David Thomson's new book on Nicole Kidman talks about desire and, even more than he may realize, its loss.
BY PAMELA FEINSILBER
We all do this, don’t we? You see an actor follow a breakthrough or award-winning role (Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Nicole Kidman in The Hours) with extremely thin or why’d-they-bother work (Berry as a Bond girl, Kidman in everything following The Hours), and you can’t understand her choices. You look at The Stepford Wives or Bewitched and wonder, What was she thinking?
You might do the same with David Thomson after learning that his latest book, his 19th, is a look at Nicole Kidman’s life and career. Thomson, who lives in San Francisco and is now 65, has been called the last of the great film writers, with good reason. No one since Pauline Kael has cared about movies the way he does, and no one writes about movies the way he does: he’s part astute historian, part thoughtful critic, part gushing fan. Movies seem to have inhabited his being ever since he began spending time in south London movie theaters as a kid, just after World War II. Last year’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood is his masterwork, the culmination of everything he knows, feels, and thinks about movies: the art, the craft, the business, the past and future. Why in the world follow it with a biography of an actress not yet in her 40s?
Those familiar with his work will read the new book because its author is David Thomson, and we want to know what he is thinking.
Probably most people know Thomson through his Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975 and updated most recently into the huge New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2004). This is one man’s highly subjective—to say the least—look at the careers of actors and filmmakers from Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff. Thumb through it long enough and it will engage all your emotions, from admiration to impatience or rage. Thomson’s utter certainty in his point of view, and his sometimes pompous way of expressing it, can be vastly irritating; that’s part of the fun of reading him. Here’s an example: “There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously. As well as being a leading box-office draw for some thirty years, the epitome of the man-about-town…he was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” If you disagree, you’re simply wrong.
Thomson must have known his Nicole Kidman would be held to a high standard after his two other mainstream biographies, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (1992) and Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (1996). The son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer—one of the Ms in MGM and for decades the most powerful man in Hollywood—and the producer behind Gone With the Wind, Selznick famously self-destructed after achieving so much, including winning several Oscars. This book is a meaty look at Hollywood in its golden age, the mid-20th century. And Rosebud must be among the most thoughtful biographies ever written. Selznick at least made other memorable films, but Orson Welles never did anything nearly as great as Citizen Kane, which he helped write, directed, and starred in when he was only 25, though he lived and worked for another 44 years. How could that be? Thomson came up with a complex and reasonable thesis.
It helps that he has the imagination of a fiction writer. Sometimes when the tale as-is (completed script or real-life story) seems insufficient, Thomson feels compelled to create a rewrite or sequel. Hence his half-fiction, half-reported biography Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes (1988). Hence some of his most entertaining essays, such as one that imagines the career of a James Dean who did not die in a car crash at 24, and another in the same collection (Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts, 1997) that considers life for Tony Manero, that is, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, after the movie ended. Tell me this man doesn’t feel closer to fictional, on-screen beings than he does to many people in his own life.
So it’s not surprising that in Nicole Kidman Thomson revises even Kidman’s best films. (He’d prefer to see To Die For end with her character taking over a Charlie Rose–type show, not submerged in an ice-covered lake.) And he has set himself a reasonable task: to explore the relationship between ourselves, in the audience, and those utterly enticing actors on-screen. He wants to “admit that in searching commentary on films there needs to be some way of accommodating the fondness, the rapture, the attraction (there are other words) the writer feels for an actress, without ever having met or spoken to her.”
The thing is, he addressed this question (and wrote the above) in The Whole Equation, stopping less than 75 pages in to do so—and cutting from a chapter on Charlie Chaplin to use not an old-time actress but Nicole Kidman as an example. (Granted, he dislikes silent films.) In the new book, he admits to what one critic called his “crush” on Kidman “because I think it is the only way to get at things that need to be said.” Later he adds, “That’s why I’m writing this book, I think, to honor desire.”
OK, but once you make the point, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more to say, and there’s an element of creepiness to his honest avowals. (He remembers the “slippage of horror in the bright light” of the supermarket as he noticed Nicole’s cosmetically unwrinkled brow on a magazine cover.) Fortunately, he devotes most of his attention to Kidman’s 30-plus films, describing how many of them got made and taking us through her rather unfascinating life—she’s no tortured artist—as he does so. Thomson says he spoke to Kidman after he wrote his first draft, and their conversation doesn’t seem to have deepened the book. Those who care won’t find out why she and Tom Cruise divorced or why she has taken on so many films lately. Thomson hazards the same guesses you or I would: differences after 10 years of marriage; she wants to work all she can before becoming old in Hollywood years.
Being Thomson, though, he makes sense of crazy decisions such as keeping Kidman’s hair so unhistorically bright and clean in Cold Mountain (“in the movies you put the light where the money is”) and explains how the stress on signing “an actress who certainly helps the marginal project get made” can lead to the terrible miscasting of a well-intentioned film like The Human Stain.
There’s something deeper going on here, too: these insights help convey Thomson’s waning love for film. He has made it clear that we’re seeing far less of the character-rich storytelling that moves him, thanks to the emphasis on profits and blockbusters that began in the late 1970s. “I have nothing to say about Star Wars,” he wrote toward the end of The Whole Equation, because it is merely “sensational.” “Nothing looked or smelled like life.” In films like this, there is nothing to discuss or debate; no one to identify with; nothing to become impassioned about. “The fullest response is ‘Wow!’ ”
“The old faith in moviegoing is slipping away,” he says flatly in Nicole Kidman, as he sees films “become increasingly deranged with noise, violence, the celebration of cliché, and their own money.” And increasingly, the big-theater, shared movie-going experience that he’s loved for so long is giving way to multiplexes and DVDs. That part of the equation is never going to change. I suspect that Thomson felt even as he wrote this book that there are no cinematic subjects left for him. He has written on other topics (Laurence Stern, Nevada). And now that he’s gotten Nicole Kidman—or at least Nicole Kidman—out of his system, I think he’s got the smarts and the curiosity to find something else.
Pamela Feinsilber is senior editor and the arts editor of San Francisco magazine.