To Die For

To Die For Information

To Die For is a 1995 dark comedy 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 for her performance.

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


Living in the fictional seaside village of Little Hope, New Hampshire, Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), a young, beautiful, and ruthless woman 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 weather girl at a local cable station, WWEN.

When Larry, who truly loves Suzanne, starts asking her to take time off from her career to start a family, she immediately plots to get rid of him. To this end, she begins a high school project called "Teens Speak Out," and during a dancing project at her house while Larry is away, she seduces Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed young man, and strong-arms him and his friends, delinquent Russell Heines (Casey Affleck) and low self-esteemed Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland), into killing Larry, whom she describes as abusive and self-centered. Jimmy is reluctant at first, but complies when Suzanne grants him sexual favors and threatens to leave him if he does not. With the aid and abetment of Russell and Lydia, Jimmy ultimately commits the murder, but is wracked with guilt after seeing Larry's rather calm demeanor during the struggle.

The police begin investigating when they stumble across a "Teens Speak Out" video of Suzanne at Jimmy's school in which Jimmy discreetly hints a relationship (albeit a deteriorating one, since Suzanne no longer needs Jimmy) with Suzanne. Jimmy, Russell and Lydia are arrested, but Lydia makes a deal with the police to converse with Suzanne with a tape recorder taped to her stomach, 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 (although it is also hinted that Suzanne bribed her way out of trouble). Jimmy and Russell are sentenced to life in prison and sixteen years, respectively, while Lydia gets out scot-free for her cooperation.

In the end, however, Suzanne gets her comeuppance when she fabricates a story about Larry becoming addicted to drugs, desiring to turn over a new leaf and subsequently getting killed by the drug suppliers, Jimmy and Russell, who wanted to keep him silent. Larry's father, Joe (Dan Hedaya), hears this on television, and realizes that Suzanne was behind his son's murder, and consequently 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, murders her quietly, then buries her under a frozen lake, her favorite spot, where she once skated. 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 grave.


  • Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone-Maretto
  • Matt Dillon as Larry Maretto
  • Joaquin Phoenix as Jimmy Emmett
  • Casey Affleck as Russell Hines
  • Illeana Douglas as Janice Maretto
  • Alison Folland as Lydia Mertz
  • Dan Hedaya as Joe Maretto
  • Wayne Knight as Ed Grant
  • Kurtwood Smith as Earl Stone
  • Holland Taylor as Carol Stone
  • Susan Traylor as Fay Stone
  • Maria Tucci as Angela Maretto
  • Tim Hopper as Mike Warden
  • Michael Rispoli as Ben DeLuca
  • Buck Henry as Mr. H. Finlaysson
  • Gerry Quigley as George
  • David Cronenberg as Man at lake
  • Joyce Maynard as Lawyer
  • Chris Phillips (uncredited) as Soccer player
  • George Segal (uncredited) as Conference speaker
  • Rain Phoenix (uncredited) as Tambourine player
  • Amber-Lee Campbell as Suzanne at 6 years old


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.

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. 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. Kidman, who was later cast in the role, was paid $2 million. 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.

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.

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."

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."

American Film Institute recognition:

  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
    • Suzanne Stone " Nominated Villain
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs " Nominated

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