For Nicole Kidman, There Is No Average Performance

By  · Published on July 13th, 2017

A look back on some of Ms. Kidman’s most iconic, peculiar, and impressive performances.

A few days ago, I finally had the pleasure of seeing Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled. Among all of the striking aspects of the film — the cinematography, costumes, sound design, music, pacing, and so on — Nicole Kidman’s performance as Ms. Martha Farnsworth really stood out for me. She is the heart of the movie, holding everything and everyone together, quietly controlling every situation. This is typical of the kind of work Nicole Kidman does whenever she appears onscreen — she is the soft yet steely center of the films she performs in.

In her brilliant article, “How Many Times Does Nicole Kidman Have to Prove Herself?”, Anne Helen Peterson explores the ways Nicole Kidman has been underestimated and swept aside throughout her career, and how this relates to the way women are treated in Hollywood overall. Peterson points out how Kidman is frequently referred to as a “revelation,” a polite term used to describe a great performance from an actor nobody thought had any talent. This is directly linked to the sexist notion that attractive actresses are only famous because they are sexually appealing, and not because they work hard or have talent. The point of the article is that Nicole Kidman has been giving brave and eccentric performances for approximately three decades, and she damn well deserves some recognition.

Of course, she has received a fair share of recognition, being nominated for over 10 Golden Globe Awards and four Academy Awards, one of which she won (for The Hours). She is one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood, but this does not mean she has always been recognized for the right reasons. Her marriage and subsequent divorce from Tom Cruise is what she is best known for in Hollywood, followed by her looks — her beautiful pale skin and cool blue eyes have inspired many critics to refer to her as an “ice queen.” Peterson writes about how the media’s obsession with Kidman’s looks is part of a timeless Hollywood trend of focusing only on female actresses’ physical attributes, rather than their intellect or talent. I previously wrote about this problem as it relates to Marilyn Monroe — to this day she is more remembered for her appearance than for the many, many brilliant performances she gave throughout her career.

While it is important to acknowledge these aspects of Kidman’s career — they are integral to her star image — what I wish to do is shine a light on the strength of her countless film performances. From her first appearance onscreen in the Australian film Bush Christmas (1983) to her masterful turn in The Beguiled (2017), Nicole Kidman is one of the most dedicated and emotionally intelligent actresses in Hollywood. Peterson points out that there is no such thing as a phoned-in Nicole Kidman performance because there is no such thing as a “standard” Nicole Kidman performance. She has been taking risks and experimenting for three decades, and that deserves some recognition.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Warner Brothers

I chose to begin with a discussion of Eyes Wide Shut, as this is my personal favorite Nicole Kidman performance, not to mention one of the best performances in the history of the medium. This film was famously troubled, with the shooting taking over a year and Kubrick passing away during post-production. Regardless of these issues, it is a masterpiece. The film stars Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as married couple Alice and Bill Harford. Of course, the intrigue is that the two actors were married in real life at the time, and many people speculate that this caused tension on set which is visible in the finished product.

 Regardless of this, Kidman’s performance as Alice is brilliantly deceptive — she seems to be a quiet, doting wife, but in one of the most intense scenes in the movie, she reveals a hidden depth and darkness which startles Bill to his very core. One of the most famous “Kubrick stares” occurs while Alice is helping her daughter Helena with her homework, and she looks up and smiles at Bill — the camera slowly zooms in on her face, and Bill’s discomfort with his wife’s hidden desires is palpable. Alice’s long speeches in the bedroom scene with Bill are indicative of a thoughtful, strong woman who is aware of her sexuality and the unfair double standards that come along with it. By the end of the film she seems exhausted and slightly shaken, but wiser from her experiences. Kidman is especially talented at playing women who seem resigned, yet have just enough hope to keep going and face the future.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewen McGregor/20th Century Fox

Two years after Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman starred in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! In AO Scott’s 2003 article, “A Unified Theory of Nicole Kidman,” he points out that it was an admirably risky career choice for Kidman to throw herself — and her voice — into the elaborate role of Satine. Scott writes that because of choices such as this, Kidman was elevated from being an actress to a bright, shining movie star. Peterson writes that Luhrmann wanted Kidman for the role of Satine from the beginning, but the executives behind the film were hesitant due to the public perception of her as “cold” and “distant.” Thankfully Luhrmann did not pay attention to these arbitrary and unfair descriptors and allowed her to shine as the tortured yet talented performer Satine.

Kidman completely throws herself into this role, singing her heart out to Ewan McGregor’s Christian at every chance she gets. One can feel Satine’s pain and the intense effort it takes to get through her performances as her body slowly shuts down from tuberculosis. She gives an intense and romantic performance, one that matches the flashy, sparkling, ornate visuals of the film. This is one of Kidman’s most outgoing characters, giving her a chance to showcase her range and star power, which she had not previously had the chance to do. Scott writes that Kidman has a penchant for playing miserable characters — in the case of Moulin Rouge!, Kidman coughs blood into her handkerchief before finally succumbing to her illness and romantically dying.

The Others (2001)

Dimension Films

The misery continues in The Others, a chilly supernatural horror film Kidman also starred in in 2001. She plays Grace, a mother to two children, both of whom have severe allergies to light. Every day she must delicately navigate her way through protecting them from too much light, which is a huge challenge, especially as a single mother whose husband was lost in the war. To add to this already tense and stressful situation, ghosts begin terrorizing her and her children. She is terrified for her children and herself, yet she becomes even more vigilant about protecting her children.

The strange events are further complicated by the arrival of three servants, whom Grace initially blames for putting the children in danger of light exposure. After a series of plot twists and turns, it is revealed that (spoiler alert!) Grace and her children are ghosts themselves, and the intruder ghosts are no longer a threat. She displays intense maternal fierceness under her steely outer shell. Much like most of her characters, she is complex — at times loving, at other times unpleasant and perhaps even shrill, but always incredibly strong and protective of those she loves. She protects her children from the ghosts, and then bravely adapts to her circumstances as she discovers the truth of the situation.

The Hours (2002)

Paramount Pictures

Perhaps Kidman’s most miserable character of her entire career, she portrayed Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s 2002 The Hours (which, as I previously mentioned, she won Best Actress for at the Academy Awards). Often, when an actor physically transforms for a role, they are showered with awards and critical praise — this is thought to be the ultimate signifier of dedication to one’s craft. Scott noted that Kidman was not previously thought of as the kind of actress to disappear into her roles, therefore critics were delighted and surprised when her prosthetics and makeup as Virginia Woolf made her almost unrecognizable.

Peterson notes that this could be described as “Oscar bait,” but in Kidman’s case it is simply a case of her taking yet another risk on a project she believes in. Kidman’s performance is heartbreaking, as she brings to the screen the troubled life of a real woman who suffered immensely from mental illness, yet whose passion for her craft (writing) was undeniable. She struggles with her mental state as well as her controlling and stifling husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane). Scott notes that even though Kidman has a knack for accents and for immersing herself in her roles, her personality always shines through in a classical Hollywood movie star kind of way — which is perhaps what audiences desire from her. Even in her performance as Virginia Woolf, a bit of Kidman’s persona is visible through the makeup, which adds another layer of empathy to this complex character.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Miramax Films

Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain is yet another film where Kidman plays a woman isolated and heartbroken by war. Peterson notes that Kidman is adept at playing historical characters, and she always looks perfectly comfortable in 19th century-era American dresses. In this film she plays Ada, a preacher’s daughter who has a whirlwind romance with Confederate soldier and carpenter W.P. Inman (Jude Law), which is harshly interrupted by the American Civil War.

The film’s extended running time allows us to see the toll waiting for Inman to return takes on Ada — she loses her father in the meantime, and moves onto an isolated farm with a woman named Ruby (Renee Zellweger) who becomes her closest friend. Ada constantly writes letters to Inman, and has a vision of him returning to her. Her pain and her passion are constantly visible on her face, although she mostly puts on a brave face and works hard on the farm with Ruby. Scott writes that the women Kidman plays are not only miserable, but they are almost always persecuted — by history, by men, by plain bad luck — yet they are strong enough to fight back against these circumstances. In the case of Cold Mountain, Ada is persecuted by history as the love of her life is taken away from her shortly after they meet each other. However, her dedication and strength pays off in the end, when Inman returns and they finally get to consummate their love.

The Beguiled (2016)

Focus Features

I’ve jumped forward a number of years here, because The Beguiled is indicative of the kind of work Kidman has been doing throughout her entire career, and up until this day. Peterson notes that she has cultivated a strange balance between art and commerce, appearing in experimental indie films as well as big-budget mainstream films. Kidman appeared as a grief-stricken mother in Rabbit Hole (2010), and the following year she acted opposite Jennifer Aniston in the rather silly comedy Just Go With It (2011). She plays an eccentric and vengeful woman in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013), and shortly after appeared as the evil taxidermist villain in the children’s film Paddington (2014). She recently floored critics with her emotionally devastating performance in Big Little Lies.

She has appeared in a wide range of films over the years, but her intense devotion to her craft is evident in every single one. Most recently, she greatly impressed me with her terrifying yet somehow comforting performance in The Beguiled. She plays Martha Farnsworth, the owner of a girl’s school in Virginia during the Civil War. Most of the students and teachers left the school during the war, but a few young girls remain with Ms. Farnsworth and their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). There are scenes where Ms. Farnsworth seems very loving, tender, and protective of her students, yet there are other times when she passive-aggressively (and sometimes just plain aggressively) criticizes the young women.

Ms. Farnsworth is not simply a “good” or “bad” character, but she is a complex one whose intentions are often hard to read. She is rather blunt with Corporal John McBurney, the wounded soldier whom the women take in to nurse back to health, but later softens towards him. As with all of the women in the house, there is romantic/sexual tension between her and the corporal, but it is different for her as she is the only fully-grown (and experienced) woman in the house. When the corporal is severely injured, Ms. Farnsworth makes the decision to amputate part of his leg, and once he wakes up he angrily speculates that she did it to punish him for not pursuing a sexual relationship with her. It is unclear whether or not this is what happened, and Kidman’s complex characterization of Ms. Farnsworth makes it even more difficult to know the truth.

Scott notes that in the end, the misery of her characters is also a sign of Kidman’s independence, her courage, and her victory over unpleasant personal circumstances — her characters suffer beautifully and audiences feel for both her characters, and Kidman herself. Kidman has had an unconventional Hollywood career, in which she has taken on risky and experimental roles with varying success. Scott notes that her bravery for taking on difficult and complicated roles deserves praise, even if the results are not always perfect. It seems as though there are periods of Kidman’s career that were overshadowed by her marriage to Tom Cruise, but she only deserves recognition for her own hard work, regardless of who she is or was romantically involved with. Next year, she will appear in Untouchable (a remake of the French film The Intouchables) as well as Aquaman — once again proving Kidman’s range and her ability to shift between serious dramas, indie comedies, and big-budget Hollywood films.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.