On Beauty and Being Wrong: Nicole Kidman’s Oeuvre


Nicole Kidman

Great awakenings happen all at once, and often through less-than-exciting agents. I became aware of politics during the 2000 campaign. A year later, I became conscious of cinema through, of all things, Moulin Rouge!. In the former instance, I voted for Ralph Nader in an October social-studies class mock election, saw Bush win narrowly, and became a vehement Gore supporter; in the latter, I pored over every Oscar-season issue of Entertainment Weekly, looking for loose tea leaves in which I could suss out good news for the Best Actress race. About politics I have developed mixed, even contradictory feelings! About film – well, I no longer think Moulin Rouge! is any kind of masterpiece, let alone an unqualified one, but I’m still looking for good news about Nicole Kidman.

Being a fan of an actress is a very strange thing, and – with the exception of people who saw The Devil Wears Prada four years ago and randomly decided, without even watching Sophie’s Choice, to become Meryl Streep superfans – has some twisted origin. Moulin Rouge! had been released the summer before my eighth-grade year, while I was at summer camp. I had just transferred to a private school a few towns away from my house, and felt like I stuck out in all the significantly recognizable, unremarkable ways. Probably I will feel that way someday about my problems now! My English teacher, a fortyish woman who taught our class about coat-hanger abortions and talked about her hip-hop dance class and AIM screen name, bought me a VHS of the film, which she gave me on one of the occasions she found me eating my lunch on the floor of her classroom, reading one of the Newsweeks from 1998 that were lying in a box for collages.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

I watched it that weekend, and made my dad watch it with me (he compared the first fifteen minutes to Cabaret, which I hadn’t seen, then fell asleep), and bought the soundtrack at Borders, and watched the Grammys “Lady Marmalade” performance with my family and justified it as totally different from the film, really! I listened to “Come What May” on my Discman as I brushed my teeth at night – the rendition on the second volume of the soundtrack, which I purchased separately. I was just nuts about the overt emotionality of the film – saying so much that I could not say, not because of social constraint but because I had no reason to. Kidman is, of course, slavishly well-shot and –edited and given a million plum moments in the film, so I guess my appreciation of her was incidental, but it was real! She was everything an actress is supposed to be – surreal and fantastical but recognizably an actual person.

I was sent to bed before the real Oscars were handed out that year, and my mom spoiled them for me over breakfast, but I was still disappointed when I watched my VHS of the ceremony, seeing Nicole Kidman’s face fall – and it could still fall, ho ho – when Halle Berry won. She got her own Oscar, the next year, for The Hours, which I watched with my best friend and her father. I was very sad to find, recently, that the film didn’t hold up, that the movie works better as a memory of the sushi boat my friend and I shared after the screening than as art.

I didn’t find it funny, four years later, when Chris Rock made fun of Kidman at an Oscars ceremony for being a sore loser. The intervening years had seen Kidman win her own Oscar (which I watched live) and lose her reputation nearly immediately, and had seen me transfer to a new school and suffer the same old required-sports and retainer anxieties. (In leaving eighth grade, my English teacher told me, “We’re soulmates – we both love Moulin Rouge! and literature.”) And I found it strenuously unfunny when Denzel Washington announced Nicole Kidman’s Oscar was “by a nose”! Poor Nicole – she’d never be good enough for the Hollywood establishment, even in triumph!

Cold Mountain (2003)

In A. O. Scott’s knowing piece about Kidman around when Cold Mountain was released, he said that the actress purposefully took on roles of benevolent suffering – the dying Satine, the tormented Woolf – in order to maximize audience identification. I missed this point, as I was more interested in looking at the attached art, which was a kicky set of Kidman paper dolls, faces of angst and glamour.

Cold Mountain was the best moment to be a Kidman fan, before the 2004 Stepford Wives beginning-of-the-end: while maybe not at the height of her talents, the actress was famous enough to get an enormous production centered around biting her lip, wearing Scarlett O’Hara couture, and waiting for a man. I went with a new friend from English class, whose mom drove us and sat in a separate row. I just now realize she maybe thought we were on a date! After that came The Stepford Wives and my period of feeling truly bad for Kidman. It was gloriously secret, like my crush on the soccer goalie. She was opaque, a screen image in Chanel who never needed to know I was rooting for her. (Actually, the soccer goalie probably knew.) She was an IMDb page I could keep refreshing, wondering when she would rally her horses and prove acting abilities that I sometimes thought I imagined. She would get back on her feet.

It is something more than a quirk that Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton both rose up around the time Kidman fell out of favor among whatever “establishment” decides upon prestige, or whatever you want to call it. Kidman’s mainstream success always seemed like something of a construction – her heralded “one-two punch” in the summer of 2001 was made of one competent thriller, one musical that maybe didn’t rise or fall on her talent, and a huge tabloidy divorce. Even she wasn’t ready for the sudden “greatest actress” plaudits that fell into her lap after years toiling in cheesy Hollywood movies and a cheesy Hollywood relationship.

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (2007)

Blanchett and Swinton had risen up through the charmed, Streepy path of universal acclaim for meaty roles in arty movies. Neither would have starred in Practical Magic. And because she hurdled so far ahead of the pack from so far behind, she’s seemed, after her charmed moment, a few steps behind, working with directors in the movie after their hit (Noah Baumback and Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007), indulging insecurities about longevity with bad plastic surgery (okay, fine!) and easy commercial movie choices and annoying Vanity Fair interviews. She’s come across as timid and unready, even now, for the spotlight. Her Oscar speech is probably one of the worst, the most strangled and disconnected, in memory, but part of being a Kidman fan after 2004 has been the impossible hope that she’ll get another chance. Her performance quality hasn’t suffered – her unknowability, floaty voice, and air of scandal was perfect for The Golden Compass, but Swinton had that moment two years earlier as the White Witch. Of course, acting isn’t about the race, but because of decade-old memories about how the prestige-y Kidman began, intra-actress comparisons, or even competition, just come naturally, and she’s been unwise or unlucky for the past long while. Maybe it’s not that important to her! Maybe hopes for Blanchett-style fame and repute were all thrust on her.

Between Cold Mountain and The Golden Compass, I started editing a section for the school paper and got into a so-called “secret society” at my school. My dad let me skip classes on a Saturday (yep!) to see The Interpreter, which, sight unseen, I thought might help Kidman get her next Oscar nomination. Afterwards, I took solace in the fact that it opened at number one – maybe people other than me were rooting for Nicole! I saw Bewitched with a group of friends, and afterwards, tried to convince everyone that seeing it had been a group decision. I won the English prize at graduation, but not valedictorian, and thought about the Chris Rock jibes during the speech, which included spoken-word rap and references to a beloved tie from J.Crew. I wondered whether Fur would be the next Moulin Rouge!. I was so worried Diane Arbus would be too much of a challenge, that the movie would not live up to a promise I hadn’t even been made. I went to college and didn’t see it.

A year or so later, it was one of the many seasons of Cate Blanchett – she’d just come off I’m Not There and Elizabeth: The Golden Age was awaiting. Her fans stuck these in the spokes of their bikes and rode around the cul-de-sac grinning. “She can’t do anything with subtlety,” I remember complaining. “She’s just a bag of tricks. She can’t play a real woman, a real person who wasn’t Queen Elizabeth or Bob Dylan or a lady pedophile.” As though to prove my own point, I took a friend to see Margot at the Wedding at Lincoln Plaza with me. Kidman’s face looked like Kidman’s face, but her performance was – I thought, and think – fantastic, compelling, weird. I couldn’t stop myself from being mad, in the theater, that she wouldn’t get an Oscar, even though I was training myself to know this wouldn’t matter.

Margot at the Wedding (2008)

Kidman played, here, a character with whom one is meant to feel alienation – she’s a writer who draws excessively from life, a woman isolated from her family and submerged in a snobbish world of aesthetics. My friend and I couldn’t speak on the ride home; finally one of us said, “Too real.” This film was not a success in any meaningful way, but isn’t the reason one is a fan the possibility of discovering something no one else knows about, or cares about?

I’m still hopeful, I guess, that Kidman will pull out something amazing in the next few years; certainly, Sandra Bullock returned from the hinterlands. Rabbit Hole was very good! But it was followed by Just Go With It, and then there will be a Nicolas Cage thriller. I have Moulin Rouge! and The Hours on DVD, and both of those films have good moments (as well as Dogville, which is a masterpiece for reasons totally unrelated to Kidman), and maybe that’s what I’ll take from her career. They were moments – Satine falling in love on the elephant, Virginia running to London – that were the only coloring on a blank slate.

Maybe my favorite Kidman moment never even took place on screen. In that pile of three-year-old Newsweeks in my teacher’s classroom was the one with Nicole Kidman on the cover, in honor of her starring role in the play The Blue Room. Her season was a few years away. It was a little weird she’d be on a national magazine cover at that moment, but it was part of the hype machine that surrounded and maintained her, in the early going, like flying buttresses. Look at her! I thought, eating my sandwich in solitude, dreading intramural sports period, thirty minutes away. She doesn’t even know how much is ahead of her, just a few years away.

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