How many times does Nicole Kidman have to prove herself? Cultural analyst Anne Helen Petersen recently asked this question in an incisive examination of Kidman’s career, identifying the way even Oscar-winning female actors like Kidman must repeatedly prove their abilities, while male actors coast through a bunch of duds with reputations intact because of one good role many years ago.
Right now Kidman is hot. She’s riding a wave of critical acclaim both as an actress and a producer, having performed these dual responsibilities in the juicy female-led HBO drama-mystery Big Little Lies (where she plays a rich and beautiful abused wife), and in the recent Australian box office hit Lion (where she appears as the frizzy-permed Tasmanian mum to Dev Patel’s Indian adoptee). But whatever acting talent or business acumen Kidman demonstrates, commentators will most likely continue to fixate on her (admittedly extraordinary) physical appearance, her suspected plastic surgeries and the dramas surrounding her marriages and children. Which is a pity, because there are far more interesting questions to ask about Kidman’s work, like how has she managed to spend 35 years in the business, consistently turning in astonishing, brave and revealing performances while also maintaining an evergreen sense of mystery and reserve? And why is she simultaneously adored and reviled? She’s one of the few actors that polarise audiences. You seem to love her or hate her. (I’m an admirer, though not without qualification.)
Nicole Kidman turns 50 this year. Her film debut was back in 1983 when as a teenager she appeared in Henri Safran’s Bush Christmas – a remake of a 1947 Australian film about an outback family on the verge of losing their farm. In 1983 she also appeared as a plucky teen sleuth in kids’ classic BMX Bandits, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Just a few years later, at the age 19, her first adult role was a rather thankless girlfriend part in daggy romantic comedy Windrider (see below), where she managed to shine so bright she stole the show.
Her work in late '80s Australian TV miniseries like Vietnam and Bangkok Hilton led to Kidman’s international breakout role in Phil Noyce’s 1989 thriller Dead Calm. Despite being only 19, Kidman managed a fierce performance as the wife of a much older man (Sam Neill) who pretends to love the psychopathic rapist (Billy Zane) who boards their yacht and holds them hostage. In subsequent years, there have been many duds (films like Days of Thunder and Far and Away with her former husband Tom Cruise are a low point). There have also been many middling performances (like the damsel in distress in Batman Forever, or the grieving wife of Michael Keaton in My Life).
But there have also continued to be revelations and so-called ‘breakouts’, like Kidman’s turn as a sociopathic newsreader in Gus Van Sant’s critically acclaimed To Die For (1995); her Oscar-winning performance (and that much-talked about prosthetic nose) as writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002); and the surprising news that she could sing and dance very well indeed, playing courtesan Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic technicolour musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001). To date she has been nominated for four Academy Awards, eleven Golden Globes, and nine SAG Awards. In other words, she’s a proven talent. And yet it feels like she has to convince us again and again that she’s worth our time.
Kidman has said in interviews that in choosing her roles she likes to “go to places that terrify me.” Directors as varied and iconoclastic as Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady), Jonathan Glazer (Birth) and Lars von Trier (Dogville) have taken advantage of this willingness to stretch and risk her dignity, (and, one suspects, even her sanity) for a role. Kidman often appears fragile and tense, a woman on the verge of breaking down, but with secret reserves and private resources to be called upon.
The New Yorker’s wonderful television critic Emily Nussbaum has written that “[w]hile other actors specialise in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: she can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.” Perhaps that’s one key to Kidman’s enduring mystique – and perhaps even the reason some viewers can’t stand her, preferring easier, warmer, bubblier female actors.
See if you agree by watching these three diverse Nicole Kidman performances ready to watch now on SBS On Demand.
In her first adult character film role, a fresh-faced 19-year-old Nicole Kidman plays Jade, a pop singer on the verge of music video fame. With her red leather miniskirt and explosive mane of ginger hair, she’s the wild thing that catches the eye of PC Simpson (Tom Burlinson), a brash young man who works with his dad (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, who’s very good in the role) at the family engineering firm. PC lives in a swanky beach house, drives a beach buggy and really wants to pursue his passion for professional windsurfing. There’s romance, comedy (very broadly speaking) and a whole lot windsurfing on Perth’s big-wave beaches, all accompanied by cheesy synthesiser music. It’s a bouncy, good-natured film that’s very much a product of its times and worth a watch now precisely because of that.
Directed by Vincent Monton (better known for his work as a cinematographer on Australian classics like Newsfront and Heatwave) and written by Everett De Roche (Razorback, Patrick) together with Bonnie Harris, Windrider is notorious for the fact it features Kidman’s first nude scenes. There are many online fans of Kidman’s derriere in Windrider, but it’s to her credit that she’s an actress who’s always been prepared to bare her body if the role requires it, usually for more than decorative purposes.
Windrider’s other star, the muscular and athletic Tom Burlinson appears here in his first contemporary role after historical hit films The Man from Snowy River and Phar Lap. He does his best with a silly character and bad blonde highlights, and he performed a lot of his own windsurfing stunts. Burlinson and Kidman were reportedly a real life romantic item after this film, but watching it now, it’s clear that even with hardly a line of good dialogue to work with, she was the one destined for enduring stardom.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Fur opens in the late 1950s in a New York nudist colony, where the shy but determined photographer, Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman), agrees to disrobe in order to gain her subjects’ confidence. We then flash back several months to explain how this nervous wife and mother of two came to be pursuing such odd subject matter. The key, according to this imagined rather than biographical narrative, lies in Arbus’s friendship with an upstairs neighbour, Lionel (Robert Downey Jr), a man suffering from a rare condition that covers his face and body with a pelt of hair. Like the beast in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Lionel has a tragic psychological wound, and a house full of intriguing and seductive oddities. Weirdly, this feels like home to the photographer, who has until that point always felt like a freak and an outsider in her upper middle-class life. An unexpected romance develops that will change her forever.
Directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson (the team behind the sly and funny S&M satire Secretary (2002), Fur is not the film for viewers wishing to learn anything substantial about the great American photographic artist whose strange, disturbing portraits of odd and deformed people brought her fame. In fact, none of these photos appear in the film. This problematic relationship to ‘truth’ or biographical fact leaves many questions for the viewer to ponder. But what remains is an interesting and sensitive exploration of the birth of artistic desire, and the longing to look at that which is forbidden or socially suspect. Kidman appears nothing like the real Diane Arbus, whose own artistic birth at the age of 35 seemed to happen almost overnight and remains mysterious even to her friends and biographers. But what’s real is the Kidman’s depiction of an artist whose curiosity gets the better of her fear.
Kidman plays a bereaved mother who is shut down by grief in this touching, restrained and often humorous film directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and written by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted it from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
The story begins eight months after Becca (Kidman) and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have buried their young son, who was hit by a car outside their big, pretty, lakeside house. They’re struggling in different and conflicting ways. She wants to avoid all emotion. She’s tart and cold to friends and family who try to reach out. Her husband wants to feel it and move on – maybe even have another baby. Their attempts to attend a support group for grieving parents are both heartrending and funny, as Becca refuses to play the game of believing “God wanted another angel”, or that “everything happens for a reason”. It’s only when she makes contact with the sensitive, intelligent teenage boy (Miles Teller) who hit her son, that Becca begins to heal. The scenes between Kidman and Teller are the most electric in a film loaded with great performances (Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Tammy Blanchard play supporting roles). But this is very much Kidman’s film – and her first foray into producing as well as acting. It’s no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for this pitch-perfect performance.
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