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Valiant voyeurism

Nicole Kidman David Thomson Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $24.95

September 10, 2006|Tara Ison | Tara Ison is the author of the novels "A Child Out of Alcatraz" and the forthcoming "The List."

IT'S the fuel that drives the engine of romantic love, the steam behind millions of moist narratives and sweaty quests. Obsession is a full-time job; to obsess is both a craving to consume and the sense of being consumed by. This uneasy paradox is at the core of David Thomson's "Nicole Kidman."

No genre label quite serves "Nicole Kidman" (nor does it have a defining subtitle); this is a book of multiple personalities, part astute analysis of our relationship to the film image and our cultural fixation on celebrity and part insightful film criticism, pedestrian celebrity bio and starry-eyed love letter. This is Thomson's personal journey of obsession to answer the question: Just what makes Nicole Kidman tick?

Thomson, the esteemed and prolific film historian, critic and author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood," knows the question is itself absurd, given the nature of celebrity. What he calls the "crucial mystery," after all, is the very unknowability of a movie actress with whom we feel a tangible intimacy.

"This book is about acting and about an actress," Thomson writes, "but it must also study what happens to anyone beholding an actress -- the spectator, the audience, or any of ourselves in 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."

Yet in writing the book, Thomson does try to pull back the curtain and strip away the mystery -- and in the process shows himself to be as celebrity-obsessed as any of us who, standing in line at the supermarket, can't help but read those tawdry, inquiring headlines.

Born in 1967 in Honolulu to progressive, medical-professional parents, Kidman goes to school in Sydney, stands out (gawky height, flaming hair), reads a lot and acts in school plays. As a teenager she discovers "the liberation of pretending to be people just a little more sophisticated or daring," Thomson writes. "The constant sexual edge in her acting -- call it flirtation, if you will -- is her way of understanding so much," and she earns quality roles in Australian film and television. By the time she turns 18, she stands out for something else: her ambition and drive. She makes it on the international map with "Dead Calm" in 1989. Enter Tom Cruise, and she's off and running.

Thomson writes much of the book in this kind of present tense, which may well be the literary trick of keeping one's subject alive and present -- again, the paradox of attempting to actualize the intangible -- but it also creates an unfortunate soap-opera quality to his frequent future-tense speculations: Will our heroine realize what fate has in store for her?

We get the customary chronological tracking (Kidman goes here and does this, then goes there and does that), and the romantic history, including the Kidman-Cruise era, about which Thomson is almost chivalrously defensive of her. He analyzes the possibly destructive role of Stanley Kubrick's relentless examination of their relationship during the rehearsals and filming of "Eyes Wide Shut," yet he rejects any of the "dark jokes" or "false rumors" about the sincerity of their marriage. Thomson's Nicole has far too much integrity to have participated in a sham.

Indeed, in discussions of Kidman's romantic encounters, both in real life and on screen, there is an odd, discomfited tone, as if Thomson feels no man is quite up to par with or deserving of his lady fair. About her kiss with John Malkovich in Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady," he writes: "I do not think there has ever been a person in the audience seeing that kiss who has not cried out, 'No!' " He is referring to the sexual unsuitability of Malkovich, not the ill-fated match of the characters.

Such hyperbole wears thin: Is Kidman really a "tidal force that makes her an idea in the sky"? And one could do with fewer mentions of her "Rapunzel-like ringleted hair" or the creamy "bone-white dazzle" of her skin, how it's the "milky hue ... you find in Ireland still, and in the religious paintings of the Renaissance, and it is a mysterious fusion of the spiritual and the erotic."

Yes, Kidman's a beautiful woman -- but as in the case of anyone attempting to justify the intensity of an obsession, the thicker you lay it on, the less convincing you become. Thomson ultimately reveals himself a victim of the very condition he himself terms "Nicolia ... the sadness, the melancholy, that falls on guys who are looking at her for too long."

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