It turns out Nicole Kidman is the star we took for granted. She’s always been there on the peripherals of our adoring Hollywood gaze, but lately she’s been front and center thanks to her four projects screened recently at Cannes (The Beguiled, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and Top of the Lake) where she won the 70th Anniversary award. But we should have kept her front and center from the start. With the recent Kidman Renaissance seemingly underway, it seemed time to look back at her career and cultivate an appreciation for her overlooked talent. I accepted this task and, before I knew it, I was overwhelmed. Kidman’s range and choice of roles is so varied, it’s hard to know where to start. With four Academy Award nominations (and one win), it’s certainly not breaking news that she’s tremendously gifted. So why haven’t we been paying attention all along?
Elegance is one of the first words that comes to mind with Kidman. This may be surprising, since much of her early work could be considered by some as inelegant. She first turned heads in Australia in the 1980s, appearing on television and eventually in Windrider, the first, but certainly not the last time she drew attention for nude scenes. This is how we met Kidman in the early days, baring her slender body without shame, and without reason for it. Her skin is the definition of porcelain, and her red hair and long limbs attracted men and women alike. It was obvious early on that though she wasn’t shy about exposing her body, she was also dedicated to the art of performance. She knew, and made it clear, that she had more to offer than just her body. It seemed like she was fast on her way to become a rising star, and was proving she could do so on her own merit. At the risk of sounding crude, Kidman was, and is, the “whole package”.
1989’s Australian thriller Dead Calm is a fan-favourite and early glimpse into her range. Starring alongside Billy Zane and Sam Neill, Kidman plays Rae, a woman recovering from the death of her child. Her husband (Neill) takes her out on a sailboat to the middle of the ocean to recuperate and strengthen their marriage. Not only must they deal with their grief, they’re also threatened by a mysterious stranger (Zane) found on a drifting ship. This is only the first time Kidman effectively portrays the pain of a grieving mother, tapping into some atomic understanding of empathy and pain. Tongue still heavy with her Australian accent, her naturally tenacious attitude shines through when the stakes are up and the mind games and sexual tension between her and Zane are legendary despite the film’s divisive ending. Nicole Kidman showed us, giving one of her best early performances, that she could carry a film.
Shortly after this bright start (leading, unfortunately, all the way up to today) Kidman has been made to stand in the heavily-distorted shadow of her now ex-husband, Tom Cruise. The two met while filming Days of Thunder and were married in 1990, and would go on to film even more titles together including Far and Away and the infamous Kubrick sexual thriller, Eyes Wide Shut. During this time, Cruise would go on to star in Mission Impossible, and Kidman would make a lasting mark as the highly sexualized and driven Suzanne Stone in To Die For and every young witchy girl’s dream Gillian Owens in Practical Magic.
Their relationship and divorce was highly publicized, mostly due to Cruise’s insane ties with Scientology and rumours of Kidman’s meddling in those affairs. While they have both enjoyed continued success, Cruise’s hand in action films have earned him a bloated reputation and critical success that seems impermeable no matter what he does, or how deep his dedication to Scientology is. If it seems hypocritical to include mention of their failed romance, it’s helpful to point out that it wasn’t until after Kidman left Cruise that her work became truly great and she began to receive proper recognition. Kidman told Tina Brown that “Out of my divorce came work that was applauded so that was an interesting thing for me.” (see: Divorcing Tom Cruise was the best thing to happen to my career) Kidman surfed the tempest waves of a painful Hollywood divorce as well as her first Academy Award nomination for her role as Satine in Moulin Rouge! with the astounding grace that she has become known for.
One of Kidman’s strongest “typical” placements is playing the role of mother. Kidman is best at being a mother not only onscreen but also in her personal life, always keeping her children separate from her career, and just recently referring to them as her reason for living. But Kidman favours mothering roles that usually involve the unspeakable parts of the job. That is what makes her script choices so compelling and effective, especially from the perspective of someone who is not, nor wants to be, a mother. The honest way she approaches the complex maternal is not only impressive, it’s greatly needed.
The first of these applauded roles was in Alejandro Amenábar’s triumph of a supernatural gothic horror movie The Others. Here, she embodies Grace, a complex projection of motherhood, a hyper-Catholic overprotective woman whose husband disappeared in WW2 and whose children are deathly allergic to sunlight. Their strictly regimented life is disturbed by the presence of poltergeists, which only the children can see at first. While Grace spends her energy protecting her children from these threats, the real threat lies in the secret murmured only by her daughter, the time “mummy went mad” revealing an unspeakable act that crosses the minds of mothers every day. Kidman’s paranoid portrayal, nervous hands turning keys in locks, combined with Grace’s obsessive and angry protection make her a walking grenade just waiting to implode. By the end, her performance is so moving it’s easy to forget that just an hour ago we were terrified of footsteps upstairs.
Kidman would also be recognized–this time with an Academy Award nomination–for her maternal role in Rabbit Hole, which, besides her most recent part in Big Little Lies, is arguably her best performance. She and Aaron Eckhart play a couple, Becca and Howie, grieving the loss of their son in very different ways. Where he wants to hold on and remember, she wants to eradicate and forget. Becca wants to protect her pain from the well-meaning comparisons and advice of those who went through a similar loss. Surrounded with reminders of the tragedy through her sister’s pregnancy and mother’s own loss, the couple’s marriage is strained and threatened but comes out the other side despite the odds against them. Once again, Kidman gives a frighteningly real performance that can only come from someone who truly understands. She is particularly gifted at providing astonishing depictions of female suffering, and this can only come from true empathy. There’s a type of honesty that’s not often seen in Kidman’s performance as Becca, in her grief shown as anger, disgusted with placating statements and trying desperately to fight it on her own terms.
Most recently this skill is exemplified in Big Little Lies, and if this is any indicator of what Kidman is bringing to the table now then her upcoming projects are tremendously exciting. Celeste is a woman we know, or at the very least, know about. She has given everything up, a career, her home, her friends and family, for a man who is worth none of it besides being the father of her twins. To outsiders their life is perfect. But Celeste is abused and empty, guilty for not achieving fulfillment from her parenting and yearning to go back to work in a community where working mothers are frowned upon. Her dynamic, broken personality is impossible to look away from, and I found myself holding my breath at her emotional confessions. Here once again is Dark Nicole, unafraid of shame and brutal material, working with the kind of understanding that only comes from learning not to judge others for their circumstances and tapping into primal emotional fear. She’s just trying to keep it together like women are expected to, no matter what is thrust upon them.
Take Kidman’s role as Grace (again) in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Von Trier is a filmmaker who goes full throttle towards discomfort and drama, and when it was her turn to join him, Kidman held on tight. Grace stumbles upon the hamlet of Dogville a victim in need of rescue and hiding. Absorbed by the town, she’s expected to show her gratitude and worthiness through small favours and indentured servitude. As the threat of exposure increases and rewards for turning her over are touted, the townspeople demand more and more from her, eventually going as far as chaining her body and the menfolk taking their turns raping her. Filmed on a stage with minimal props and direction, not only must Kidman embody suffering and, eventually, cold revenge, she must maintain the focus required for such an emotionally draining and compelling role.
And, though we’re somehow still talking about the prosthetic nose, Kidman quietly pulled Virginia Woolf out hauntingly, from her letter writing to her silently weighted walk into the stream to her death in The Hours. She won her first Academy Award for this, and if you sniff the air it seems like her second is on the horizon.
These are only a few of Kidman’s great roles that came out after escaping the clutches of the Cruise, but why isn’t she more celebrated? Perhaps because it is extremely difficult to classify her. Similarly shy and private in her personal life, Kidman prefers quiet and understated performances, using subtle hints and non-verbal cues to communicate. She is rarely hysterical but just as effective. For those who are more accustomed to more boisterous and obvious performances, it can feel like she’s holding back, even getting lost when paired with certain cast. Certainly this was the problem for me, given my preference emotional hysteria and wild-eyed performance.
The closest we ever get to this from Kidman is in the deliciously campy The Paperboy, a personal favourite just for showing what kind of shit she could sling. She is miss Charlotte Bless, trashy and illuminated lover to John Cusack’s murderous character behind bars. She taunts little Jack (Zac Efron) and brings to mind just a hint of To Die For’s sultry Suzanne, add a layer of makeup and a sheen of sweat. Charlotte Bless shows us that Kidman has that fire within her, and she’s more than capable of shouting it, but she just prefers to show it in her own quiet way. It’s the audience’s job to listen, because there we are supremely rewarded.
Another barrier is the bizarre and constant attack on her personality. Some describe Kidman’s personal demeanour as icy, cold, even sexless. They say she’s wooden and lacking warmth. We have trouble with people we can’t classify or understand. It’s more likely that she’s a true introvert, someone who does not flaunt her personal life or achieve fulfillment from being scrutinized in the public eye. Maybe her demeanour is more a reflection of the shadow she stood in for so long, describing herself as “window dressing” in her marriage to Cruise. Luckily, this also plays in her favour. With so little for us to grasp onto,her characters can be fully fleshed out on the blank canvas of her life. But the sacrifice she makes is that people misread her constantly and paint her as stock footage because they can’t put her in a box they’re comfortable with.
That she chose to augment her natural beauty with botox draws a further divide with ridiculous headlines like “What has Nicole Kidman done to her face?” sprouting vapid gossip and causing ladies to wring their hands. After this year’s Academy Awards the “Nicole Kidman Claps Weird” meme exploded across the internet, loud enough that she eventually defended herself (as if she owed us that) and the millions of dollars worth of jewelry she was wearing. There’s even an ancient debate online “Why don’t women like Nicole?” with speculations from jealousy to, again, distaste for her cool, thin, personality. But this doesn’t make much sense, since something that should be celebrated about Kidman is that she exudes the weight of what women carry and an unspoken but obvious femininity. This comes through in her work in Cold Mountain, Australia, among others, and it looks to be something she’ll portray with excellence in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. There is no good reason to assume that an entire demographic has a particular problem with Kidman, and she shouldn’t have to constantly prove herself beyond these insulting comments. If you can’t take it from me, Anne Helen Petersen says it even better here: “Of course, one of the easiest ways to dismiss a woman is to call her a bitch or a slut, a snob or a sexpot — all codes, in various ways, for somehow breaking rules of femininity.”
By no means is every Nicole Kidman role flawless. She rarely plays it safe in her role selection, a strong sign of someone who truly appreciates their craft and participates in it for their own personal reasons. The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, The Interpreter, Before I Go to Sleep, The Human Stain, these are only a handful of just fine movies that she’s been just fine in. The point is that we have not given her due credit for the work she has done, and we foolishly continue to be surprised when she does well, again and again and again. Maybe Kidman doesn’t care how much we like her, only that she is able to play the roles that give her life and let her continue to be the gracious, down-to-earth woman that she really is. “I’ve worked a lot. I don’t have to work. I work because it’s my passion. I work because it’s how I express myself,” Kidman recently told The Seattle Times, and we should count ourselves extremely lucky that she continues to do so.
Featured Image: HBO