Critic and journalist David Thomson was born and educated in England, but he’s always had a thing for Hollywood. Over the course of hundreds of articles and a dozen books — “A Biographical Dictionary of Film,” most famously — he’s expounded on the beauty and the beastliness of studio filmmaking. A writer of immense elegance and provocative insights, Thomson’s great gift is describing how movie stars serve as templates for our dreams. “Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story” (1987) was a poetic analysis of the persona of a New Hollywood icon that presented a fresh take on Tinseltown. In his latest book, “Nicole Kidman,” hitting stores this week, the author takes an even more personal tack, blending his deep affinity for the actress with biography and an assessment of the state of movie stardom. Thomson has made San Francisco his home for many years, and we chatted one late afternoon in his unfussy garden.
SF360: You’ve always acknowledged the emotional effect that movies have, and the irrational effect that actors and actresses have on us. Should we view the Kidman book as a continuation of that fascination?
David Thomson: People like us, film intellectuals, have pulled a trick, which is to say that films should be seen as the work of directors. Now you can do it, you can get away with it, there’s no doubt about that, and there’s some substance to it. I’ve always had the belief, but I feel it more strongly as I get older, that the great majority of people actually go to movies to see people. Much of the time, they don’t know or care who the director is. They go to see people because to them the movie is, above all, a process where you can pretend to be these people. As you say, over the years I’ve done a lot of things that stand up for the personality of the actor. So for me now to do a book on Kidman is not unexpected or unusual. Although I’m surprised to find that a lot of people are shocked, or pretending to be shocked. I’ve always been interested in actors, and there is a sort of a trashy side to it, a fantasy side, a daydreaming side, fantasizing, half in love with. Which is not sort of intellectually responsible. But if you kid yourself that that’s not there in movie-going, then we’re not on the same page.
SF360: OK, but why Kidman? What is iconic about her?
Thomson: Well, several things. Probably the most important is I find her attractive. I cannot believe that I would want to do a book about somebody if I didn’t find them attractive. Two, Kidman has reached — I’m not sure how long she’ll stay there, and that’s part of what the book’s about — the level of real, old-fashioned stardom. There’s an aura to her. Stardom is not nearly as common in the movies as it once was. But she’s a star. And I’m interested in what that means and what that does. Third, I like her as an actress. And I particularly like the way in which she begins: She was presented it to us as Tom’s girl, with a lot of prejudicial baggage attached to that. And the time comes when that ends and she takes charge of her career. And all of a sudden, you had the feeling of her coming out into the open and being herself and doing some very adventurous things. There was that period a few years ago where she did a run of films where, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That’s not mainstream.’ She then sank back — and she talked to me about this — into mainstream, and I think she needed financial security. And now she’s come out again and we’re about to see a period of interesting films again. She’s somebody who’s in a position to get very, very bold projects made. I’m not sure that they would have got ‘The Hours’ or ‘The Others’ or even ‘Moulin Rouge!’ or ‘Dogville,’ made without her. The new film, ‘Fur,’ equally. So she’s got a real power and that’s part of her character as an actress. It’s to say, ‘I’ll do that.’ Choice of material is always crucial to actors because they often have to choose very early, when they don’t know enough about a project.
SF360: Can you share some insights into Kidman’s approach?
Thomson: I think she would say that she has to be in love with her part and she has to be — if not in love with the director or someone on the film, she has to really feel for them in a very close way. It gets to a point where it’s you few people together, trying to do something, and it means everything to her. I don’t think there’s too much else in her life except the chance of doing good work. She’s done some lazy, bad films. She knows it. She names them in the book. But give her something that is a challenge and she’s not just willing, but eager to transform herself in the interests of the film. It’s all getting at something she finds interesting, which is to the extent that people think they know her, they think she’s likable and nice and friendly. And she says, ‘I’m actually a very dark person.’ And this darkness is in the films that she’s most excited about, I’d say.
SF360: That explains her attraction to playing Diane Arbus in an art film like ‘Fur,’ given the tepid mainstream roles available in Hollywood.
Thomson: She’s a little bit of both worlds, I suppose, in that there’s a very strong ambition there. There’s a power instinct. I think she quite likes money and what goes with it.
SF360: You said a moment ago that movie stardom isn’t what it used to be. How so?
Thomson: If you use the word ‘stardom,’ people still think you mean the movies. But these days, stardom’s spread. It’s been caught up in the thing called celebrity, fame — and so you have stars in politics, sports, music, fashion, nonentity, even. People are famous just because they’re famous, and they don’t do a thing. One of the things that’s hard to credit from our distance in time is that in the Golden Age the public really loved their stars. There was a deep fondness and a loyalty. It was a much kinder age. We’re much more cynical about stars now and we know more about how they manipulate us, so we’re less generous in our emotional investment with them. Still, we recognize that there are people who’ve got it. Kidman’s very tall, she has this extraordinary skin quality which usually photographs but not always. People draw back from her physically. She’s got an amazing aura. She’s got great confidence, but she’s friendly. She’s not disdainful of the public in any way at all. I think the public likes her.
SF360: And yet we are fascinated by rumors and innuendo.
Thomson: I think we’re suspicious. Time and again, as I worked on the book, people would say to me, ‘Well, now, she and Tom had a deal, right?’ They may have done. I never found — and I searched hard — a scrap of evidence to prove that they did. I think at first they were in love. But a lot of people believe and swear that there was a deal — she got a career, she got fame, and he got a mask so that nobody would raise too many questions about him. I knew going in that it was an issue and I worked very hard to dig something up, but you can’t say it if you can’t prove it. And I can’t prove it. And indeed more than that, I didn’t find an atom of proof for it.
SF360: You’ll hear stories of a star putting out the word, ‘Don’t talk to so-and-so who’s writing a book about me.’
Thomson: On the contrary, what happened was she opened the doors for a lot of people. A lot of people would not talk to me unless they knew she was happy about it. And they did talk to me, because she put the word ‘round that it was OK.
SF360: So here’s the million-dollar question: What did she have to gain by your book?
Thomson: What I sent to [her publicist] was, ‘You know I take the movies seriously. I’m not here to trash her private life. I’m going to have to say some things about her personal life, but I’m not looking to go through her love affairs and everything. I want to talk about the films. I want to talk about the choices and the acting. And I like her, and I take her seriously, and I have a certain reputation in the film-book business, which I think will reflect well on her. There are people who will buy the book because they are Kidman freaks but there are other people who will say, ‘I’m very surprised to see that he’s written a book about her, but if he has I’ll give it a try.’ What she’s got to gain from it is being taken seriously. I think these people live a life of some sort of terror that they’ll be forgotten, and that they’ll be written off, and in the end the trashiness of celebrity will get them. They know the public is crueler to stars than it ever was and it’s sort of waiting to drag big reputations down. And she’d like to have a long career. She has said several times that she regards Katherine Hepburn as an idol. Well, there was a woman who, at the age of 80, was still adored and esteemed in her own land. Kidman would love that kind of future. And I think she saw the book as a possible help in that. That would be my guess.
SF360: In 2002, when you published your revised opus, ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,’ you told me your next book would be a novel and that you wouldn’t mind if you didn’t write much about movies anymore. What changed your mind?
Thomson: I did say that, and I felt it, and, in many ways, I still feel it. I can’t complain that I’ve not had the chance to say what I think about the movies. And I’m one of those people who feels that we’re simply not in a great time of moviemaking. So I would love to be able to branch out a bit more. The novel is done in the sense that I’m on a second draft. There are subjects outside movies I’d love to write about, but the fact of the matter is — and this is a version of Nicole doing ‘Fur’ or ‘Bewitched’ — she’s got a big overhead. Much bigger overhead than I have [laughs], although my overhead is big enough for me. And I’ve got to sustain it. I’ve got a family. I can get publishers interested if it’s me on film, but if I suggest something quite different, they think, ‘That’s going to be much harder.’ So I’m, to a degree, trapped in film, and it’s difficult to get out of it. Let that be a warning to you. [Laughs.]
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