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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Nicole Kidman’ Biography Gives Film Historian David Thomson a Platform for Alternative Takes on Movies

Posted by kinchendavid on September 24, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – When I heard that David Thomson, my favorite film historian, had written a biography of Nicole Kidman, I was intrigued and puzzled at the same time.

Intrigued because Thomson, whose “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood” (Knopf) I reviewed for this site and enjoyed immensely and whose “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” (also Knopf, 2002 and due for a new edition) is in constant use in my TV watching area, would never write a conventional biography. I naturally requested a review copy. Some have kidded me that I would read a Thomson version of the San Francisco (where the British-born Thomson lives with his family) telephone directory. Not true…. (I think).

“Nicole Kidman” (Knopf, 304 pages, $24.95, illustrations, sources, index) is pure, unadulterated Thomson. For many readers that would be a turnoff, but to my quirky way of thinking, it’s pure joy! Thomson loves to create his own movies, substituting actors and actresses (like me, I sense he hates the current Hollywood practice of using “actors” for both men and women), changing the plot, rewriting a film so it satisfies us. After all, aren’t we the customer and isn’t the customer always right? Why can’t we make changes and improvements in the product we pay for?

I’ve been accused (and I admit my guilt) of personalizing my reviews, of often – not always — putting my own experiences and thoughts into a review. I did this recently with a review of a book by a former Harvard College dean and long-time professor about what’s wrong with Harvard and he sent me an email praising the review, but saying that what I said about Harvard not being the best choice for everybody had elements of truth in it, even though it may have overstated the case. I had cited my experience of attending a fine but not spectacular state university not known for research and how the presence of actual teachers and not teaching assistants gave me a solid education in my major (English) and my minor (Industrial Arts). That odd-ball combination, I might add, later proved invaluable when I was a real estate editor and writer and was also – briefly – an auto editor and writer.

Thomson gives us the facts on Kidman, born in Hawaii on June 20, 1967 to an Australian couple studying at the University of Hawaii, growing up as the “stalky” stringbean of a girl obsessed with TV programs like “Bewitched” and acting in general. She was a busy young girl, acting in many Australian TV shows and mini-series. Her breakout role, with Sam Neill and Billy Zane, was a thriller called “Dead Calm” (1989, directed by Australian Phillip Noyce). The next year she married Tom Cruise, whom she met playing the world’s youngest – and prettiest — doctor, Claire Lewicki in “Days of Thunder,” directed by Tony Scott, a movie that weirdly foreshadowed the rise of NASCAR racing great Jeff Gordon. Both Gordon and Cruise have faced intrusive media questions about their sexual identities.

David Thomson often uses an existing movie as a basis for his own creation, as I’ve previously noted. Nicole Kidman was great as Faunia in “The Human Stain,” adapted from the Philip Roth novel. But maybe Kidman is too pretty, too much of the cover girl to play an abused working class woman who hooks up with a college professor twice her age. Might not fellow Australian Cate Blanchett have made a better Faunia? I tend to agree, having seen Blanchett work wonders with the role of Kevin Spacey’s blowsy, unfaithful doomed wife in the movie “The Shipping News.”

Blanchett has a terrific range and she never looks the same in every movie she makes, which I’m afraid can’t be said for Kidman. What about her Virginia Woolf role in “The Hours,” you ask? You know, with the artificial nose that didn’t do anything to make the lovely Australian look like the mostly lesbian English author, but her portrayal won her the best actress Oscar. Suggestion to David Thomson: Follow up this wonderful book about Nicole Kidman and the weird process of creating a movie with one on the many faces of Cate Blanchett, born in Melbourne May 14, 1969. How about Cate Blanchett in the role of Ada, played by Kidman in “Cold Mountain?” You can see how this can be a turn off a reader who wants the straight facts – as if such a thing exists.

The author deals with the usual details of Kidman’s life, including the breakup of her marriage to Cruise after 10 years, her marriage to fellow Australian Keith Urban a few months ago and her photo spreads in many fashion magazines. Thomson suggests that Kidman is rushing to do everything she can while she’s still in her 30s. After all, next June she’ll be 40, in a world filled with Scarlett Johanssons (turning 22 in November!), Natalie Portmans (25) and Emmy Rossums (the latter, just turned 20 – almost exactly half Kidman’s age and possessed of a great future if she’ll only sing more, in my not-so-humble opinion!)

Men can look distinguished and have careers in their 40s and even 50s and beyond in Hollywood, but a woman beyond 40 is past the expiration date in the minds of most contemporary casting directors. More’s the pity, in view of the excellent performances recently by Joan Allen, 50, Julianne Moore, 45, Diane Keaton, 60, Blythe Danner, 63, and Meryl Streep, 57, to name just a few outstanding actresses – excuse me, “women actors” – past 40. Maybe I’m showing my age, but these seasoned women seem to be aging more gracefully than their male contemporaries.

That may be the reason why Kidman rushed into projects that didn’t work, including “The Stepford Wives,” “Bewitched” and “The Interpreter”, Thomson suggests. She’s also re-imagining photographer Diane Arbus in the upcoming “Fur.” I’m intrigued by this film, since it has Robert Downey Jr. playing Lionel, her mentor. When he’s hitting on all eight cylinders, there’s not a better actor around (see him in “The Singing Detective” directed by Keith Gordon, based on the Dennis Potter TV series). Diane Arbus doesn’t look a bit like Nicole Kidman, but who are we to question this strong-willed Aussie in her choice of roles? I leave that to a better writer, David Thomson! For the record, I agree with Thomson’s praise of Kidman’s performance as the crooked Russian woman in “Birthday Girl” and Kidman’s wonderful performance as Alice in Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.” I also liked her in “Birth,” which deserves wider showing. Even the best actors and actresses have a number of clunkers in their resumes — why not Kidman?

Who would want to read “Nicole Kidman”? And all the other books by Thomson? My not-so-short answer: General readers who want more than a superficial look at a subject, who desire insights not often found in movie reviews written under deadline pressure. Film buffs who can’t get enough of quirky movies like “The Ice Harvest” that I saw the other night on cable. Written by Robert Benton and Richard Russo (“Empire Falls,” “The Straight Man”), this 2005 Harold Ramis-helmed film noir featured John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Oliver Platt and was set in Wichita, Kansas in the Christmas season. Benton directed Kidman in “The Human Stain.” I’ve never heard of a movie set in Wichita and I make it a point to see everything Canadian-born Oliver Platt is in. How’s that for being a quirky film buff?

Near the very end of this book, which I urge everyone who cares about movies to read, Thomson says: “People ask me anew why I am doing a book about Nicole Kidman. I tell them there are great things to come, and I hope that I am right.”

Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

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