AN ACTRESS TO DIE FOR

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You're researching the role of a media-obsessed cable weathergirl for the film To Die For, so you decide to lie in a hotel bed for three days, eating room-service food and watching TV nonstop. And who's your bunkmate on this field trip into junk culture? Tom Cruise.

For some people this would be nirvana. For Nicole Kidman--Mrs. Cruise--it is the proper mix of movies and marriage. "The rule was, we don't turn the television off, no matter what," she says of her marathon. "I found out that TV deadens you, and it's hypnotic. I would get involved in the talk shows, yelling back at the screen." And what about Tom Terrific? "That was his idea of a perfect weekend. Me in bed watching TV, and room service."

The homework paid off for Kidman. To Die For has won the 28-year-old Australian the most lustrous reviews of her career. Told in a blur of tabloid headlines, mockumentary interviews and dramatic reconstructions, the movie is the story of Suzanne Stone Maretto, a vamp from Little Hope, New Hampshire, who persuades a smitten teenager (Joaquin Phoenix) to try murdering her husband (Matt Dillon). The film, based on Joyce Maynard's novel, is a classy collision between the chipper misanthropy of scriptwriter Buck Henry and the eroticizing of dopey young sociopaths found in director Gus Van Sant's earlier work (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho).

In this cautionary tale of blond ambition, Kidman concocts a savory cocktail of strychnine and syrup. Imagine a bourgeois sex kitten mistaken for a prom queen. Her eyes are fixed in a cutesy-predatory gaze that evokes and parodies the early Ann-Margret and her cinema avatars Melanie Griffith and Drew Barrymore. Her voice has the blithe assurance of someone who has never been told no. On her teeth is a little lipstick residue, like unlicked blood. She's got It, and she knows how to peddle it. In this small-town, pastel-pretty version of Network, Suzanne strides toward her dream job--anchorwoman--knowing but not caring that she is resented, even hated. "I always knew who I was and who I wanted to be," she says, scarily. "Always."

Let's say right now: Nicole Kidman is no killer. The 5-ft. 10-in. redhead with the face of a pensive pre-Raphaelite has never been accused of anything more serious than criminal gorgeousness. Her vertiginous pastimes, such as rock climbing, are the ways a game gal spends a Sunday with her jock husband. So Kidman is not Suzanne Maretto; and the actress, now on location in Italy starring in the Jane Campion film of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, will heatedly explain why. "Everyone says, 'Oh, you are Suzanne, that's how you played the role so well.' Well, no! I'm an actor, and I created that role. My dream was to be in the theater and be a great actress; Suzanne's ambition is to be on TV and be famous. Now I'm playing Isabel Archer--does that mean I am Isabel Archer?"

Kidman, though, does have a will of kryptonite, forged in Sydney, where she was raised by her father, a biochemist and clinical psychologist, and her mother, a teacher of nursing. As a girl, she was embarrassed by her height. And while her friends surfed, fair-skinned Nicole fretted about freckling. Drama was the solution. "It was natural for me," she says, "to want to disappear into a dark theater." Soon she had the poise that would bloom into a regal grace under pressure in Dead Calm, Days of Thunder (where she met Cruise) and Billy Bathgate, as Dutch Schultz's posh girlfriend--her sharpest movie role before To Die For.

She read Henry's script and panted for the part. When Meg Ryan bowed out, Kidman rang up Van Sant and announced, "I am destined to play Suzanne." Recalls the director: "In a way, it's just something you would say. But I took it a different way, like she really was destined to play the role. When she showed up, she was very prepared and worked very hard on her own to develop the character."

She and Cruise certainly work hard on their marriage; last week in Tuscany she commuted to the Portrait set while he played Mr. Mom with their two adopted children. Kidman acts as a blocking guard for Cruise's membership in the Church of Scientology: "There are some interesting philosophies that Scientology has that are applicable to everyday life," she says cautiously. "My father is open-minded about it, and that's something I aim to be as well." She has also become inured to claims that Cruise is gay: "It used to baffle me. And I got angry, because we were called liars and frauds. But now I laugh. At first you vehemently deny the rumors, and finally you just move on. I think that rumor's probably finished and there'll be a new one. I'm waiting for it."

And if the rumor comes, you can bet Kidman will do to it what Suzanne Stone Maretto did to her unnecessary husband: blow it away, with a smile.