Friday, September 4, 2020

Fake News: "To Die For"

 To Die For was released back in 1995, so why does it seem so up-to-the-minute? Partly this is due to the sad fact that it was consistently mentioned in obituaries for the late Buck Henry, who left us (alas!) on January 8 of this year, at the age of 89. Henry wrote the tart and brilliant screenplay, based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (who as a college co-ed had a secret sexual relationship with the fifty-three-year-old J.D. Salinger -- a spicy tidbit that has nothing to do with this story). Maynard's inspiration for her novel was an actual New Hampshire criminal case involving Pamela Smart, a cute young thing who seduced a naive high school kid, then persuaded him to murder her husband.

In the film, the role of the adorable but conniving Suzanne Stone is played by a bubbly and blonde Nicole Kidman, in what I consider one of her very best roles. What resonates with me in the current day and age is Suzanne's ambition. Although not especially talented, she will do whatever it takes (including murder) to succeed as a television personality. Her mantra, repeated several times in the film, makes it quite clear what she wants out of life: "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."

That's why, after nabbing a Girl Friday job at a tiny local cable-access station, Suzanne sets off on a campaign to turn herself into an on-camera personality.  Like some of today's TV superstars I could mention, she seems far less interested in delivering the news than in burnishing her own reputation as a sexy commentator on public affairs. Her obsessive quest for celebrity of course shakes up her marriage to an adoring local guy (Matt Dillon) who simply wants  a loving wife and a baby.

The cast is filled with effective supporting players, including Dan Hedaya as Suzanne's Italian father-in-law, Wayne Knight as her bemused boss, and Buck Henry himself (complete with dorky mustache and bowtie) as a prim high school teacher. Illeana Douglas has a vivid role as Dillon's cynical ice-skating sister, someone smart enough to mistrust Suzanne from the start. Among the trio of high school misfits Suzanne pulls into her lethal orbit are two future Oscar winners, Casey Affleck as the spaced-out Russell and Joaquin Phoenix as the love-besotted James. The third partner-in-crime, a self-loathing young girl played by Alison Folland, notes at the end of the film that -- thanks to her small part in the murder plot and the subsequent media attention surrounding it -- she herself has enjoyed some of the fame that Suzanne had promised would come from appearing on-screen in the living-rooms of a nation.  Such irony! Folland's Lydia fully intends to live out the fact that "if people are watching, it makes you a better person."

As we've all seen recently, there's no end to the good that  can come to you if you make a splash on television. It's not fake news to say that TV celebrity can lead to much bigger things in much wider circles of power. "On TV," as Suzanne has insisted, "is where we learn about who we really are." It's also where a nation discovers what kind of person tickles our collective fancy. In an election year, it's especially worth pondering what makes someone telegenic, and what gives him or her a public reputation to die for.





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