Being Nicole Kidman

This week, I’ll be trying an experiment. Instead of one post about a book, I’ll be running several posts over a week, briefly discussing various aspects of a book, linking to reviews, and including excerpts from the book in question. I’m not sure how all this will work, but it’s frustrating to discuss a book once and have it sink down the list, never to be recovered except by Googlers.

Posts of this nature will be tucked into the “Book Profile” category.

This week, I’ll be looking at “Nicole Kidman,” a sort-of biography by film critic David Thomson. There were a number of signs at first that this was to be no ordinary star biography.

First, it was from Knopf. Not a publisher known for publishing bios that are essentially clip-jobs. Second, David Thomson’s not known for writing books like this. He wrote a biography of David O. Selznick but is better known for his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film”. So I was anticipating something different.

Which is exactly what we got. “Nicole Kidman” is an erudite, deeply felt and distinctly creepy book. There’s deep thoughts and shallow assumptions. It’s not a biography, so much as one man’s opinion. Informed. Educated. But there’s a lot going on below the belt as well.

Lawrence Levi, staff writer at The New York Times, called it a weird and unseemly mash note.”

His obsession clouds his thinking. He seems offended, even hurt, that Kidman would stoop so low as to do a commercial for Chanel No. 5 or go seminude in an Italian GQ spread when she was already an Oscar winner. He clucks disapprovingly about her choice of lovers; they don’t “seem especially substantial or rewarding,” possibly because “she meets only famous or half-famous people.” He imagines the non-obsessed will want to hear his bizarre fantasies about casting Kidman in remakes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and François Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” or his dream — recounted over three excruciating pages — about stumbling across his beloved in a Paris brothel. (She’s wearing “a very revealing white brassiere, a size or two too small,” as she cavorts with a Gestapo officer and an “elderly Chinaman.”)

We get back to that bordello daydream later in the week. Here, instead, to give you a taste of the Thomson style, are the opening paragraphs from “Nicole Kidman.”

I am talking to an Australian, a woman, about Nicole Kidman, and the crucial mystery is there at the start: “I’ve known her twenty years, and I’ve spent a staggering amount of time with her, but I feel I don’t know her. Because what she gives you is what you want. A lot of actors are like that. They don’t exist when they aren’t playing a part.”

This book is about acting and about an actress, but it must also study what happens to anyone beholding an actress — the spectator, the audience, or ourselves in any of our voyeur roles. And the most important thing in that vexed transaction is the way the actress and the spectator must remain strangers. That’s how the magic works. Without that guarantee, the dangers of “relationship” are grisly and absurd — they range from illicit touching to murder. For there cannot be this pitch of irrational desire without that rigorous apartness, provided by a hundred feet of warm space in a theater, and by that astonishing human invention, the screen, at the movies. And just as the movies were never simply an art or a show, a drama or narrative, but the manifestation of desire, so the screen is both barrier and open sesame.

The thing that permits witness — seeing her, being so intimate — is also the outlines of a prison.

Next: “Eyes Wide Shut”