"You're not anybody in America unless you're on TV," says Nicole Kidman as the character Suzanne Stone in Gus Van Zant's 1995 flick To Die For. "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."
The line is meant as a twisted joke delivered by a murderous narcissist in a comedy so dark it's nearly pitch black, but the basic sentiment has been embraced by far too many nearly two decades later. Sure, not everyone is on television, but "What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?" might as well be the official tagline for the social media age.
That's not the only portion of the film that seems oddly relevant in 2017. The entire plot reads like some far-seeing prophet put all the worrying odds and ends of the year that just ended, put them into a blender, reworked them into a comprehensive story and sent it back in a time machine to the mid '90s. There's a lecherous television news producer who preys on young women for his own sexual gratification à la Roger Ailes. The film lambasts both America's obsession with true crime stories (see: the five-time Golden Globe nominee American Crime Story, among other examples) and the more exploitative and sensationalistic segments of the national media. At the center of it all is a blond egomaniac who wears too much makeup, lacks basic taste, is clumsily obsessed with other's ethnicities, freely comments on women's looks, has odd opinions about Russian leaders, claims that personal failure is impossible, and will do just about anything to get on television as many times as possible. We're talking about Kidman's character, but you'd be excused if your mind wandered to our President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Of course, even without the oddly resonant themes, there's still good reason to watch To Die For at the moment. Especially in the midst of awards show season.
It's the major film debut of Cassy Affleck, who is widely expected to claim the Best Actor trophy at both this weekend's Golden Globes and next month's Oscars. Affleck, just twenty at the time of the film's release, plays a secondary but integral character. In some ways, the role has shades of the one he'd go on to play in Manchester By the Sea. His character, Russell, is a simple small-town New England boy who comes from a family that works the sea and is prone to some violent and juvenile outbursts. It's not exactly as if Russell would have grown up into Manchester's Lee Chandler, but the two might be said to be cut from a similar cloth.
Kidman, too, is nominated at the Golden Globes for her role in Lion, not that that's much of a big deal; her nod is her 11th, the sixth most nominated performer of all time (a spot she shares with both Dustin Hoffman and Leonardo DiCaprio). However, To Die For was her second nomination and first win and it came at a time when most of America unfairly thought of her as simply Mrs. Tom Cruise. Kidman's masterful performance would begin her rise into both the A-list (see: the Oscar, paychecks, Chanel No. 5 contract, etc.) and one of art house cinema's greatest treasures (see: Dogville, Margot and the Wedding, and Birth, among others).
The film follows Kidman's Suzanne vain quest to become a hot-shot TV newswoman who travels the globe asking leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev about "that big purple thing on his forehead," as well as other pertinent issues. First, however, she had to find herself a husband, so she marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), despite her seeming discomfort with his "ethnic" status (he's Italian American). He's a nice man with a secure future who will likely take over his family's restaurant, but he lacks any greater ambitions that could get in the way of Suzanne's own.
She arranges her honeymoon at a Florida hotel, not because she wants a tan (they don't look good on television, she thinks), but because the dates coincides with a media conference. While her husband is out fishing, she allows herself to fall prey to that lecherous producer in the process, eventually landing a gig at a local cable station as the nighttime weather girl. In her free time at the station, she tries her hand at producing a "documentary" about teenagers. The only students willing to participate are three losers played by Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, and Alisson Foland.
Soon enough, it becomes clear that her husband does have at least one ambition: to become a father. But Suzanne only sees pregnancy as something that could get in the way of her career. "You can't run from place to place with your crew following and conduct serious interviews with a big, fat stomach," she stammers.
So, after seducing Phoenix's underaged character and praying on Foland's insecurities, she convinces the trio of kids to kill Larry. On the night the deed is done, Suzanne is transfixed by the glow of local news van lights that have assembled outside her house to cover the tragedy. She marches out to meet the media as the national anthem plays on television as if it's her manifest destiny. She seems even more excited as the case soon becomes a national tabloid sensation. She hears the rabble of the media that flocks around her as she enters the courthouse for her eventual trial not as hard-hitting questions, camera flashes and an invasion of privacy, but rather as cheers of adulation.
Of course, you have to feel sorry for Suzanne in some ways, at least ironically. If only she had waited a few years she could have found the fame and attention she so desperately wanted on reality television. She'd make a great villain on something like Big Brother, or perhaps a runner-up on The Apprentice. Maybe her news career would have taken off instead, and she'd find herself as one of the Hitchcock blondes with a prime slot at Fox News. Or, maybe she could have had those kids and found her glory as an exploitive, over-sharing mommy blogger. Failing all of that, she might have made a great Trump surrogate (note to Hollywood: keep Kidman in mind for the role of Kellyanne Conway in the inevitable Trump movie. We already know she can do anything with the right prosthetics).
Maybe Suzanne could have found a path as a politician herself, at least a Tea Party congresswoman. Many of the character's qualities seem uneasily similar to Trump's–the self-aggrandizement, the need for attention and television time. The academic journal BMC Psychiatry once classified Suzanne as a clear sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder. It's worth noting that some psychiatrists (albeit ones that haven't treated him) have wondered publicly if Donald Trump has the disorder as well.
Not that the particular similarities need to be hit home too hard.
There's shades of Suzanne all around to spare. They're there in everyone who feels like their life is meaningless unless someone somewhere is watching bits of it. In those who decide they're fit to provide information and opinions to other, whether on television or Twitter, without possession the skills or even desire to make sure that information is correct in the first place. They're there too in everyone who thinks that merely possessing influence or fame is a goal in and of itself, no matter the cost and no matter their qualifications.
Towards the end of the film, one of the characters repeats Suzanne's line about the need to be one TV, but adds, "but, if everybody was on TV all the time, there wouldn't be anybody left to watch, and that's where I get confused."
The internet soon had a solution for that quandary, but we're no less confused.
Watch video interviews with the 2017 Golden Globes nominees here: