Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Amy Nicholson on Gus Van Sant’s media-saturation satire To Die For.
Three years ago, news anchor Gretchen Carlson asked Fox CEO Roger Ailes why her career had stalled. Her boss offered her a deal: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.” Ailes might have expected her to agree. He’d been trading money and jobs for sex since at least the 1980s, when he offered a female producer an extra $100 a week if she’d have sex with him whenever he wanted. When Carlson’s allegations broke, 20 more women came forward. People were shocked. Ailes fought back, then resigned, then died.
But Gus Van Sant’s wicked comedy To Die For warned us about corruption in TV news two decades ago. It’s just that at the time, everyone only blamed the movie’s ambitious blonde — not the men in her life who got her mad enough to kill. What if Nicole Kidman’s aspiring anchor Suzanne Stone had a point?
To Van Sant, she always did – the audience just wasn’t listening. To Die For introduces us to Suzanne as a modern femme fatale, less a chain-smoking noir temptress than a pert pop icon with her lavender eye shadow and tidy bob. Zoom into her photo, as the opening credits do, and she’s a cartoon made of ink dots, not a flesh-and-blood woman. Straight away, newspaper headlines alert us to Suzanne’s crime: She hired three teenagers to shoot her husband, Larry Moretto (Matt Dillon), and she slept with one, too, a block-headed and broken-hearted moron played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Indefensible. Yet, Van Sant is warning us to scrutinize fake news. He’s structured the movie like Citizen Kane —or I, Tonya, if you’d rather — with Larry’s family and Suzanne’s ex-friends telling us what happened in a mix of fake archival TV and fake original interviews. Even Suzanne herself is there, a large goddess in front of an all-white background, telling us her side of the story with all the empathetic furrows and sighs and smiles she’d perform on Oprah, if she ever landed an invite.
“You don’t see the big picture until you step back,” she cautions. True — it’s only post-Ailes that you truly do see Kidman’s entire performance, and what she and Van Sant are trying to say about the world that created Stone. Yes, she was chiseled by TV, for TV, a woman who name-drops Jane Pauley and Maria Shriver with religious devotion. In flashbacks, we even see young Suzanne scrambling to get the camera’s attention. But here’s what’s left out in the conversation about women who would literally kill for fame: She was really good at her job. And if the men in her life had noticed, people would still be alive.
Suzanne wanted to be a TV anchor. She’d only ever wanted to be a TV anchor. Her husband was a secondary concern … though she did truly love the hottest pizza restaurant jam band guitarist in town because, well, it’s a small town. No wonder she seized the chance on their Miami honeymoon to slip into a hotel convention for big city TV executives where this sweet, suburban girl in gingham tries to smile as an old man at the podium makes an elbow-jabbing joke about a female coworker who gets “faxed 10 times a day.” That boss takes Suzanne out for a drink and tells her a story about a girl like her, a blonde weather-girl who shows up at his office with a letter that introduced her as “Miss so-and-so, who is of moderate intelligence, who has some experience in broadcasting — and more importantly, who can suck your cock until your eyes pop out.”
Miss so-and-so gets the job. “You know who that gal is today?” the exec gloats. Suzanne’s eyes widen when the famous name is whispered in her ear. Suzanne could get the job, too. But only if she’s willing to suck a cock — the Ailes bargain played for laughs. In the Nineties, the small scene just played like a gag about the casting couch, which back then was more an attack on the women willing to lay down than the creeps offering the deal. Post #MeToo, the sequence feels like a slap. That moment was true, and the real life TV titan with a history of bad sexual harassment deals was about to found Fox News, the channel that would drastically reshape America’s concept of true and false, the very next year. He needed the scrutiny. But all eyes were on Suzanne.
Here’s how dark To Die For gets. Suzanne is willing to make that trade. In the next scene, she walks into the office of her local, rinky-dink cable station with that same letter in hand, written by herself. Only when she looks at the cock on offer — Wayne Knight, aka Seinfeld‘s Newman — she can’t bring herself to hand over the envelope. She’s going to earn her anchor slot with hard work and talent.
And she’s got both. Suzanne is bursting with ideas, including the documentary that introduces her to the three misfit teens who she’ll eventually ask to murder her husband when he, too, asks her to give up on her dream. Even the high schoolers only want to gawk at her boobs and legs. (Yes, it’s noted that the grossest of the three is played by Casey Affleck.) Still, it’s astonishing how long she tries to earn her anchor slot the right way, typing up memo after memo of her show concepts, working late, holding her own camera, cleaning up her own reels — and how resistant everyone in her life is to appreciating her skills, even as she evolves fro a gingham darling to her strong-shouldered power suits.
To her boss, Suzanne’s ambition is a joke. To her husband, it’s a waste of time. He thinks she’d be better off getting pregnant and helping him shoot videos of his customers singing down at the family restaurant. Groans Suzanne, “If you wanted a babysitter, you should have married Mary Poppins.” Even Phoenix, who most sees her with the awe she deserves, tunes out the actual research behind her weather broadcasts to imagine her narrating a sexual fantasy directly to him. “What are you doing to me with your big, fat, hard ….” purrs his imaginary Suzanne. Does he even notice the nifty way she tosses a magnetic sun on the board?
Suzanne only ever wanted to be a TV anchor. No one cares. So fuck ’em.
Can a murderess be a feminist icon? Why not. Especially when we as a culture have a hard time marshaling empathy for Teflon blondes, especially the ones who don’t always deserve it. (See Hillary Clinton, Meghan Kelly and Tracy Flick.) Van Sant doesn’t fully excuse Suzanne, but he asks us to consider her side. It’s not his fault that audiences didn’t.
Even if the movie didn’t succeed in pulling women out from under the Roger Ailes’ thumb, it did yank Kidman’s career away from being forced to romp around the Oklahoma land-grab with her husband Tom Cruise and a much-mocked Irish accent. To Die For won Kidman a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, the first step in her stellar solo future. Still, she was snubbed by the Oscars, who might make that same mistake again this year. Soon after we realized that Kidman is one of the greatest actresses of her generation, we started taking her for granted. But hey, don’t cry for Kidman. She’s starring as Gretchen Carlson in Jay Roach’s as-yet untiled Roger Ailes biopic. Here’s a title suggestion: The Revenge of Suzanne Stone.
Previously: Master and Commander