‘To Die For’ Toxic Femininity Or Female Empowerment?

One of the biggest Oscar snubs ever was Nicole Kidman for To Die For in 1995. Her performance as Suzanne Stone-Maretto may just the first time she was recognized as an actress and not the wife of a movie star. And now, she’s more recognized as a movie star than who she is married to.

Kidman had been making movies in Australia before Dead Calm brought her wilder attention and her role in Days of Thunder definitely made her well-known as Tom Cruise’s love interest. They would later marry in real-life and for the 1990s be the model example of celebrity couples. But still she was Mrs. Tom Cruise even when she got cast in high-profile movies like Malice and Batman Forever.

I think having that attachment makes her perfect for the role. Despite her narcissistic behavior, Suzanne is the type of person trying to make it on her own as she sees herself capable of being more than just a small-town girl from New England. For reasons that are never explained, she marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), son of some prosperous restauranteurs, Joe and Angela Maretto (Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci). Larry is a drummer in a bad garage band poised to take over the family business and has a slew of women admiring him. My guess, she hooks with with Larry for the money or the fact that running a restaurant will take up a lot of time.

Suzanne gets an associate’s degree in electronic journalism. She more or less forces herself into a job at the local small-town TV station in Little Hope, N.H., where the manager, Ed Grant (Wayne Knight) walks a thin line with her over what she can and can’t do. She thinks she’s going to be the next Diane Sawyer or Jane Pauley but her weather reports are almost parody. Both Larry’s family and Suzanne’s would rather her just start becoming a mother. When Larry says at a family get together, they have an important announcement to make, their parents assume she’s pregnant.

I’m sure a lot of young women have felt the same thing. Even though they’ve just gotten married, they’re already expected to be expecting. This came out in the 1990s when women empowerment was just getting some more legwork. With the collapsing of the middle-class in the 1980s, more women were having to leave the house to get jobs. Ed says Suzanne’s job at the station was supposed to be an assistant. But she doesn’t want to do that.

Angela criticizes Suzanne for not knowing how to cook and during a pool BBQ party actually keeps egging it on how great Larry is with the kids at the party. But it’s obvious Suzanne doesn’t want that. As she tells Larry after his repeated nagging to have kids, “If you wanted a babysitter, you should’ve married Mary Poppins.”

While that does sound harsh, I’m sure a lot of women in 2021 feel like that with their husbands when it comes to raising a family. Husbands still expect their wives to work 40-hour work weeks, make meals, do housework and bathe and dress the young kids while they watch the sports games or play video games. Even though she doesn’t care for her sister-in-law, Larry’s sister, Janice (Illeana Douglas) actually tells him that he should “knock up” Suzanne, i.e. rape her. How many women have been “knocked up” by their partners?

Still Larry doesn’t have that attitude. The only part where he seems to go too far is when he tries to coerce Suzanne into coming back to bed with him for some more minutes, probably to get a quickie. He has his hands around her which angers her and she bluntly tells him to take his hands off her. And again, this is still a thin line between right and wrong. Yes, Larry is wrong for trying to keep Suzanne in bed even though she doesn’t want to. But her attitude is emotional abuse and it sounds like it would’ve escalated to physically abuse quickly.

Larry also puts his foot down, or thinks he does, when he tries to talk Suzanne into doing commercials for the restaurant as a way to do her work. Larry sees Suzanne’s career prospects as a hobby. He sold his drums to prove he is grown, but actually he just did what his father wanted him to do rather than what he wants. The scene shows how archaic and old-fashioned Larry is and Dillon is a good actor for as he pretty much is setting up his own murder by telling Suzanne he’s the man and this is what it’s going to be.

Suzanne is finally able to get the station and a local high school to have her come speak to the kids and interview them for an in-depth study. Ironically, showing how little public education cares about such a thing, Suzanne only speaks to what can be considered the class with all the bad students. There’s one in every high school in America. And only three sign up to help her. They are Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix) who Suzanne begins an affair with and his friend, Russell Hines (Casey Affleck). Another classmate and friend, Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland) gets involved as Suzanne videotapes them and asks them questions.

To Die For is based on a book by Joyce Maynard, who has a small role as a lawyer in the movie. It was based on the infamous Pamela Smart murder case which was one of the first sensationalized murder cases in America. Smart was working at a high school in New Hampshire when she got some young men to kill her husband. Maynard’s novel was pretty straight forward told from the point of view of many characters involved.

Director Gus Van Sant follows this same documentary feel as many of those involved are interviewed. However, Van Sant and script writer Buck Henry add a black comedy satire feel to it, which is the right choice. It’s a glorified Lifetime movie if done straight forward and the story of Smart has already been made with Helen Hunt as Smart. It was later reported that Smart was “jumped” in prison by inmates who has seen To Die For and assumed it was the truth. To this day, Smart still maintains her innocence but says the affair with the teenager led to her husband, Greg’s murder.

By using the true-story as a template, the filmmakers aren’t limited and are able to delve farther into the effects of media, gender roles, social class and much more. Just one week before this movie opened, O.J. Simpson was acquitted on the charges of double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Van Sant also focuses on changing viewpoints in the 1990s. One scene I like is when Suzanne throws the bouquet of flowers at the wedding, both Janice and her own sister move out of the way. One element that the movie hints at but doesn’t touch on is that Janice may be gay. Van Sant, himself, is gay and many of his movies have characters who are gay or bisexual.

People have argued that Suzanne shows classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder, which is when someone sees themselves as having traits they don’t or feeling they’re more deserving. Suzanne targets the lower-income bad seed kids because she knows that when they do kill Larry, cops will think it was a burglary gone bad. The problem is Suzanne can’t but help make herself out to be the classic victim. As news crews gather outside her home after Larry is gunned down by Jimmy, she walks out with her Pomeranian, Walter, in hand to talk to the media. At the funeral, she plays “All By Myself.” She does everything wrong, even though she would be the prime suspect. When arrested, she goes on TV and accuses Larry of being a drug dealer.

Suzanne is by no means a nice person. She manipulates others. She thinks they’re beneath her if they don’t have the money or prestige that she seeks. At the same time, you can see where she could have achieved more if she just left the community in which she grew up. People would assume that women like Suzanne are “ball-busting bitches” because they set their goals higher than getting a Mrs. Degree. There are people in their early to mid-20s whose parents weren’t even together when this movie came out still being pestered to get married and start a family. In the end, it’s Lydia who talks about doing the interview circuit as she’s being booked on talk shows.

The thing that Suzanne doesn’t realize is that the news business is only focuses on who’s hot. The Marettos get revenge in the end as Suzanne’s own narcissism can’t see through that she’s actually meeting with a hitman not a producer. The irony is that her marriage with Larry wouldn’t have lasted either way and Suzanne becomes famous, not for what she did, but for what happened to her.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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