A Great Critic’s Mash Note: Nicole Kidman Is To Die For

There’s an avid, glittery quality to Nicole Kidman’s eyes. Kubrick understood that she’s particularly suited to suggesting lewdness—“Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”—but she’s also obviously intelligent, and when she dulls over those startling eyes, she can even indicate existential pain. It’s a toss-up as to which resonates most strongly with David Thomson.

“I don’t say she’s the greatest actress ever, or even the best of her time,” he writes. He does, however, believe her to be “the bravest, the most adventurous” actress of her era. This is a fair assessment, and it also gets to the heart of Ms. Kidman’s identity crisis. Half of the time she wants to be Liv Ullmann; the other half of the time she wants to be Michelle Pfeiffer. Deep-dish art movies alternating with Hollywood slop doesn’t give an actress much middle ground on which to stand.

How good is she? As much as I like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), there was something about Ms. Kidman’s bedroom monologue in the film that gave off the aura of the actor’s exercise. Perhaps she’d gone stale by the time they got to take No. 245; perhaps it was the writing. Although The Hours, as a movie, seemed to me arid and false in all sorts of ways, her Virginia Woolf was emotionally convincing even though Ms. Kidman is far too radiant to play a desperately homely woman like Woolf, whose homeliness was part of the personality of her art.

Mr. Thomson takes as her main achievements Moulin Rouge! (2001),The Others (2001), Birthday Girl (2001), The Hours (2002), Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004). This is a curious list, and not just because he obviously opts for the Liv Ullmann side of Ms. Kidman. I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! once, and no amount of money could compel me to sit through it again. (That could be because of a congenital prejudice against musicals populated exclusively by people who can’t sing and dance—or it could be because Baz Luhrmann edited the film like an insane hummingbird, a man stoned on his Avid.) As for Birth, it’s a ballsy little movie that would probably have found a larger audience as a novel.

What’s odd is that Mr. Thomson doesn’t add to the roster Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), the movie that first convinced me that Ms. Kidman had the goods, and which only looks better as the years go by. Ms. Kidman’s Suzanne Stone embodies an odd combination of avarice, hotness and, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the banality of stupidity. It’s a performance that effortlessly combines sexiness and charm.

There’s enough that’s self-indulgent in Mr. Thomson’s book to enable a certain kind of critic—the ones who clutch their pince-nez glasses as they lecture the class—to dismiss it as the equivalent of a hot-sheet special, the effusions of a critic in lust.

But Mr. Thomson has always put himself out there—he’s one of the rare writers who view criticism as an art form in its own right, and every artist has to reserve the right to fall on his face. In this particular book, there’s a dream sequence set in a Parisian bordello that verges on the embarrassing, and there are occasional sentences that could have been lifted directly from Photoplay magazine circa 1938: “It is Nicole’s nature to be sturdy, cheerful, robust, a real person, full of common sense.” At these times, the book is simply what my grandfather used to call a “mash note.”

Mr. Thomson has earned the right to his enthusiasms, if only for his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, which is never less than interesting, frequently irritating, occasionally maddening—and one of perhaps half a dozen indispensable books about the movies. (Mr. Thomson is also a contributor to The Observer.)

When he’s on, he’s a laser, not just of insight, but of articulation: “Long before he encountered Scientology, this air of attack in Tom Cruise was like a religion of achievement. And, of course, Tom’s ascendancy was very American in the way it said, Look, anyone can make it to the top; and also deeply neurotic in suggesting that anyone who has ever failed has no option but to make it to the top. There is nowhere else to go. Moderate success will hardly count. There is no irony or gray in Tom Cruise. He believes in himself with an intensity that begins to get frightening the longer you think about it. Because you wonder if any actual man could live up to that belief.”

Mr. Thomson also calls Ms. Kidman on the fatuous fashion spreads she indulges in—which leads him to an extraordinary digression on the subject of clothes: “Some people wear clothes because they are the only clothes they possess. They need to wait naked while their clothes are being washed—if they do wash their clothes. Many more have such scant choice that it amounts to none—in other words, if they have two suits they are two versions of the same suit, and it ‘suits’ them because of the anonymity, the facelessness, the universality of their lives. Have you noticed that poor people dress very badly? Can you live with that strange sentence, or does it arouse feelings of unnatural social disgust—one way or the other—that you feel bound to resolve?”

I love this. I love the way he slowly moves from a general statement of physical reality, which no one would argue with, edges into the suggestive and concludes with the incendiary. At moments like this, Mr. Thomson is less a critic than a provocateur.

As for Ms. Kidman, though she’s admirably ambitious, her career as it stands is probably not worth the amount of trees that have been pulped in her service—deforestation that, if Mr. Thomson has his way, will continue.

After a procession of commercial and critical disasters that include The Human Stain (2003), Cold Mountain (2003), The Stepford Wives (2004), The Interpreter (2005) and Bewitched (2005), it might be wise for Ms. Kidman to study the career of Meryl Streep, who navigated with seamless grace and a notable lack of vanity the transition from star to character actor. Burt Lancaster managed a similar feat, but few others have.

Like her or not, like the book or not, Nicole Kidman will make you sit up and think about this specific actress, and about actresses’ careers in general. Which is, after all, the critic’s job: to make you think.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. A Great Critic’s Mash Note:  Nicole Kidman Is To Die For