Malice –– directed by Harold Becker. Drama. A young woman sues a successful doctor for a botched operation –– with dire consequences. 106 minutes Color 1993.
Misnamed, Malice is a confidence-game story of the sort I love, like The Grifters. And if you like that sort of thing, this is a good one. True, we are not properly prepared for the finale, and the house on the cliff with the seas raging below is a miscalculation, but never mind; our delight in this mischief has been satisfied long before that.
Particularly as Ann Bancroft has a star turn as an old drunkard in a single scene well worth replaying. She is manipulating to get and manipulated by a bottle of single malt scotch, and her character is tougher than all the Bronx.
Each in single scenes, we also have George C. Scott as a Harvard medical dean and Gwyneth Paltrow brilliant as an insolent high school sophomore.
Indeed, the film is perfectly cast, for who can ever trust Alec Baldwin’s smile? And who can ever mistrust Bill Pullman’s earnestness?
Nicole Kidman is the female star, and I read how David Thomson in his book about her wonders how she could take on this role.
The reason lies in several factors. And it might be fun and perhaps profitable to consider what an actor goes through to accept a role.
First, consider how much Nicole Kidman is like another major film star, Bette Davis, differing from her in her instrument, of course, and being far more of a glamour-puss than Davis. But like Davis in two regards: that she is willing to take on unglamorous parts to play women older than herself, people mean, vicious, hapless, lost, which Davis did all the time. And also that Nicole Kidman possesses an acting talent on the same level as Davis, which is very high indeed, both in innate and developed talent and in ambition for it. Such are her tendencies and position.
Second, terribly, an actor must continue acting, but can accept only what is available at the time. So the question as to why Nicole Kidman did not make a movie of Hedda Gabler, a role she is perfectly suited for, is because no one was making a movie of Hedda Gable at that moment.
Thomson is prejudiced against the material and denounces ii, but he blindsides himself. He claims Kidman is skewing her character towards ordinariness, which she does not. She is feisty and quick and realistic in relation to her husband and her situation. She never plays innocent. She right-sizes both the devoted social worker and the mistress of the dodge.
But never mind the choices she makes in playing the part. Let’s consider instead the choice she exercised to accept the part at all.
The poet John Hollander once said to me that actors were stupid. I don’t agree. Indeed, certainly less stupid about poetry than poets are about acting, and certainly intelligent in the sort of roles they believe they can play well. That is to say, they have the sort of intelligence which can weigh the specific weight of a role in terms of their own gifts and their own instrument, just as a poet has an intelligence about the sort of poem he will or will not write. It’s a sort of inherent cunning in an artist. And it is a cunning that may see that a part is playable, and yet fail to see that the material is slack. Or it may not see, as how could anyone see, how a piece of material as complicated and communal as a film will pan out in ultimate execution and public appeal. So, very good actors appear sometimes in very stupid movies. That the movies are bad may give the impression that their acting also is bad, but that is usually not the case. Even as young as 25, Malice is a good choice for Nicole Kidman to have made. And it is her informed choice.
Think of it this way. Sviatoslav Richter played only two of the Beethoven concertos and only two of the Rachmaninoff concertos and only two of the Saint-Saens concertos and only two of the Prokofiev concertos, though each composer wrote five. Why? Because Richter knew he had nothing to bring to the missing twelve. They were not right for his particular talent, or, in his case, his genius. Nicole Kidman, an actor of genius, is not a genius at everything either, and her intelligence will tell her what her particular genius can make of a part. Like Richter she is not meant to play everything. She choses what she can bring or not bring her gifts to. It’s a calculation about craft.
How can I make this clearer?
I have played many leading roles in plays. I could play King Lear. I could play Big Daddy. But I know darn well I could not play Willie Loman. My instrument is not made for it.
This film was highly successful, and she is flawless in it. She achieves complete bafflement over everyone, including the audience, which is the confident woman’s job, isn’t it? And when you look back on the performance you can see that there is no dissociation between what Kidman presents of the character as wife and what the character hides from view.
But, more particularly, it is a role exactly right for her in the writing, atmosphere, and treatment. It is something she could do that we did not know she could do until we saw her do it here. But she knew she could do it.