Why I Adore… Nicole Kidman

By Glenn Dunks

A person who has a great craving or enthusiasm for the work of Australian actress Nicole Kidman: “Glenn is such a Kidmaniac. He sees all of her work and thinks she should have won at least three Academy Awards by now.

You won’t find the above in the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon, but trust me when I tell you that we’re out there. You may not want to acknowledge us, but we’re there just waiting for you to admit “Yeah, I actually did like Australia,” which is when we’ll make our move and give you a detailed rundown of why Nicole Kidman is “the greatest actor of her generation.”

Those are actually words that I have found myself uttering a lot these days. As Kidman charges through 2012 like a bull in a china shop, her presence in the culture known as pop has reached fever pitch. Last month’s 65th annual Cannes Film Festival saw two Kidman performances – one of which sent Twitter into a yellow frenzy, if you know what I mean – and with several high profile titles within the next couple of years, she is very much “BACK!” on the public radar after years of being punished and shunned by people who have no idea how the movie industry works. (She had Botox you say? It’s as if she’s trying to remain young so she can keep working and not retire before the age of 40!)

Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise.

“But really?” I hear you say. “The best actor of her generation?” Why yes, she most certainly is. And not just because she has the resumé to back up such a statement. No, but because she represents everything that any actor, male or female, should endeavour to be. You just try convincing yourself that your favourite actor could ever go from winning an Academy Award for playing Virginia Woolf in a British period weepie one day, to filming a brutal three-hour Lars von Trier drama set on a barren stage in Denmark, where the actors have to pick fruit from invisible trees. Just try. Still, if you need me to go into further detail then I shall, but only because you asked so politely. No need to get all pissy about it!

Sorry, that article just makes me laugh.

Where does one exactly begin when discussing Nicole? There’s kitsch value to be found in watching the plump-faced, frizzy-haired young Nicole star in Brian Trenchard-Smith’s somewhat-camp classic, BMX Bandits (home of the best sound effects editing in an Australian film ever, fact!). But I’m sure she’d scrunch her face up in horror if anybody ever suggested it.. The Nicole we all know really started on the small screen – an arena she has returned to this year with Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) to positive reviews – where she received praise and accolades for work on Vietman (1987) and Ken Cameron’s Bangkok Hilton (1989), movies she still discusses in international interviews to this day. Of course, those works and others like them are hard to come by on DVD, which means that sadly few people have seen them.

If her early TV work, coupled with a tenacious starring role at just 18 years of age in Philip Noyce’s at-sea thriller, Dead Calm (1989), had suggested great talent as a dramatic actress, then her role in the film industry satire Emerald City (1988) and as an almost-mean girl in Flirting (1991) announced she also had a deft hand at comedy. Emerald City, for which Kidman was nominated for an AFI Award as Best Supporting Actress, features dialogue about the state of the industry and the plight of actors that perfectly mirrors Kidman’s own outlook. Just watch this video from the 50 second mark and try not to see the parallels.

As boarding school queen bee Nicola in Flirting, Kidman eschews the character’s potential to be little more than a hurdle for the lead characters (Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton) to overcome in their quest for love. Her icy – that descriptor began early in her career, it’s fair to say – performance is filled with delightfully comical vocal deliveries and mannerisms. Her superior, almost regal, posture featured here would go on to become a mainstay of her more cold-hearted characters (see Marisa Coulter in The Golden Compass (2007) and Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)).

Her work in Flirting is even more impressive than that of Emerald City. With a deep-felt monologue towards the film’s end instantly adding layers of pathos to Kidman’s performance, Flirting becomes a great early example of what Kidman would go on to perfect. She is stunning at playing women (or, in this case, a girl) who grapple with the balance of the internal and the external, not succumbing to the role that society expects.

Consider her role as Becca in Rabbit Hole (2010), another perfect example of this very issue. Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise. Even if she secretly wants to shed this skin and show to the world that she is as vulnerable as the next person, her characters choose to expose their feelings in private. In Flirting it is only Thandie Newton’s Thandiwe Adjewa who knows the true secret behind her character. In Rabbit Hole it’s a devastating breakdown on the side of the road as she witnesses the teenage boy (a superb Miles Teller) who was responsible for her four-year-old’s death heading off to his senior prom, something she will never see her own child do.

As her characters struggle to act publicly in ways that people expect her to – girly and frilly, highly strung, emotional, on the verge of a crying meltdown – so too does Kidman. So frequently described as “cold” and “icy” by detractors because she all but refuses to adhere to Hollywood standards of what an A-lister should be like. She has admitted to taking on roles dictated by her stardom that she found little artistic merit to, but no other actor of Kidman’s stature has such an impressive ratio of daring, auteur-driven films to multiplex fare. When she should have been making a sequel to her Sandra Bullock witchy romcom Practical Magic (1998), she was working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Her reluctance to discuss her family life, her willingness to dive headfirst into the creative abyss with directors she respects despite the high risk of failure (Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) for instance), a public image of shy awkwardness, and a healthy dose of localised Tall Poppy Syndrome make her an ‘unlovable’ person and, as sad as it may be, likeability is something which lot of mainstream audiences think makes for a great actor.

In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle.

Kidman didn’t always possess the chilly and calculated persona perceived by so many today. With the release of Dead Calm in 1989 came international exposure and the promise of a Hollywood career. Her marriage to Days of Thunder (1990) and Far and Away (1992) co-star, Tom Cruise, resulted in her career being put on the backburner. She worked – semi-arthouse Billy Bathgate (1991), domestic thriller Malice (1993), superhero flick Batman Forever (1995), the sort of roles people expect from an emerging young star – but the uneasily pigeonholed actress was finding her American work was not rising to the standard set by her Australian work.

It was in 1995 that saw Kidman’s career took its greatest leap forward. By being cast in Gus van Sant’s cruelly satirical To Die For as power-hungry Suzanne Stone Maretto, Kidman finally unleashed the creative energy that had been sidelined by marriage and family. It’s a fiercely devoted performance by Kidman, and one that 18 years has failed to diminish. Openly sexual, villainous and morally unhinged, the role seemed to have clicked something within Kidman. Her desire to emerge out of the shadow of her movie-star husband and away from her role as glorified Hollywood arm-candy, to work with directors for whom the auteur theory was seemingly devised became more and more obvious. She won her first Golden Globe Award for her portrayal in To Die For and her first real taste of artistic integrity on a grand scale.

With the creative cobwebs well and truly blown away thanks to that guffaw-inducing dark comedy, Kidman immediately embarked upon a sort of global whistlestop tour of famous auteurs that continues to this very day. Porcelain-fine in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) as, yet again, a woman confined by society’s expectations; eyes so piercing as Tom Cruise’s brittly domestic wife on the periphery of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999); an all-singing all-dancing dying courtesan in Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece Moulin Rouge! (2001); the tormented, yet simplistically hopeful, mobster daughter of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2004); a widow confronted with reincarnation in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005); the unflinchingly dry and toxic Margot in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007). The list goes on: Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter, 2005), John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole), Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, 2012)… even some of her disasters were taken upon good faith in directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion, 2007), Nora Ephron (Bewitched, 2005), and The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004). She was even set to work with famed Chinese director, Wong Kar-wai on a remake of The Lady from Shanghai, just one of many long-gestating projects of Kidman’s that never got off the ground.

Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes…

These roles, complex and layered each, are all starkly different and brilliant. In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle. Still, by 2000 she’d still not quite become a name among the greats. Cue 2001 and what can surely be described as one of the greatest ever coming out parties of all time. Descending the ceiling of Baz Luhrmann’s glitter-bombed, hyperactive, modernised rethink of the classic Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris, didn’t just bring with it a worldwide star, but a performance that deserves to rank as one of the most definitively cinematic ever given. As Satine, the lovestruck courtesan emerging in jewels to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, Kidman helped usher in a new dawn for movie musicals and in a double-whammy alongside Alejando Amenábar’s haunted house tale The Others proved that 2001 – not to mention the press revolving around her divorce and those infamous “I can wear heels now!” comments – was The Year of Nicole. She’d successfully blended the art with the mainstream and it was glorious. An Academy Award soon followed for The Hours, although it’s telling that she finally won for a performance that was very good, yes, but hardly the sort of artistic stretch that had come before and after.

Kidman’s penchant for taking roles that sit outside the preconceived box of what an “American Sweetheart” should take, proved the public love affair with this goofy, lanky, somewhat exotic beauty was short-lived. Misjudged romcoms and a bombastic epic, Cold Mountain (2004), brought about a swift end to Kidman’s reign as Hollywood’s highest paid and most sympathetic star. Still, arguably her two greatest achievements followed in arguably her two most difficult films.

As muse to Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, she took to the cinematic stage of Dogville (2004) less than 24 hours after accepting her Oscar. Von Trier calls upon Kidman to be the victim of horrible crimes and, by film’s end, make a devastating moral decision, which is hardly the stuff of megastars. Playing Grace, she of whispery voice and persona as fragile as vintage lace, Kidman is truly astonishing. It is quite literally a performance the likes of which we have never seen before. It’s just not the thing for actors of Kidman’s stature to do, not now, not ever. Contrary to what Heidi Klum has to say, fashion isn’t the only arena where “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” is true. For decades actors, especially women, have been forced to navigate the whims of public discourse and the idea that one failure can send you back to the dole queue.

If Kidman were doing this sort of bravely unflinching work in films with no artistic merit and made by filmmakers with no vision then I’m sure I wouldn’t be talking about her the way I am now, but the fact of the matter is that when many other so-called great actors are out there taking work with little element of risk (ahem, Meryl Streep), Kidman has been stepping out of the comfort zone for nearly two decades now and she reached the apex (for me, anyway) one year later with the haunting, honey-lit identity horror of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005). Sumptuously made – Alexandre Desplat’s score is perhaps the greatest in several decades – this Kubrickian adult fairy tale about a widow and the boy who claims to be her reincarnated husband is not only Kidman’s finest work to date, but a truly awe-inspiring achievement. To try and find a single scene with as much intensity and heart-breaking, gut-wrenching power as the single-shot opera sequence is to embark on a foolhardy mission. That single close-up of Nicole’s Anna, as she quietly contemplates the very real possibilities that have been laid before her, is like witnessing a cinematic miracle.

While it seemed everybody was turning their back on Kidman, we Kidmaniacs remained steadfastly devoted. A powerhouse performance in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, a deliciously evil turn in Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass and a dreamily nostalgic turn as a glamourous Italian movie star in Rob Marshall’s Nine kept the flame burning. The new decade has brought about a newfound appreciation that has seen many come back around to my side. Oscar-nominated for Rabbit Hole, and working with such diverse and exciting directors as Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), Chan-wook Park (Stoker) and Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, her first local production since Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)).

Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Part of the reason why I adore her so much is that she is so unafraid to go where others wouldn’t. If everybody suddenly became a Kidmaniac like me in the blink of an eye then it would mean she had become conventional and who wants that?

About Glenn Dunks: Growing up in Geelong, to the west of Melbourne, his love of cinema began young and remembers Dick Tracy in 1990 as his first time in a movie theatre. He began writing first at his blog, Stale Popcorn, and eventually for websites Trespass Magazine and as the film editor for Onya Magazine, a web zine dedicated exclusively to Australian content. His writing has appeared in The Big Issue, Encore, The Melbourne International Film Festival, and he has been heard on JOY 94.9FM. Apart from Kidmania, Glenn has a passion for Australian, queer and New York cinema.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and most recently Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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