Written by: Joyce Maynard and Henry Buck
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Deliciously wicked. Recounting the story of Suzanne Jones Maretto, a shallow and crazy small-town girl haunted with fame, To Die For offers an exquisite and vitriolic vision of the deleterious effects of television, and its culture of instant celebrity. Suzanne’s ridiculous but persevering quest for stardom not only reflects the fulsome narcissism of a unique character amazingly played by Nicole Kidman, but also accurately deciphers the inherent problems of the medium of television.
In the locality of Little Hope, New Hampshire, the newlywed and oh-so photogenic Suzanne Stone Maretto struggles to reach fame. Since her childhood, her one and unique goal is to be on TV. And in order to fulfill her fantasy, she’ll do anything, from cheating on her husband during their honeymoon, to influencing a ductile youngster into killing him. No matter how futile the position, if on television, she’s willing. “I would do anything to get that job, anything”, she suggests to her Ed Grant, her interviewer and future boss at the insignificant local cable station where she finally gets hired.
Even though genuinely dotty a persona, Suzanne Stone Maretto well incarnates a generation of individuals that grew up swimming in television culture. The first piece of evidence of that matter is her obsession with physical appearance. When Suzanne first meets her sister-in-law Janice Maretto, she means to suggest that she should resort to plastic surgery if she wants to have the slightest chance to succeed as a figure skater. As a TV’s children, image is essential to her: Her array is always impeccable, and she feels alien to people who don’t pay attention to their look. “You know Mr. Gorbachev, the guy that ran Russia for so long? I am a firm believer that he would still be in power today if he had had that ugly purple thing taken off his head”, she earnestly asserts.
But even more meaningful than her fixation on handsomeness is her faith in television as a value-giver. To Suzanne, the mere fact of being on TV is a sign of worth. That’s why she constantly picks in the world of television to take decisions in her own life, from what meal to prepare for her guests to what name to give to her beloved dog. The ludicrousness of her mimetic taste somehow illustrates the quasi-religious status that television has acceded since its inception. “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are”, she affirms. And there, she has a point: Many people take what’s on television for gospel, hence the dangerousness of such a powerful and all-encompassing medium.
Even her desperate will to be on TV is pretty much a good depiction of a society in hunger for recognition and fame. When traipsing in a wasteland with her friends, Lydia Mertz, one of the three youngsters that Suzanne manipulates into getting rid of her husband, notes: “Just to be on TV would be something nice, and something different”.
To Die For certainly is not a movie about TV journalism. It is however a powerful, shocking and amusing media satire, for television is shown in it as both manipulative and dangerous. That Joe Maretto, Larry’s father, reacts to his son’s death by destroying his television set with a baseball bat is not an accident. On the contrary, it is a highly symbolic gesture that captures the whole movie’s spirit. Framed as a pseudo-documentary within a pseudo-documentary, this movie clearly aims at bringing the viewer to reflect upon the way one receives information when it comes out of a television set. And it does, leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouth.