To Die For: You’re Not Anybody in America Unless You’re on TV

<i>To Die For:</i> You’re Not Anybody in America Unless You’re on TV

Had Suzanne Stone been reporting the weather in Los Angeles on October 3, 1995, she’d have had reason to switch on her empty, dazzling smile, flick a sun magnet onto the wall map, and tell us: “Today . . . was a hot one.” That ol’ mercury, she’d say with bright, brittle folksiness, zoomed on up to the high nineties. But the weather wasn’t the only thing bringing the heat. Around 10 a.m. Pacific time, the verdict in the O. J. Simpson double-murder case was announced, pulling in ratings that could maybe have been rivaled only if the M*A*S*H finale had somehow happened during the moon landing. The jury’s decision was received live, on radio and television, by an estimated 140 million people nationwide—over half the total U.S. population at the time. In other words, the low end of the bracket Suzanne herself would have aspired to reach one day.

If you’d been in LA on that historic Tuesday, you could have gone directly from watching the verdict to watching Nicole Kidman pour herself like pretty poison into the role—and the nipped-in pastel outfits—of fame-hungry killer Suzanne Maretto, née Stone, in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. Then enjoying a limited release before expanding wide, the satire about media, celebrity, and murder was playing, for example, at the Cineplex Beverly Center, less than nine miles from where the trial—which itself often functioned as a satire about media, celebrity, and murder—had just wrapped. The line between real life (not to mention real death) and televised entertainment was already past blurred after Court TV’s first big “hit” with the 1993–94 Menéndez-brothers trial. And it must have seemed even more so to anyone opting that day for a To Die For matinee at the Mann Criterion 6 in Santa Monica, perhaps driving there on the 405, along the route taken the previous year by an infamous white Bronco containing O. J., hunkered in the back seat.

The Bronco chase, coming mere months after the first Menéndez trial, was the second taste of the gateway drug that helped get the nation hooked on real-time, real-life TV drama. And it’s not hard to imagine that, though fictional, Suzanne would have been similarly glued to the coverage, drinking it in like an intoxicant, learning all the wrong lessons. It’s never wholly clear if she wants to be on TV because she wants to be famous or if she wants to be famous so she can be on TV. But either way, the O. J. trial, which To Die For so mischievously anticipates, might have given her a road map for the kind of celebrity she would wind up experiencing, albeit against the chintzier, more parochial, and somehow more pitiable backdrop of a parallel-universe New England town called Little Hope.

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