cinema when Kidman dances to "Sweet Home Alabama" in the rain, while Phoenix (who's completely enchanted with this small- town celebrity) watches with open-mouthed adulation. And the movie's final scene, underlined by a particularly apt song from Donovan (it's best left unrevealed), is destined for immortal cult status.

Dillon couldn't be better as the dumb 'n' pretty, high school lady-killer, who becomes a deadly dull couch potato. Douglas, with her sarcastic commentary on Kidman (she calls her "The Ice Maiden"), is priceless. And the delicately featured Phoenix (yes, River's brother) has an extraordinary, chic-oddball presence.

But, just as her desperate character would have it, Australian actress Kidman grabs center stage and never relinquishes the position. Playing mercilessly against her pinup girl image, she's an unforgettable, comic archetype—a more slapsticky corollary to William Hurt's bumbling, handsome newscaster in "Broadcast News." Her character's attempts to dignify ignorance with brazen, telegenic confidence are hilarious. Defending the use of her maiden name for "professional" reasons, she matter-of-factly tells the audience, "Jane Pauley doesn't call herself Jane Trudeau, even though her husband, Mr. Trudeau, is a prominent cartoonist of some kind." And when, at one point, she protests, "What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if people aren't watching?" she's unwittingly composing her own epitaph, as well as this society's.

TO DIE FOR (R) — Contains sexual situations, scenes depicting masturbation, profanity and some violence.

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