“You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.” Nicole Kidman’s character in “To Die For.”
A long, long time ago, the role of television was crucial to understanding the American psyche. Perhaps this was because few people had fully realized the possibilities of the Internet and because many people still considered “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” a must-see show (who knew there were so many ways to get hit in the privates or lose one’s pants in public?). You could certainly entertain yourself online back then, but today’s possibilities were still unknown.
Thus in the mid-nineties, TV was still where you turned to watch episodes of your favorite show, as well as “up-to-the-minute” news, and in 1995, along came the film “To Die For,” based on the eponymous novel by Joyce Maynard and directed by Gus Van Sant. “To Die For,” is a fictional account of the real-life Pamela Smart, a woman who manipulated her teenaged lover into (allegedly) offing her husband. Pamela’s counterpart is the snappily named Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) whose cherished ambition is to be on television. Told in the style of a mockumentary, it consists of interviews with the characters, alternating with the scenes they describe. Most of us scale down our dreams a bit as we get older, but Nicole, in the tradition of Hollywood underdogs, is not about to let anything stop her. If Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Election,” were older with her latent narcissistic tendencies in full bloom, she might resemble Nicole in “To Die For.”
In a sort of prom queen meets big man on campus match, Nicole meets and marries Matt Dillon, whose alleged family ties to the Mob outweigh the fact that he’s comparatively well-off compared to her. Still, she’s not about to become a stay-at-home mom, and manages to talk her way into an intern position of sorts at a local news station, where she eventually persuades them to let her announce the weather. There is not a lot of difference between how Nicole delivers her lines when she’s “off screen” in the movie and on; she states everything with a jaw-dropping lack of self-insight but an amazing amount of ego. Clearly, whether or not you are a psychologist, something is a little off about this woman. Most people would not agree that TV is more important than reality, that the only actions that count are the ones where you’re being observed by a large, anonymous audience, though Nicole does get one thing right. If people are watching you, you tend to behave better – regardless of who the audience is.
Eventually, Nicole, frustrated with what she perceives as the lack of support on Matt’s part about her new “career,” decides to assume the role of a mentor and visits a local high school to enlist students in a project called “Teens Speak Out.” She casts her net wide and manages to snare Joaquin Phoenix (handsome but dumb as a box of rocks), Casey Affleck (J.’s pal) and Alison Folland, who has problems with self-confidence. However, because mentoring tends to require qualities like empathy, Nicole winds up failing, as she uses the trio’s admiration, awe and sexual attraction (mostly Joaquin) to kill her husband. Though she manages to manipulate those in a position to punish her, so she gets off scot free, it’s those Mob connections that come in handy in making sure she gets her come-uppance. So what exactly was Matt’s crime? Nothing really; it was her perception of him as an obstacle that caused his death. Having high but fragile self-esteem is a constant balancing act to keep from having the wire pulled out from under you, and sometimes, ambition is enough to cause you to plunge to your doom.