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Writers' Note: Nicole Kidman's Finest Hour

Nicole Kidman has made quite an impact in show business. Actress (92 credits), producer (13), and soundtrack singer (23 – who can forget her rendition of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" in the credits of HBO miniseries The Undoing) according to IMDB, the star has a pretty remarkable resumé. Five Academy Award nominations (including one win), and a slew of other accolades later, we asked our writers to name the best Nicole Kidman performance. Of course, there is no right answer (or is there?)


Lydia

Gus Van Sant’s 1995 satire on celebrity and ambition is probably not the most well-rounded film to be featured in this write-up, but Nicole Kidman’s performance in it sure as hell is. I don’t use the word “transform” often for actors, but in this case, Kidman transforms into picture-perfect newswoman Suzanne Stone in To Die For. The bonkers blonde marries for appearances rather than love and will stop at nothing to pursue her passion. It would be easy to dumb this performance down to “beautiful woman is secretly a criminal mastermind,” but there are so many fascinating layers to her deception. It’s not clear if she’s ever told the truth in her entire life. And to top it off, she’s not even that smart. Her well-kept looks and subtle charisma suggest to the audience that she knows what she’s doing. But, ultimately, she’s uptight and unruly without a single fully-developed thought in her head.

Van Sant develops her character during the first half of the film in a mockumentary-style collection of interviews with her sister-in-law and other contemporaries. However, in the second half, Stone is largely left up to her own devices, flouncing around and seducing minors. It’s a crackpot of odd, almost-vulnerable moments that boils down to the truth of a deeply confused woman with nothing there, head or heart. I’d argue it’s harder to play a protagonist with zero depth than it is to play someone with a justification for their personality defects. Kidman plays compelling, clueless, and creepy. No wonder Stone is swimming with the fishes.


Grace

If the Big Little Lies craze got the better of you, too, then Kidman’s scenes as Celeste Wright were playing through your mind 24/7 for about a week straight. To pull off this role, it was necessary to don many hats: selfless mother, reserved-yet-elegant friend, a former lawyer, a submissive and desirable wife, and a traumatized woman, unsure of whether or not to help herself.


As in real life, we acknowledge our past and our reputations and use that as a guide in how to behave in the moment. Most notably in the therapy scenes throughout season one, the doubt about how to behave is palpable in Kidman's eyes once her therapist advises her to prepare to leave her abusive husband. Leaving her husband would mean contradicting many parts of her identity. Taking her boys away from their father might lead others to believe she is a bad mom. Admitting that she has put herself in a dangerous position may be shameful for Celeste since she was once a knowledgeable lawyer before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

Because Celeste is so well-educated (and reputed as calm and level-headed amongst her friends), she is able to recount her abuse to her therapist in a concise manner. It is both shocking to her therapist and the audience that, despite her self-awareness, she has trouble coming to terms with having to take action against her husband.


Throughout these scenes, Kidman is perfectly still and her voice soft but, she is completely sure of herself when she does speak because the therapist is usually the one pushing the conversation forward. Without heavy theatrics, it is impressive how a single look is able to sell her performance.


August

Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this. In just under ten words, a seminal piece of the queer canon was born. This is maybe Nicole’s defining work of the last decade if not her whole career for mixing both her constant dedication to the craft of cinema and performance with her undying status as a gay icon. Maybe not intentionally – but intent and result are not always the same and the result clearly speaks for itself!

Her gait, poise, and regality carry her in an almost mythic quality about the Porter Ranch AMC as she waxes poetic about the power of the cinema. She becomes almost ethereal, drifting along the barren halls of this theater she has never once actually stepped foot in before as images flash by from Wonder Woman and Creed as she hits us with the now legendary line: Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

One of the truly great icons of the silver screen from the last generation being the face of one of the most populist theater chains in the country is so deeply funny for a myriad of reasons, not least of all being her proclivity for arthouse fare over blockbuster, though her turns in Aquaman and her string of HBO shows say otherwise. In any case, Nicole has provided the world and the queers with So Much over the years, and now she has blessed us with this. An indelible presence on screen for decades and now before every single movie. All rise!


Chance

When I hear Nicole Kidman’s name, two movies come to mind. They are both masterpieces, though not in equal measure: Stanley Kubrick’s career-ending magnum opus Eyes Wide Shut and, of course, Aquaman. Let me tell you, I was inches away from picking Aquaman, maybe even centimeters. In fact, as I sat down to type this I thought, “Damn, what if I just said Aquaman? Wouldn’t that be fucking crazy?” So, I hope it speaks to the magnitude of Eyes Wide Shut and Kidman’s astonishing turn in it that that film is able to temper my inflammatory instincts. No disrespect to James Wan, the visionary that he is.


Kidman as Alice Harford in Eye Wide Shut is as insistent as performances come. In a film intent on interrogating the disturbed facelessness of hollow sexuality, Kidman gives a commanding and idiosyncratic visage to that which most films would leave anonymous. Kubrick’s camera generally takes on the gaze of men, not incidentally, but with cruel intention. For many of her more bombastic scenes, Kidman is shot from behind, her face totally out of view. With a lesser performer, such scenes would not confront but, instead, indulge in the vapid, exploitative eroticism that the movie so vehemently critiques.

It’s the careful rhythms of Kidman’s performance that make the entire movie work; there are no absurd swaying hips or ridiculous, sensuous strokes. Rather, Kidman controls every scene she’s in. Her actions are assured, steady and practiced. Every sideways glance indicates an earth-shattering declaration that she can both desire and be desired with a devout insistence that this happens on her own terms.


Two moments come to mind. The first is Bill’s (Tom Cruise) vision of Alice’s imagined affair. In this scene, Kidman does not play Alice, but Bill’s articulation of her desire. Kidman’s body language is languid, open, and passive, undercut by a single hand that grasps her partner in this fictitious adultery. Kidman is able to embody all the fears Bill harbors of feminine sexuality at once, simultaneously being taken from him and leaving him. Compare this to my second moment, Kidman here portraying the real Alice. She leans in a doorway and looks down at Cruise. Kidman is openly sexual, contemptuous, and wholly knowable. In a single shot, the mystique of sexuality that so many movies indulge in is completely doused. Kidman deploys her trademark casual ferocity to the most complex ends of her career. Because of Kidman, the character of Alice is not an enigma onto which Bill projects his fears, but a reality, a whole and complex person whose completeness is the only threat to Bill’s fragile perception of sex.

The film’s dialogue is secondary to its articulation of physicality. That Kidman’s delivery is exceptional goes without saying. However, to praise her performance without mentioning the final line of the film and, consequently, Kubrick’s filmography, is impossible. Unburdened by a lesser performer’s need to overcomplicate so meaty a moment, an unsmiling Kidman says with casually extant desire, “Fuck.”


-Lydia, August, Grace & Chance

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