Most American moviegoers first saw Nicole Kidman in the 1990 Tom Cruise race car movie “Days of Thunder.”
Though born in Hawaii (in 1967), Kidman was raised in Australia and began her acting career on television there at age 14. Within two years she was acting in Australian films, ranging from such escapist fare as “BMX Bandits” (1983) to more quality dramas as “Dead Calm” and “Flirting” (both 1989).
She made her U.S. debut the following year with Cruise, winning his heart both in the movie and in real life (Cruise, then married to Mimi Rogers, divorced her to marry Kidman.)
It was an inauspicious beginning. For while Kidman had shown some potential in her Australian films (in “Flirting” she was a nice cross between a snotty rich girl and an understanding older sister type), she was just another starlet wannabe in her early American work.
She was less important than Cruise’s mechanic (Robert Duvall) and arch rivals (Michael Rooker, Cary Elwes) in “Days of Thunder.” She was a virtual nonentity in Robert Benton’s “Billy Bathgate” (1991).
And she wasn’t much better in either her next outing with Cruise, Ron Howard’s overblown “Far and Away” (1992) or Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” (1995).
There were hints, though. In “My Life” (1993), Kidman was pleasingly believable as the understanding wife of a type-A character (played by Michael Keaton) who is dying of cancer.
But that same year, Kidman proved even more adept at playing a malicious and ultimately dangerous harpy in the murder mystery “Malice” (with Bill Pullman, Alec Baldwin and Bebe Neuwirth).
Her performance there - which is a match even for Baldwin, whose “I am God” speech is a testament to medical egotism - must have struck a chord in Gus Van Sant. For it was Van Sant, also hungry for a hit, who cast Kidman against type for his wicked parody on media messaging “To Die For” (see capsule review below).
And Kidman came through with an amazing performance. Despite the fact that she was overlooked by the Academy (earning great reviews from critics across the country but no Oscar nomination), Kidman created a character in Suzanne Stone that is at once timeless and quintessentially ‘90s.
She is perfect as the media-hungry creature of culture who, hip-twisting to an inner heat, symbolizes the need to be seen in an era where being famous is more important than having done anything worth being famous for.
Hips and other physical attributes aside, Kidman’s Suzanne is the hungry version of those who unashamedly bare all for the Oprahs, Rickis and Geraldos in a desperate grab for their 15 minutes.
And Van Sant’s cameras are there to play out her hunger before us.
To Die For
Gus Van Sant has had a checkered career, from the high of “Drugstore Cowboy” to the low of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” But he succeeds smashingly here with a Buck Henry script that studies our modern obsession with being famous. Nicole Kidman stars as Suzanne Stone, a cable-access-TV weather reporter who wants to be the next Jane Pauley. And she’s not going to let her lack of intelligence, much less a reluctant husband (Matt Dillon), stand in the way. Intelligence can be glossed over, and husbands can always be done away with - especially when there are young guys (Joaquin Phoenix) who will do anything for sex. Good performances are pulled off by Dillon, Illeana Douglas as Suzanne’s sister-in-law and Phoenix (River’s baby brother). But the main attraction is Kidman, who shows that there is something clever and ambitious and manipulating, perhaps even talented, in her makeup after all. Rated R
Kicking and Screaming
It’s tough to grow up and move on, and some do it just like the title of this movie suggests. Which is why we find this collection of college graduates pretending, the fall after graduation, as if nothing has changed. A small, independent film that features such art-house stars as Eric Stolz, Chris Eigeman and Parker Posey, “Kicking and Screaming” is a lot of talking, joking and worrying about what to do next. It’s also an enjoyable two-hour watch. Rated R
Director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) adapts novelist Paul Auster’s screenplay about the characters who hang out around a Brooklyn tobacco shop. Central are Paul (William Hurt), the writer grieving the death of his wife, and Auggie (Harvey Keitel), the tobacco shop’s manager. Both get involved in the life of a young black student, who is searching for his father, and thus find a bit more meaning for their own daily existences. Rated R
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