To Die For (1995)

Director: Gus Van Sant

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Suzanne Stone Maretto: It’s nice to live in a country where life, liberty… and all the rest of it still stand for something.

Suzanne Stone Maretto: 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.

The above quotes pretty much sum up that always-plump target—American culture—in Buck Henry’s wickedly funny adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s book To Die For. Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is a dumb, narcissistic blonde for whom TV sounds like her only chance to be a good person and who doesn’t really relate to those greater goods of life and liberty as intended by America’s founders. She intends to be a better person even if she has to kill someone to do it.

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The beautiful Suzanne has wanted to be on television ever since she first saw herself at about the age of 5 captured by her father’s live camera hook-up to the family Stone’s TV set. Out with her girlfriends one day, Suzanne immediately attracts the attention of nice-guy Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). They start to date. The members of his close-knit Italian family, and especially his sister Janice (Illeana Douglas), don’t think too much of Suzanne, but Larry is convinced she is the girl of his dreams—delicate, fragile, and a “volcano” in the sack—the perfect madonna/whore of every Catholic boy’s fantasy. He marries her and prepares for a life of Italian wedded bliss.

Suzanne, of course, is still avid in her pursuit of her career. She attends a meeting of NBC affiliates while on her honeymoon, where she gets some advice from the weasly keynote speaker (George Segal)—offering sex for a job is a great way to the top.

The Marettos acquire a condo, a red Mustang, and a tiny Pomeranian puppy Suzanne names Walter after Walter Cronkite and from which she is rarely separated. She reads about a job as a glorified gofer at local cable-access station WWEN. The station manager, Ed Grant (Wayne Knight), and his assistant call her “gangbusters”—not because she puts out (indeed she tears up a letter of reference she wrote for herself that offers sexual favors, an idea she got from Segal’s character)—but because she has ideas for the station about every 10 minutes. Eventually, Ed gives Suzanne an on-air job as the weather bunny.

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Given an inch, she goes for a mile by getting a local high school principal (Buck Henry) to allow her to shoot a documentary with any students who volunteer. Three burnouts sign up—crude Russel (Casey Affleck), budding lesbian Lydia (Alison Folland), and smitten Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix). Her footage shows their relative inability to put two words together in a sentence, but Suzanne will spin gold from straw if she has to work on the tapes all night.

Meanwhile, Larry and his family are impatient with Suzanne’s lack of interest in popping out babies. Larry confronts Suzanne one night and suggests that she hang up her go-nowhere weather reports and help him out at the family restaurant. When Suzanne comprehends exactly what he means, a strange glow comes into her usually plasticine eyes, and we know we are being prepared for murder most foul.

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Suzanne isn’t very learned, but when it comes to providing motivation—sex, and lots of it, to Jimmy—and manipulating Lydia and Russel to keep herself about a step removed from the murder, she’s as “gangbusters” as ever. Her dream of being on TV—this time as a prime figure in a murder investigation—is fulfilled, but she overplays her hand. In the end, she becomes the subject of a documentary on the infamous crime—a fate she would have loved had she only known about it.

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Van Sant provides the perfect structure for a film about media fame—interviews with all of the principals in the murder case, who tell their version of Larry and Suzanne’s life and times. Omniscient narration fills in the blanks, and Suzanne herself gets her say on a self-made video.

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Kidman plays Suzanne with the perfect amount of paper-thin charm, vicious self-interest, and stupidity. Her wardrobe and make-up make her look like a lollipop—long, slim legs topped with rainbow-bright mini-skirted suits of shocking pink, lemon yellow, lime green, and baby blue—sickly sweet, devoid of nutritional value, and likely to rot your teeth in the short time it takes to dissolve. Suzanne has used her looks and sexual prowess to get her way all her life—right after her wedding, she whispers in her father’s ear, “I’ll never find another man like you, Daddy.” As Mr. Stone, Kurtwood Smith assumes a bewildered look on his face at this remark, suggesting that Suzanne’s not just a vain, shallow tart, but rather something closer to a maneating psychopath.

Incestuous overtones continue as Janice competes with Suzanne for attention. The look Janice gives Larry when he interrupts her reverie about her small but important solo as a skater in the Ice Follies to announce Suzanne’s new job is one of jealous betrayal. I laughed when Larry’s parents (Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci) thought the news was that Suzanne was pregnant—a stereotype, but ringing so true in this film.

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The entire supporting cast is phenomenally good (even including a brief, but priceless appearance by David Cronenberg). Phoenix is the perfect sex-besotted burnout who seems to have gone a little insane in prison. I was deeply impressed with Folland as a grimy-haired lackey who says over and over again that Suzanne is her friend, “the only friend I had.” It’s not hard to feel sympathy for her and Jimmy, but the caustic wit and sexiness of the script keep the film’s tongue planted firmly in cheek and between legs.

A visually stunning satire, each moment is real, even at its most absurd, as the cast relishes the wonderful lines they are given. There are so many great moments, I can’t begin to do them all justice here. I’m so glad that before Nicole Kidman became an Actress, she had the sense to stretch her considerable comedic muscles. Now that she is a bit past her prime for leading lady parts, I hope she’ll return to comedies worthy of her talents.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 5:07 am

    I wanted to write something about this movie, but sadly, couldn’t find enough production information to warrant an article on my site.
    I’m glad someone is showing To Die For some love though. I never got into Gus Van Sant at all, but felt if you wanted to go from art films to the mainstream without lobotomizing yourself, this was the way to do it. What a terrific black comedy, with a hilarious performance by Nicole Kidman.
    Awesome article, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 8:26 am

    Hi Joe, and thanks. I’ve been a fan of this film for a long time. I think it’s the first movie I think of when I think of Kidman, though she’s done a lot of great stuff. Meg Ryan was supposed to star. I think she would have been fine, but I still think Kidman was an inspired choice.
    Van Sant produces solid entertainment. I think Elephant is his masterpiece, but he’s got a great eye and sense of pacing. I thought the visuals and editing of To Die For were, well, to die for.
    I think you can set the triumph of this film down to one person–Buck Henry. He came of age in a different time, when comedy was smarter and more biting. I wish his type of writing would come back into style, but I’m afraid those days may be over for good. When I want this type of comedy, I usually turn to Balkan cinema.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 8:46 am

    Wow, what are the chances we’d both think to write about this on the same day? I wrote about this last night too, and love it as much as you do. It’s a great, hilarious film with a lot going on. I love Van Sant in general, especially the films he’s been making of late, and this one is a revelation to the extent that it proves his “mainstream” period can’t be entirely dismissed.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 9:40 am

    Great piece Marilyn. I’m not sure how this movie fell off the radar but it did, practically the day it left the theaters. I already told you (in my comment thread) about the bored reaction the movie got from folks I recommended it to and it still annoys me. Van Sant doesn’t have the pacing and editing technique that appeals to a mass audience. I think audiences were expecting something way over the top, like Serial Mom, and instead they got a well thought out film.
    I love Nicole in this but I think my favorite part in the whole movie is Janice played by Illeana Douglas. Maybe it’s just because I love that last shot so much. What an incredible and bold way to end this film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 9:59 am

    Ed – What a coincidence indeed! I absolutely love your write-up. It is so intelligent with regard to the director’s purposes and oeuvre. Everyone, follow Ed’s link and READ what he wrote. It’s brilliant.
    Jonathan – I agree. Illeana Douglas is a fave of mine. She had a part on the very short-lived TV show “Action.” That’s when I became a diehard fan of her and Jay Mohr.

  • Daniel spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 11:03 am

    You know, I have no good reason for not having seen this. It’s Nicole Kidman at a time that I still liked her work, and it’s another of Van Sant’s, whom I usually appreciate. Throw in Phoenix, Affleck, and Wayne Knight – and I’m in.

  • Dredpiraterobts spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 12:23 pm

    Not to mention Holland Taylor.
    If there is something that that woman has done that I don’t like, I haven’t seen it. (Except for putting her name together backwards!)
    Great write-up. I’ll be Quing it at netflix today.

  • wwolfe spoke:
    18th/06/2008 to 7:34 pm

    Already mentioned above, but that long, long final shot, set to the perfect song, says so much, so well. This and “Drugstore Cowboy” would make a great Van Sant double bill.

  • Pat spoke:
    19th/06/2008 to 3:40 pm

    Marilyn –
    I’m a fan of “To Die For” as well. I found it very funny in places (in a dark way) and still remember being glared at by fellow moviegoers for laughing out loud a couple of times.
    And I thought Allison Folland was amazing.
    And I heartily concur with your assessment of Buck Henry. I miss the days when he was a freqent guest host on SNL and a frequent presence on talk shows, in addition to some great writing. He he did show up on “30 Rock” this season as Tina Fey’s dad – I hope he’ll be back.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/06/2008 to 4:15 pm

    Wow – It looks like this film has a lot of love going on. Glad to see it.
    Pat, why would they glare at you? It’s funny!
    Of course, that happened to me in Love Story, as I cackled through Jen’s, oh I don’t know, some place where everyone else is crying.

  • Vincent spoke:
    21st/06/2008 to 10:55 am

    I too would like to see Nicole Kidman do more comedies…as long as the Ephrons have nothing to do with them. The memory of “Bewitched” still is painful (and done right — even if not necessarily a straight remake of the sitcom — it could have been a great vehicle for Kidman as a leggy, seductive witch).

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