Fawning and voyeuristic, David Thomson's paean to his screen idol fails to excite the co-author of the "Eyes Wide Shut" screenplayby Frederic Raphael / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Nicole Kidman by David Thomson (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
The critic’s first duty is to seek out anything meritorious and commend it. In the case of David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman, this will not detain us long. There are some nice pics of the lady and hints of intelligent things the author might have said about the medium, if he had not been infatuated to a point beyond that which reduced Emil Jannings, in The Blue Angel, from presiding professor to drooling dupe.
The film critic is forever pressing his nose—and other parts, it seems—against the barrier between him and the medium. How touchingly often he will tell you of his meetings with the famous, who treated him as at least an equal. Every tradesman likes to imagine himself welcome at the front door. Thomson hurries to recount how he actually held hands with Tuesday Weld after she had failed to set the world on fire. He also sat on the kerb with Katie Hepburn, the most loved woman in America, while a tyre got changed. This news is made relevant to Nicole Kidman because, Thomson says here, she “often invokes Hepburn as her idol or model.” Often? Daily? Monthly? And model for what? Kidman doesn’t have a recognisable style of delivering a line and la Hepburn never flashed her ass, as Nicole—we’re all pals here, right?—first did in Dead Calm. In The Blue Room, Thomson also glimpsed Nic’s “gingery pubic hair” when she stripped, very briefly, for theatre buffs. (Hey, wasn’t Katie called “Red” by Cary in The Philadelphia Story?) If accuracy matters, the parcel passed round the ring in Schnitzler’s original Reigen was not “physical love,” as Thomson has it, but syphilis.
Our author has never met Kidman, but she did actually call him in February 2006, “like a languid, superior but amused prefect.” Thomson may live in LA but the English mark is on him: in his mid-sixties, he still wears the cap and blazer of the naughty boy who rather wants the prefect to call him to his study and—you never know your luck—ask him to bend over. Thomson so wants to be the intimate of those whose world he tramps and tracks. If they won’t let him in, he will fantasise what he might have done for them by re-editing their movies, rejigging their script or (assuming his wife is OK with this) banging them to rights.
Eyes Wide Shut—very gently dumped on here—offers Thomson a chance to get up close and personal, not least by citing passages from my book Eyes Wide Open. This earns me the royalty of being called “Freddie” by his eminence. It also allows him to pencil in the stage direction—”grins”—in my scene in which Stanley Kubrick invited me, kinda, to watch Nicole doing nude shots. In fact, there was no grin; shy and sly, that was SK, offering me ginger candy, which he would doubtless later have retracted.
The critic as fan here combines the offices of stalker, toady and entomologist: Thomson Thomson plays Humbert Humbert, but with none of Nabokov’s duplicitous genius or (the same thing?) verbal resource. Even the dedication is a mixture of a grope and a grovel: “For all the actresses in the French cinema.” A sprat is thus thrown to all the maquereaux who will bonjour David when he next turns up at Cannes.
Thomson, I am promised, has written a useful New Biographical Dictionary of Film as well as being—he blurbs us—”the screenwriter on the award-winning documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind.” You can rely on the guy being given some kind of campaign medal so that he can feel himself an honorary veteran of the medium, “one of us,” whomever (as he puts it) that might be.
To savour the subtlety of his salivations, here is Thomson on Kidman’s great, great performance in To Die For: “She becomes the face on television, her eyes so wide she could do blow-jobs with them.” What is this, a commercial for Kleenex? It’s not often you put down a book covered in the author’s, um, sweat.
The dangerously smart ghost in Thomson’s wet-dream machine is Norman Mailer, whose pay-the-rent-and-the-alimony verbal romance with Marilyn Monroe, in Of Women and their Elegance, transcended Thomson’s puffs and pants. With all his faults, Mailer really is a writer. The defect here is not only the faulty grammar, or the inept sentence structure, or the want of modesty (in every sense); it is also bad faith. Simple instance? Try this: “Three national types are most thoroughly mocked in Britain: the French, the Irish and the Australians. And it is therefore appropriate that so many early Australians were of Irish descent.” Is there the smallest truth, or wit, in this sociological aperçu? Any honest observer could nominate three categories of more mocked, much more despised, groups than Thomson’s trio, but they wouldn’t serve his creepy trick: to make Nicole (French name, right?)—actually the happy child of a well-heeled middle-class family—seem like some kind of spunky underbitch, “tall, strong, opinionated, determined and talented” (oh that last adjective, the salt in every packet of stale epithets!).
Thomson seems honestly to admire Kidman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Hours, a confectioner’s triple-decker, with its factitious claim to be serious, its take-me-tragically score and its booklover’s-calendar quotes from the wearisome Mrs Dalloway. As for insight into that spiteful prig Virginia Woolf, lover-boy finds it in the ambulatory waxwork performance of our girl, whose infinite capacity for taking pains extended to learning to write with her right hand. Wow! And did the actor who played Leonard go and get circumcised?
Not a critical word is spared on the scene which—more than any other—sinks the movie. In it, Leonard and Virginia have a lower-middle-class shouting match, on a railway station platform. Had the director, Stephen Daldry, had the wit with which he is regularly credited, the dialogue would have been played quietly, like a love scene, which would have made it cohere with the repeated Virginian voiceover saying how happy she was with long-suffering Leonard. That one scene is evidence enough of the film’s wilful cheapness. Great actors cannot do scenes that way, and good directors don’t ask them to.
As for Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, not even a fawning lapdog can quite lick Kidman’s Isabel Archer into anything but a travesty. Here the intellectual Thomson breaks cover to promise that “repeated readings” gave him the insight—manifest to a superficial skimmer—that Henry James’s Isabel Archer should really have hooked up with Ralph Touchett. He also tells us that HJ would have “fainted” if someone had proposed that Gilbert Osmond should kiss the lady. Has Thomson never heard that, when asked why he had failed in the theatre, HJ replied: “I don’t know. I tried so hard to be base.” Would HJ really have objected to Isabel getting a Larry Harvey tongue-sandwich, if it helped the box office?
Thomson’s own style goes lower when he writes of Kidman’s expression when proposed to (in the same movie) by Lord Warburton: “the close-up of shocked eyes might go more easily with the first twinge of cancer in a young woman.” Sadistic voyeurism has its leering market, I guess, but not chez moi.
As a love letter, there are nothing like enough genuine stamps on this rush-to-deadline verbiage written “to honour desire.” But who knows? Perhaps there were 30 drafts of it. Didn’t Karl Kraus define a journalist as a man who, given time, writes worse?