To watch Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s black-comedy/thriller fusion “To Die For” is to understand how a combination of ruthless ambition and careless vapidity can spawn a self-absorbed media landscape that leads to the likes of, say, Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham—personalities for whom attention is more important than integrity. Twenty-five years after “To Die For” was released in the United States to rapturous reviews from praiseful critics, Kidman’s alluring villainy remains integral to the film’s portrait of a wicked woman willing to seduce and scheme her way to professional success. But what has become more poignant over time is screenwriter Buck Henry’s astute analysis that a certain performance of femininity secures a certain type of fame and that the realization of the American Dream is more about manipulation than it is about hard work.
The mid-1990s, when “To Die For” is set, was a time of transformation in broadcast journalism. Nightly news viewership continued its steady decline since the 1980s, with 20-something million viewers instead of 40-something, while investigative newsmagazine series like “Dateline” gained traction alongside “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes,” and “20/20.” Fox News would launch in 1996, obliterating the concept of media objectivity and helping exacerbate the 24-hour news cycle. And although most well-known media personalities were still men—including revered figures like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and Ed Bradley—women like Connie Chung and Oprah Winfrey were following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, and Lesley Stahl.
To reach that rarified level requires effort, dedication, and talent—and junior college graduate Suzanne Stone (Kidman) thinks she has it all. When “To Die For” opens in Little Hope, New Hampshire, with a montage of front-pages news articles about Stone’s “own weather [girl] reporter” being a “possible suspect” in the “puzzling” murder of her husband, Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), we see the story grow in the publications covering it. Staid black-and-white small-town papers give way to a front-page teaser on USA Today, complete with a color picture of Stone, as well as full-page treatments in the New York Post and other national publications and tabloids. As Danny Elfman’s discordant score combining brightly propulsive piano and chilly vocal arias with crunchy, ferocious metal supports that intensifying bombardment of accusations, Van Sant crafts a whirlwind of suspicion—one that Kidman herself interrupts by breaking the fourth wall and speaking to us directly.
“Hi. My name is Suzanne Maretto,” she says cheerily, before immediately undergoing a moment of self-editing to make way for her own ambition. “No, wait, I’m sorry. Suzanne Maretto is my married name. My own name is Suzanne Stone. That’s my professional name.” With her highlighted hair falling just so around her face, her lacquered-pink mouth and lavender eyeshadow, and her pastel suit, Suzanne is a vision of well-to-do femininity, but her tone is all business. Her husband might be dead, and she dabs at her eyes with a tissue to signify her grief. But, well, she’s a self-described “member of the professional media,” and she has a story. Of course, we would want to hear it, and of course, she’s the only person who can tell it.
But “To Die For,” while acknowledging Suzanne’s desire to be the sole storyteller in the recounting of her own life, rejects that primary perspective. Suzanne is never treated as a reliable narrator because, in the context of the film, she isn’t—potentially being involved in the murder of your husband isn’t really an example of objectivity. But Suzanne’s interview scenes serve as glimpses into the severity of her aspirations (“There are some people who never who they are or who they want to be until it’s too late. … I always knew who I was and who I wanted to be. Always.”) and the tendency for her sunny disposition to slip and reveal something uglier. She calls Connie Chung “already pretty ethnic, when you think about it.” Of Jane Pauley, she says, “I thankfully don’t have to struggle with the weight problem like she does.” All of the details of Suzanne Stone—the matching chunky gold jewelry set, the warm red manicure—are TV-ready, but her studied melding of careerist signifiers hides a desperate desire for fame and an impressive ability for cruelty.
Van Sant crafts “To Die For”s film within a film like a TV documentary around Suzanne, including interviews with other people involved with the crime and collecting home-video footage, while also stepping outside of that arrangement to include flashbacks and other scenes that move the narrative along. The result is a dizzying combination of shifting viewpoints, some of which support Suzanne and some of which don’t. Larry’s sister Janice (Illeana Douglas) remembers sparring with her brother often about Suzanne, whom she nicknamed “the ice maiden”; flashbacks to their first meal together include Suzanne advising Janice to get plastic surgery. Larry’s parents are pleased when their son cleans up his act to marry Suzanne but shocked that he uses his life savings to support her lavishness with a down payment on a condo and a new car.
But there are others who can’t keep their eyes off Suzanne: a speaker at a broadcast journalism conference that Suzanne crashes, who propositions her nearly immediately; her coworkers at WWEN, the community station where she shoulders her way into a job as a weather announcer, who both mock her but aren’t immune to her physical charms. And, most importantly, three punky teenagers at the local high school where Suzanne decides to shoot a low-budget documentary that she’s convinced will be her breakthrough: James (Joaquin Phoenix), whose attraction to Suzanne manifests in sexual fantasies during her weather updates; Lydia (Alison Folland), who despite Suzanne’s needling about her weight calls the older woman her only friend; and Russell (Casey Affleck), who tries to look up Suzanne’s skirt the first time they meet. How Suzanne sways the high schoolers to do what she wants—to be supporting actors in her lead story—was an early sign of Kidman’s impressive range and her ability to leverage those looks with cheeky deviousness.
“She is so pure and delicate and innocent. You just have to look at her and you want to take care of her for the rest of your life,” Larry had said of his wife, and “To Die For” makes plain that this expectation of fragile womanhood—one held so often by men—is the greatest tool in Suzanne’s arsenal. Suzanne is like frost on steel, a woman in a pussy-bow blouse who does an actual double-take when her husband tells her no for the first time, and whose tears inspired by Larry’s alleged abuse dry up when her favorite song comes on the radio and she just wants to dance. Everything about Suzanne is a performance in pursuit of adoration, and every selfish choice she makes after that adoration is secured is in pursuit of fame, and Henry’s script and Van Sant’s directorial choices make clear that her idea of the American Dream is one where being somebody matters more than anything else. It’s in how Suzanne wears a business suit to a family pool party; how she fluffs her hair and smooths her makeup before facing a wall of reporters waiting to question her about her husband’s death; and how a man pretending to be a movie studio executive is able to gain Suzanne’s trust.
That desire for celebrity, even in the form of notoriety, has remained constant in the 25 years since the release of “To Die For.” As the broadcast medium has swapped journalists for commentators. As reality TV has introduced a new kind of scripted drama. As YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have spawned their own breed of influencers. “What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching?” Suzanne asks early in “To Die For,” and when Lydia repeats it in the film’s final moments, the query becomes something like a prophecy. Lydia’s face on one screen splits into two, then into four, then into 16, on and on and on, countless copies of her filling our field of vision. That omnipresence is the dream, “To Die For” argues, and its artifice is our reality.