WHAT it’s about: Beautiful and determined Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) dreams of life as a television personality, until her down-to-earth husband demands she settle down. Desperate for fame, Suzanne seduces lug head teenager Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) to dispatch her problem in Gus Van Sant’s sizzling black comedy.

WHO’s in it: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Illeana Douglas

WHEN it came out: 1995

HOW come you haven’t heard of (or just seen) it: To Die For flew under the radar until Kidman snagged a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy. Before then Mrs. Tom Cruise was known more for her stunning red carpet looks, marriage and roles as a love interest. Although not as famous as her later works, it shows her skills, as well as those of the rest of the killer cast. It has found a home on television, frequently played on cable (I once saw it on television in Amsterdam, dubbed in Italian with Dutch subtitles).

WHY you need to watch it–immediately!:

  •  Gus Van Sant’s gift for telling character-driven stories is in fine form. He splices together a film that is part tabloid, part fly on the wall, part documentary, giving the viewer insight into the cruel and calculating Suzanne, while still keeping his commentary smart and pitch black.
  • The film still feels relevant today. While it might have originally been inspired by the Pamela Smart case, other media fixated women who have come into the public eye in the age of reality television (the names Kardashian and Palin come to mind) make Suzanne’s story seem not just believable, but very possible.
  • Kidman is not famous for her comedic roles, but she showcases great timing and insight into a woman who sees her life as one unending performance. Her Suzanne vacillates between perky when she’s playing weather girl, tantalizing in her scenes with Jimmy, then comically vapid as she discusses her career goals to the camera. That Kidman plays Suzanne as a woman so self-aware that her moments rarely read as authentic is inspired and a showcase for her talents.
  • The supporting cast is nothing to laugh at. Phoenix, Affleck, and Allison Folland (as their gal pal Lydia) are dynamic as Suzanne’s teen fans who are too swept up in her created persona to see through the guise. And Dan Hedaya and Kurtwood Smith play Suzanne’s father-in-law and father with gravity while still being in on the joke.
  • Although sometimes prone to overacting, Dillon wisely keeps Suzanne’s doomed husband grounded, making her vanity even more devastating. Douglas, who has comedy chops few have been able to use effectively, is the wry conscious of the film, pointing out from the beginning what no one else wants to see—Suzanne is an artificial creation of a cold, cruel woman. Her skating scene over the end credits to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” is the perfect denouement.

amberAmber Kelly-Anderson is a Texas-based writer and literature professor harbouring a long-standing infatuation with film. Her lifelong missions are to Save Ferris and voice a Pixar character.

Read more of Amber’s posts.

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