The Year of Nicole Kidman
The world is falling in love with her, all over again.
Nicole Kidman is suddenly everywhere you look, after several years when it seemed like she had disappeared from public view, perhaps because of a string of projects that didn’t quite catch on with mainstream audiences. Then, she came back as strong as ever and received an Oscar nomination for her deeply moving turn as an adoptive mother in 2016’s Lion, reminding us of her unique big-screen power.
Following that, she was an executive producer and a star on HBO’s 2017 series Big Little Lies, which turned into a runaway cultural phenomenon and scored Kidman her second-ever Emmy nomination. Though it was intended as a limited series, the show is in the early stages of development on a second season. More recently, her commanding role in Sofia Coppola’s 2017 movie, The Beguiled, is driving talk of yet another Oscar nomination for the star in 2018. It helps, of course, that in Big Little Lies and The Beguiled, Kidman delivers two of the most complex, rich, and rewarding performances of her entire career, which now spans more than three decades.
You’d be forgiven for feeling déjà vu. It’s Kidman’s year, just as it was in 2002, when she nearly won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge!, or in 2003, when she finally did win the Best Actress Oscar—as Denzel Washington memorably put it when announcing, “by a nose”—for The Hours, in which she donned the prosthetic no one could stop talking about to embody Virginia Woolf. It wasn’t just the physical change that clinched the gold statuette, though; Kidman emotionally transformed herself into the beloved English author who suffered from mental illness, putting her own glamorous persona on pause.
Of course, Kidman, now 50, hasn’t really gone anywhere. She’s been putting in remarkable work, even when she’s been in some duds, like the wholly unnecessary 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Invasion, in which she’s still transfixing as a mom trying to keep calm during an epidemic. Some work has flown under the radar, like her movie-stealing role as an aging Southern pinup in the bizarre noir The Paperboy (2012).
Kidman is one of those rare stars you’d be hard-pressed to find in a younger generation. She’s as radiant as ever, and as much of a tabloid fixture, thanks to her famous relationships—she married country star Keith Urban after her notorious split from ex-husband Tom Cruise. Yet, she maintains a tireless work ethic. She’s known for taking on difficult material that might seem beyond her range and blowing away expectations. Despite her fashion-magazine appeal, she shows little vanity as a performer. You may even have trouble recognizing her at first in Lion with her shock of 1980s-appropriate red curls. And she’s known for selling movies that would seem to have limited appeal, which is increasingly hard to come by in actors of any age. It’s hard to imagine a literary drama like The Hours catching on the way it did without her presence.
You could say the same about Big Little Lies, which pivoted away from the male-focused drama of most prestige television to tell stories about housewives and moms. It was adapted from an Australian novel, not likely source material for HBO. It came out of a meeting between Kidman and author Liane Moriarty, and turned into one of the premium-cable network’s most treasured properties to date.
“I’m just feeling a whole lot of wow,” Kidman told the Los Angeles Times of reaction to the show and its Emmy nods. “It’s incredible. It started with just this conversation and a book and a friendship and out of it bloomed a series that’s connected in such a big way… and connected worldwide.”
She’s being modest. As we’ve learned over the years, if you combine Kidman with the right script and the right collaborators, you get exactly the kind of universal acclaim that she’s experiencing right now.
Kidman has always been underestimated. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Australian parents there on educational visas, she grew up in Sydney. She quickly started showing an affinity for both ballet and acting, the latter of which she fixated on after seeing The Wizard of Oz. She developed those talents despite her introverted personality.
“I am very shy—really shy. I even had a stutter as a kid, which I slowly got over, but I still regress into that shyness,” she told Talk magazine. “So I don’t like walking into a crowded restaurant by myself; I don’t like going to a party by myself.”
After studying alongside Naomi Watts at Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney, Kidman quickly broke onto the Australian film and TV scene during the 1980s. She appeared in the 1988 movie Emerald City, for which she earned an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Supporting Actress.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The next year, she appeared alongside acting legend Sam Neill and Billy Zane (then best known for a small role in Back to the Future) in the Warner Bros. thriller Dead Calm. Despite being an unknown Aussie opposite heavyweights, she managed to stand out. Kidman and Zane “generate real, palpable hatred in their scenes together,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie.
But the story of the Kidman we all know really starts with 1990’s Days of Thunder. The racing movie was made at the height of Tom Cruise’s fame, coming just after he and director Tony Scott had put their permanent stamp on the 80s with Top Gun. Kidman was only 22 when she met Cruise as she was auditioning for her role in the movie, a doctor who treats Cruise’s driver and becomes his love interest.
“My jaw dropped,” Kidman told Vanity Fair of the moment Cruise drove up in a Porsche while she was nervously preparing for her Days of Thunder audition. “He basically swept me off my feet. I fell madly, passionately in love. And as happens when you fall in love, my whole plan in terms of what I wanted for my life—I was like, ‘Forget it. This is it.’ I was consumed by it, willingly.”
It was the perfect Hollywood image, which would come to define their relationship in the public eye. He was the all-American heartthrob; she was the ingénue. But Kidman always held her own, even in Days of Thunder, in which she manages to make the most of a thin part. Ebert wrote that she has “little to do,” which is true—she’s basically there to look smart and swoon for Cruise, as she did in real life. But even when she’s just staring longingly in close-up, her presence is undeniable.
Soon Kidman got meatier material. It became clear that she was much more than the love interest when To Die For came out in 1995. The crime thriller, directed by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting), stunned viewers with its lurid plot and pitch-black humor. Kidman carries it from the first frame to the last as Suzanne Stone, a ruthlessly ambitious local news reporter who schemes to kill her husband (Matt Dillon) with the help of teenagers (including Joaquin Phoenix). The role is far from flattering: Kidman’s Stone is narcissistic. But it won the actress her first Golden Globe, and put her in a whole new playing field.
The movie also hinted at the ways Kidman would go on to mine her own star wattage. “She’s tall and thin and delicate and blonde, a lot of these qualities we associate with very kind of traditional on-screen beauty. She understands that and plays off of that a lot,” Alison Willmore, a film critic for BuzzFeed, says. “To Die For, for instance…she’s this femme fatale character. She’s performing extreme femininity in ways that we understand she’s cutthroat. People are so helpless toward her for so long. It takes so long for people to see past this exterior that she’s so skilled at putting up.”
At the same time, the ups and downs of Kidman’s relationship with Cruise became well-documented in the media. After marrying and adopting two children, Connor and Isabella, they split in 2001, amid speculation that Cruise’s involvement in the Church of Scientology had caused a rift. But Kidman continues to speak respectfully of her time with Cruise.
“Tom Cruise is someone who has managed his image intensely. I don’t know how you could be in a relationship with him and not be made hyper-aware of that,” Willmore says. “You have to be aware of how that affects how you’re perceived and just how you’re remembered.”Kidman and Cruise even turned their highly visible relationship into art shortly before their divorce with 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. The Stanley Kubrick drama was instantly scandalous because of its erotic content, but the two stars bare a lot more than skin in the movie, offering a kind of meta-commentary on their own relationship as they play a couple rocked by jealousy. It’s hard to think of any other married actors as famous who would allow themselves to be so vulnerable and exposed.
When the cameras were turned off, Kidman was devastated by the fallout from her divorce from Cruise, just as she was accepting her Oscar for The Hours. “I was the loneliest I’d ever been,” she later said at the 2015 Women in the World Summit, despite being at the top of her game professionally. “To be completely honest, I was running away from my life at that time.”
She has since found a quieter family life with Urban, whom she married in 2006, even though he happens to be one of the most popular working musicians. They live in Nashville with their two children, Faith Margaret and Sunday Rose. When they show up at award shows together, they appear genuinely enamored with each other. “As much as we have a love,” she told Australia’s Who magazine, “we also have an incredible friendship and trust.”
Don’t call Kidman’s latest phase a comeback. Instead, it’s the organic result of what Kidman has been working toward all along. She and Reese Witherspoon, a co-executive producer and star on Big Little Lies, founded their own production companies with an eye toward giving actresses material that showcases the full breadth of women’s experiences. They had been looking for a project to work on together when they read the novel that Big Little Lies is based on, and they immediately insisted on getting it made.
“We need great roles,” Kidman told the Los Angeles Times of getting the female-centric show off the ground. “Our stories are relevant; people do want to hear them. But our stories often get brushed off. Seeing five women front a project is not common—and it shouldn’t be that way.”Witherspoon initially seemed to be the marquee star of Big Little Lies, playing a type-A, wealthy housewife in Monterey, California, who could be a grown-up version of her Tracy Flick character in 1999’s Election. But Kidman’s performance became the one that drew the most attention and Emmy awards. She plays the glamorous wife who seems to have it all on the outside, but is secretly abused by her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgård. The character could’ve easily been a caricature, but Kidman brings out every layer of a woman who feels attached to a man even as he beats her.
“Kidman is so good at navigating the complexities of this relationship. She’s so good at showing you someone who’s in deep denial and someone who is genuinely torn about this relationship in ways that are often frustratingly ignored when you portray abusive relationships on screen,” Willmore says.
“I think a lot of times you’re kind of impatiently waiting for there to be that ‘Leave him’ moment, and in this, the performance allows you to see why she’s torn and why it takes her so long to come around to the fact that she needs to get out for her own safety and her children’s safety.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Sofia Coppola actually had Kidman in mind at the outset of making The Beguiled, adapted from the 1966 novel that was also made into a 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood. Kidman plays Miss Martha, the headmistress of a Southern school for girls during the Civil War, which takes in Colin Farrell’s wounded Union soldier. Kidman’s Miss Martha seems delicate, but possesses a surprising capability for cunningness and aggression when necessary.
“I always loved her as an actress and wanted to work with her,” Coppola says of how she cast Kidman. “I love that she’s graceful and feminine and strong. When I started writing the script for The Beguiled, I thought of her right away, which helped me write the role.”
What distinguishes Coppola’s version of The Beguiled is its fascinating take on gender. It has a feminist angle both in front of and behind the camera. Kidman has, “always been supportive of women directors and other actors, and it’s great to see she really stands by that,” Coppola says. While the movie has been rightly criticized for its misguided attempt to erase slavery from the story with no black characters, it allows the viewer to see the drama unfold from the perspectives of Miss Martha, along with the younger women trying to come to terms with their fears and desires of what lies beyond their house.
“We both looked at the character in an empathetic way, from what it was like for her,” Coppola says of working with Kidman. “It was just incredible to watch her do a scene and how, every take, she would try something different and bring more layers to the emotion of the character. She’s so hardworking and exact.”
Kidman is having a moment, to be sure, but one that she’s been hinting at all along. Next, she’s starring in the second season of the TV series Top of the Lake, cocreated by fellow Aussie Jane Campion (The Piano), which airs on Sundance TV in the US. It’s a wild-card role: She’s a gray-haired lesbian worried about her adoptive daughter getting closer to a man who lives in a building that’s connected to an unsolved murder. Her character, once again, is not all that she seems to be on the surface.
“I don’t think it’s a mistake that these are all kind of female-driven projects,” Willmore says. “I think you’re seeing how good she can be when put in the spotlight and given roles that are difficult and complicated.”
Kidman never stopped being great, but the world is rediscovering how great she really is.
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