To Die For

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To Die For
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Laura Ziskin
Screenplay by Buck Henry
Based on To Die For 
by Joyce Maynard
Starring Nicole Kidman
Joaquin Phoenix
Matt Dillon
Casey Affleck
Illeana Douglas
Alison Folland
Dan Hedaya
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Eric Alan Edwards
Edited by Curtiss Clayton
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • May 20, 1995 (1995-05-20) (Cannes)
  • October 6, 1995 (1995-10-06) (US)
Running time
106 minutes
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $20 million
Box office $21,284,514

To Die For is a 1995 American crime comedy-drama film, made in a mockumentary format, directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Buck Henry, based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, which in turn was based on the factual story of Pamela Smart. It stars Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, and Joaquin Phoenix. Major supporting roles feature Illeana Douglas, Wayne Knight, Casey Affleck, Kurtwood Smith, Dan Hedaya, and Alison Folland. Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA and won a Golden Globe Award and a Best Actress Award at the 1st Empire Awards[1] for her performance. Her character has been described as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder in the scientific journal BMC Psychiatry.[2]

The film includes cameos by George Segal, David Cronenberg, author Maynard, and screenwriter Henry. It features original music by Danny Elfman.


Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) dreams of being a world-famous news anchor. To that end, she marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), because she believes his family business will keep her financially comfortable, and starts attempting to climb the network news ladder, beginning as a meteorologist at a local cable station, WWEN.

When Larry starts asking her to take time off from her career to start a family, she immediately begins plotting to get rid of him. To this end, she begins a high school project called "Teens Speak Out," and seduces one of her students, Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix), and manipulates him and his friends, delinquent Russell Hines (Casey Affleck) and shy Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland), into killing Larry. With the help of Russell and Lydia, Jimmy ultimately commits the murder, but is wracked with guilt.

Though Larry's death is ruled a burglary-murder, the police begin investigating when they stumble across a "Teens Speak Out" video of Suzanne at Jimmy's school in which Jimmy discreetly hints at a relationship with Suzanne. Jimmy, Russell and Lydia are arrested. Lydia makes a deal with the police to converse with Suzanne while wearing a wiretap, and Suzanne unwittingly reveals her hand in the murder. Despite this undeniable proof of Suzanne's guilt, however, she is acquitted in court, on the basis that the police had resorted to entrapment, and walks free. Suzanne basks in the media spotlight as she talks to reporters about Larry's death, and fabricates a story about her husband being a drug addict and being murdered by dealers.

Jimmy and Russell are sentenced to life in prison, though Russell appeals against his sentence and receives 16 years instead, while Lydia is released on probation for her cooperation.

Larry's father, Joe (Dan Hedaya), sees Suzanne lying about Larry on television, and realizes that Suzanne was behind his son's murder. He then uses his Mafia connections to have her murdered. The hitman (David Cronenberg) lures Suzanne away from her home by pretending to be interested in publishing her life story, kills her, and then buries her under a frozen lake. In a final irony, Lydia gains national attention by telling her side of the story in a television interview, becoming a celebrity.

The final scene shows Larry's sister, Janice (Illeana Douglas), practicing her figure skating on the frozen lake where Suzanne's corpse is hidden, thus literally dancing on her hated sister-in-law's grave.



To Die For is a mixture of styles, combining a traditional drama with darkly comic direct-to-camera monologues by Kidman's character, and mockumentary interviews, some tragic, with certain of the other characters in the film.[3]

The film and the novel it is based on were both inspired by the facts that emerged during the trial of Pamela Smart, a school media services coordinator who was imprisoned for seducing a 16-year-old student and convincing him to kill her husband.[4] The trial was the first fully televised case in the United States. However, the film is considerably more satirical and arch than Maynard's comparatively straightforward treatment of the story.

The role of Suzanne Stone was originally offered to Meg Ryan, who turned down the part and the $5 million salary offered.[5] Kidman, who was later cast in the role, was paid $2 million.[6] Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary-Louise Parker, Uma Thurman and Bridget Fonda were all at one point considered to replace Meg Ryan.

High school scenes were filmed in 1994 at King City Secondary School in King City, Ontario featured as "Little Hope High" and cast some of the actual students of the school as extras.

Critical reception

The film was screened out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.[7]

Katherine Ramsland of Crime Library describes the film as an example of a work displaying women with antisocial personalities; Ramsland describes Suzanne as a "manipulator extraordinaire" who harms people through third parties.[8]

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called the film "an irresistible black comedy and a wicked delight" and added, "[it] takes aim at tabloid ethics and hits a solid bull's-eye, with Ms. Kidman's teasingly beautiful Suzanne as the most alluring of media-mad monsters. The target is broad, but Gus Van Sant's film is too expertly sharp and funny for that to matter; instead, it shows off this director's slyness better than any of his work since Drugstore Cowboy . . . Both Mr. Van Sant and Ms. Kidman have reinvented themselves miraculously for this occasion, which brings out the best in all concerned."[9]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said of Kidman, "[she] brings to the role layers of meaning, intention and impulse. Telling her story in close-up - as she does throughout the film - Kidman lets you see the calculation, the wheels turning, the transparent efforts to charm that succeed in charming all the same . . . her beauty and magnetism are electric. Undeniably she belongs on camera, which means it's equally undeniable that Suzanne belongs on camera. That in itself is an irony, a commentary or both."[10]

Emanuel Levy wrote, "mean-spirited satire, told in mock-tabloid style, this film features the best performance of Nicole Kidman to date (better than The Hours for which she won an Oscar), as an amoral small-town girl obsessed with becoming a TV star."[11][12]

American Film Institute recognition:


  1. "Empire Awards Past Winners - 1996". Bauer Consumer Media. 2003. Retrieved 16 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  3. "A ROLE TO DIE FOR A JUICY PART HELPS NICOLE KIDMAN ESCAPE HER IMAGE AS TOM CRUISE'S WIFE". Sun Sentinel. 1995-10-05. Retrieved 2010-11-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "'To Die For’ killer teacher Pamela Smart may get payday in lawsuit" , ""
  5. "An Actress To Die For", Time
  6. Thomson, David (2006). Nicole Kidman. Bloomsbury.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Festival de Cannes: To Die For". Retrieved 2009-09-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Ramsland, Katherine. "Women Who Kill, Part Two - Crime Library on". Retrieved 2009-04-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  9. Maslin, Janet (1995-09-27). "Movie Review - To Die For; She Trusts in TV's Redeeming Power -". Retrieved 2009-04-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  10. LaSalle, Mike (1995-10-06). "Film Review-- Kidman Monstrously Good in `To Die For'". Retrieved 2009-04-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "To Die For". 29 September 1995.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
  14. AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees

External links