Nicole Kidman and the Commodity Star
In a recent interview, Ali MacGraw said of her sudden rise to fame on the release of Love Story, that every year has its girl and in 1970 she was it. Arguably things move a little faster in the film industry now and its seems more the case that every month has its girl. Nicole Kidman was certainly that in xxxx of last year around the release of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And no doubt we will experience another blitz of Kidman exposure when she reappears in Baz Lurman’s much anticipated Moulin Rouge.
Needless to say, it is contradictory to make any comment about the omnipresence of Nicole Kidman surrounding the release of Kubricks’ Eyes Wide Shut because you simply add to the very phenomena you seek to understand. But Kidman’s exposure described something beyond national pride that she had hit the big time – she did that years ago. It was in fact formulaic of the use of the commodity star in the marketing of films. And the commodity star is invariably a woman. Why does this go without saying? How has it come to seem natural and inevitable?
Before the Kidman blitz swung into action I’d found myself wondering where she had been. I’d made no effort to know about Kidman, but I had at the very least been aware of her presence, like a neighbour, in supermarket aisles and doctor’s waiting rooms. Her celebrity had taken on the familiar proximity of shared locale and of knowing, again like a neighbour, quite by accident and without intention, details of her marriage, her adopted children, and visits to her family.
Against the obvious fact that I didn’t in fact know her, but only representations of her - I nevertheless found I quite liked her. She seemed to have a bit of grit, and I discovered in ‘To Die For’ she is no fluffy-pants whose fortune has been made from her face alone. As an actress she is a force to contend with.
But when our most revered current affairs anchorman, Kerry O’Brien, blushed beetroot during an interview over some inexplicable banter concerning whether you do or don’t wear clothes when having sex, it wasn’t just his embarrassment that became obvious. There was more to the Kidman phenomenon. What we were witnessing – and none of us can claim to have been impartial observers – was the manufacturing of a consensus of desire and visual enthrallment such as is requisite to the status of the commodity star.
Happily for marketing, the beauty of the female commodity star is a fascination that crosses the gender divide – in the way that male commodity stars cannot. Men stars stall before the desiring gaze of women and become obsolete objects to the male market. They threaten to ‘contaminate’ the heterosexual man’s look with homosexual pleasure, when really they simply make evident that this is in fact part of the male cinema goer’s covert pleasure, just as much as looking at sexualised women is part of heterosexual women’s covert pleasure. Heterosexual spectators get to look without being obliged to touch, or alter their self-conception as straight.
With all respect to Kidman as an intelligent, talented woman in her own right, she is a commodity-star and her visual omnipresence was a marketing effect. The desire to see more of Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut was manufactured by her careful placement right under our noses as we payed for the papers and groceries and filled the petrol tank – that is, as we moved through the cultural contours of our daily lives. She was unavoidable.
The diversity and sheer volume of images primed our pleasure in the expectation that Kidman could appear in various guises – from Edwardian society beauty, to Rock and Roll nymphette, to Hollywood glamour wife. Off screen her assumption of so many roles locked in our perception that as an image she could not be pinned down. Her image exerted the fascination of unpredictability, and ultimately, in spite of all we knew, unknowability. This is the fascination and function of the commodity star.
The reason we seek to know about the real lives of celebrities – as though the media through which we find out about them are any less representations than the films they appear in – is because since the inception of the camera we have doubted its veracity. This sits oddly against the intensity of emotion and fascination we invest in photographs and films. We are unnerved by the paradox that although ‘the camera does not lie’, it is put to the uses of fiction. We admire its effects and art so well we want to believe in them as truths.
Which is where the commodity star plays her most important role. She is the central focus of the dominant cinema world because she alone can place beyond doubt the veracity of the image as reproduced by the camera, and she does this with one extraordinarily simple accomplishment. She is beautiful, not just as an effect of the camera, but really. It is for this reason – our dubious relation with one of the most important instruments of the twentieth century – that we invest so much in the beauty of the commodity star. She affirms not some natural need to look at beautiful women, but the truth of the modern image as reproduced by the camera. She reassures our dependence on this instrument in the development of our own truths and understandings.
We become upset when the beauty of the commodity star becomes an effect of other interventions, such as make up and lighting. We feel duped as though she cheated us, when all she has done is make obvious that her beauty is an effect and a visual device. But interestingly, we forgive the cosmetically altered commodity-star, because it is not the camera that has tricked us. She remains ‘enhanced’ on and off screen.
Because feminine beauty carries so much cultural baggage, accruing meanings of exoticism, the natural, even the artificial, it has always been in the service of highly invested social meaning. What Kidman made essential during the marketing of Eyes Wide Shut was the ‘truth’ of feminine beauty. But she did this in the service of the cinema, which has from its inception battled to suspend our disbelief in its fictions in order to secure our faith that it tells human truths. We remain enthralled in the commodity star’s beauty as a guarantee of the camera’s truth. Yet we keep looking, hungry for the scandal rags’ revelations of ‘Stars Without Their Makeup’ to reassure ourselves, via the face of feminine beauty, that the camera does not lie.