Review of Scenes From A Revolution
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Reviews of two books about Katharine Hepburn
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Review of Nicole Kidman
By David Thomson
Reviewed by Simon Weaving
I should admit that I have always been a fan of David Thomson, although perhaps not in the same way that he is a fan of Nicole Kidman. I recently read The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood, which is an eloquent, lucid and in many places thrilling examination of the space, the industry, the community and the idea that is Hollywood. I remembered, not being exactly shocked, but noting with some surprise his candour and hesitancy in the sixth chapter of that book when he declared a kind of love for Nicole Kidman. He apologises more than once in pursuing, through Kidman and her star status, the idea that we viewers, we voyeurs, sitting there in the dark looking up at the beautiful faces and bodies of actors or actresses presented before us in the light of the screen, feel something. He struggles to give this a name, tries ‘love’, ‘crush’, ‘fantasy’, and retreats, unable to name the phenomenon satisfactorily. In the end it doesn’t matter because his chapter is about the complex relationship that binds audience to screen and the primacy of character, of acting and of star in that bond. We get the point. The chapter stands out from all the others in the book for two reasons. Firstly it is full of perhapses and question marks, signifying Thomson’s hesitancy as he feels his way delicately around a topic that clearly risks making many a reader uncomfortable (because we do not like to speak of the intimate and lonely desire we experience in that dark). Secondly, and more importantly, it comes closest to explaining the secret core that lies at the heart of the movie business. Why do we pay to sit in the dark? Why do we gaze at these beautiful people? Thomson never quite answers his own deeply complex question. An itch is left to scratch, an ache to comfort, and I suspect that his latest book Nicole Kidman comes partly from this unease.
Thomson makes it clear from the very beginning of his book Nicole Kidman that this “biography” is about more than Kidman. “It is about acting,” he writes in the first chapter, and about “what happens to anyone beholding an actress.” In the first chapter, entitled ‘Strangers’, he admits he has never met Kidman and only talked to her by phone after a draft of the book had already been completed. It is in this light that the book – not really a biography at all – must be understood. It may be about more than Kidman, but it is also about substantially less then her.
With only nine pages about her childhood and early film career in Australia (eight feature films including BMX Bandits and The Year My Voice Broke), Thomson focuses on Kidman’s Hollywood persona, and for the most part the book is a series of analyses of the films Kidman has starred in. Here Thomson is in his element and his rich insights into story, character, performance and effect show why he is regarded as a one of the best film commentators of our time. Yet these chapters often feel like set pieces, isolated from a broader more important narrative that is Nicole Kidman, and they will be frustrating for those who have not seen the films in question. Of course it is possible to divine something of an actor by examining her body of work, but we must admit in that endeavour the possibility that, if she is a truly great actor and able to leave herself behind in the dressing room when she inhabits a role, then we may never be able to say more than how well she has brought that part to life on the screen.
If Thomson has erred, and I think he has, it is believing that the considerable talents he uses creating meaning from the viewing of a film can be applied to understand a person. The gap of darkness between screen and critic is a mere fragment compared with the vast territory that lies between an actress’ persona on that screen and her real self. And whilst Thomson has not perhaps set out to explore the real Nicole Kidman as much as the idea of Nicole Kidman, he does name his book after the person. Worse, where he has tried to bridge the distance from star to human he fills the page with fantasies or generalised nonsense that could apply to any talented star – they are hardworking, driven, have problems with their relationships, wealthy, concerned with their reputation. Well yes we understand this, but this is not Nicole. This is the entire geography of the Hollywood star. And it has been driven over and flattened by a hundred years of writers before Thomson got there.
We live in a highly reflexive society (here you are reading one film critic’s view of a another film critic’s book of a person on a screen who he has never met!) and Thomson’s book Nicole Kidman is a product of that reflexivity. It contains many insightful views about the films Kidman has made, but it is not actually about Nicole Kidman, the person. It could never be given Thomson’s premise that the price of desire in the dark is separation from the real.