Ty Burr
April 19, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Movie stardom, when it’s done right, is like walking a tightrope with calculated adjustment. The trick is to seem familiar yet constantly new: Too many similar roles sate the public’s taste (the Stallone Quandary), while too much risk blurs the edges of persona (who the hell is Jennifer Jason Leigh, anyway?). The stars of the Hollywood studio years were experts at this balancing act — Joan Crawford spent five decades cannily tacking to prevailing winds — but there aren’t many current matinee idols who can pull it off. Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis spring to mind; few others do. A couple of movies just out on video, though, offer the interesting sight of two divas taking unexpected turns at their career crossroads. But if both Nicole Kidman, in To Die For, and Demi Moore, in The Scarlet Letter, want to be seen in a more artistic (and, coincidentally, adulterous) frame of reference, why is it that only one of these movies has changed perceptions?

Maybe because Nicole Kidman has nothing to lose. While she possesses the drawing power to nab the female lead in Batman Forever, she hasn’t established a coherent star persona after seven years in Hollywood (unless you count her real-life role as Tom Cruise’s wife, which, careerwise, may be the best and worst thing that’s happened to her). Please understand that I’m not talking about Kidman’s capabilities as an actor; anyone who has seen her subtle transformation from mouse to tiger in the Australian movie Dead Calm or her ripsnorting villainess in the outrageous Malice knows she’s capable of slyly compelling work.

To Die For, though, is the first movie to put her at center stage and let her spin. As Suzanne Stone, a small-town girl whose dreams of TV fame lead her to seduce three teenagers into murdering her husband (Matt Dillon), Kidman is like a Roman candle of media avarice. Poised, brittle, just clueless enough to be dangerous, Suzanne is so lost in the culture of celebrity that she has never bothered to develop morals: She’s the head cheerleader as shark. The movie, directed with comic brightness by Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy), hammers home its points rather broadly (do we really need to hear the line ”You’re not anyone in America until you’re on TV” twice?), and with a less skillful actress it might laugh too hard at its Podunk characters. But Kidman shows us all sides of the monster: the sexiness, the naivete, the drive, the vapidity, the middlebrow hypocrisy, even a smidgen of pathos.

Demi Moore, by contrast, shows the emotions of a tank in The Scarlet Letter. Of course, it’s unfair to beat up Moore for what is a terrible movie all around. Sludgily edited, cursed with an actively annoying musical score, Letter is a howlingly wrongheaded adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. It’s not that filmmakers shouldn’t mess with classics (Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans turned a dull book into a rousing movie); it’s that the decisions made here are terminally silly, up to and including a climactic Indian massacre that feels as if it were lifted intact from Dances With Wolves.

Yet Moore must be accorded some of the blame, if only because The Scarlet Letter trades on the iconography that has made her one of our most curious stars. The camera luxuriously caresses her breasts in a bathing scene, her pregnant belly in a jail scene — while from the neck up, Moore registers only flat-voiced, sullen determination. Part of the problem is that this actress is all wrong for the 17th century — it’s like putting an ATM at Plymouth Rock. More to the point, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne represented enlightened sensuality in the face of soul-deadening repression; Moore’s Hester Prynne is just a crass Hollywood concept, a tough chick scoring points against meanies in gray (with that big red A on her chest, she’s like a superhero: Adultery Woman). Despite the period trappings, The Scarlet Letter finds Demi Moore still coasting on her glamour. Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, seems to have realized that you can coast only so far before you have to get off and walk.
To Die For: B+
The Scarlet Letter: D

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