The Year of Nicole Kidman
For better or worse
We all agree: Nicole Kidman is having a moment. Buzz began earlier this year with Kidman’s fourth Oscar nomination for her role in Lion opposite Dev Patel. It continued to grow in response to her nuanced work in HBO’s Big Little Lies as Celeste, a Monterey woman whose seemingly perfect life masks a murky reality. And it peaked with the news that Kidman has four projects screening in and out of competition at the upcoming 70th Cannes Film Festival: starring roles in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and in the second season of Jane Campion’s television series Top of the Lake. Depending on what you read, Kidman is either in the throes of a full-blown career renaissance (yes, a "Kidmanaissance”) or generating revelatory performances unlike any we have ever seen from her before. Kidman’s fan base is either broadening or reenergizing. Kidman is underrated or has never been taken seriously at all. Kidman has never been better. Whether these statements are true or not doesn’t seem as important as the reasons why, in the past few months, they've been made at all. Kidman hasn’t just suddenly appeared. Making her Australian film debut in 1983, and emerging as an international performer with Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm in 1989, she has been a steady presence on screens ever since. It is true, as Anne Thompson points out, that Kidman’s career comprises both highlights and lowlights. But whose career doesn’t? Few actors can boast a filmography with zero misfires. Two recent "failures," Grace of Monaco (2014) and Queen of the Desert (2015), can be deemed as such for reasons that extend beyond any intrinsic flaws in her performances. As in any other industry, we forgive men’s flops more readily; we look too easily for excuses not to take women’s work as seriously. Film writers and watchers can be fickle folks. We are prone, in equal measure, to collective amnesia and collective hysteria. Actors, it is true, go in and out of vogue, depending on the quantity and quality of their projects. There are only so many column inches to devote at any one time to anyone. It makes sense to be interested when a performer has multiple projects emerging. In 2011, Jessica Chastain illustrated precisely this phenomenon, featuring in no less than six feature films, including Take Shelter and The Tree of Life. We all want to be part of the conversation. But it’s interesting that the idolization of actors, especially female ones, seems to come in flooding waves of excess. In 2015, social media was alight with love for Cate Blanchett. Her performance in Todd Haynes’ Carol sparked countless gifs and profile pieces. But this was only a warm-up for the way we seemed to collectively "discover" Isabelle Huppert in 2016. The months after Paul Verhoeven’s Elle debuted at Cannes witnessed daily eruptions of performative adoration for the French actress, which rolled on well into awards season. Huppert, like Blanchett, and Chastain before her, is undoubtedly an actress who deserves to be talked about more rather than less. But with major back-to-back performances in Elle and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Huppert pulled an audience who seemed to be noticing her extraordinary talent for the first time, despite the fact that it has been on show for forty years.
Do these cycles of adulation say more about us than they do about the objects of our adoration? Of course it’s good to be reminded, as we were by the recent Twitter "Kidman World Cup" spearheaded by Variety’s Guy Lodge, that Kidman is an exceptional actress. But to those who've watched Kidman’s career closely over many years, it isn’t really news to learn that films like cup-winner To Die For (1995) or runner-up Birth (2004) prove the breadth and depth of her abilities. Kidman has had repeatedly to prove her skills, to remind us of her range every single time she comes on screen—“to reapply for greatness on a yearly basis,” as Anne Helen Petersen comprehensively and compassionately argues. Kidman is too old to be "breaking out," and hasn’t gone away long enough to be making a "comeback." But as Petersen explains, the idea that Kidman’s work, at various points in her career, and again at this particular moment, has been described as a "revelation," is also an inadequate way of talking about her. “No woman with as much talent as Kidman should be forced to re-argue, over and over again, that she is a force to be taken seriously.” This constant reappraisal is, as Petersen suggests, strange, demeaning, and inarguably sexist. Kidman’s recent work—and, we anticipate, the work that will be unveiled at Cannes, already glimpsed in the tantalizing trailer for The Beguiled—is undeniably great. But it’s not really employing any elements of her acting style that we haven’t seen before. There are no new revelations. Kidman’s work in Lion taps into her strength and dignity. The tight coil of intensity, vulnerability, and emotional complexity on display on her face throughout much of Big Little Lies has its antecedents in Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010), and before that, Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Let’s agree that Kidman is currently creating exceptional work. Let’s remember that she’s done great work in the past. Let’s rest assured that, given the right opportunities, she’ll continue to do more in the future, which, yes, as she approaches fifty, in a industry that struggles to make space for women of a certain age, might prove challenging. Kidman has always been fearless and adventurous—willing to bare herself, to delve deep into darkness. That commitment is evident in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Dogville (2003), Birth (2004), Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), and The Paperboy (2012). Kidman’s career has been forged, for the most part, on her own terms, for the sake of art. While she has made many mainstream films, she’s clearly uninterested in a career littered with empty, escapist popcorn fare. Her so-called fallow periods, of poorly reviewed films or meager money makers, really serve to illustrate one thing: her industry's resistance to risk-taking and artistic curiosity when embraced by women. (As Petersen points out, shifting between mainstream and indie film is “hailed as the new paradigm for Hollywood success” when George Clooney or Brad Pitt do it.) Kidman has never really gone away. We underestimated her, stopped paying attention, and turned our attention elsewhere. We distorted her failures. But now there’s nothing else for her to prove. With so many Kidman performances on their way, this will surely be a year of excitement and examination. But let’s not distort her successes so that if she were to one day disappoint us, we demand that she make herself worthy of our love all over again.