Wednesday 20 September 2017

How Nicole Kidman climbed her way back to the top

Nicole Kidman was arguably the biggest winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, cementing her reputation as one of the greatest actresses of her time - but it's not been all plain sailing. Our film critic on how she climbed her way back to the the top

Australian actress Nicole Kidman poses as she arrives for the screening of the film 'The Beguiled'
Australian actress Nicole Kidman poses as she arrives for the screening of the film 'The Beguiled'
Nicole Kidman in Bewitched
TOPSHOT - Australian actress Nicole Kidman poses on May 24, 2017 during a photocall for the film 'The Beguiled' at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / Valery HACHEVALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Whitington

It takes a big star to survive a run of bad films. In 2005, a couple of years after her high-profile divorce from Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman starred in Frank Oz's remake of the 1970s cult classic Stepford Wives. It was a bit of a mess, to be honest, sadly lacking wit and focus, and marked the start of a protracted slump that might have ended other careers.

For four or five years, it seemed as if Kidman couldn't buy a hit, as her talents were squandered on one bad script after another, from Nora Ephron's dire comedy Bewitched to Sydney Pollack's deadly dull thriller The Interpreter, Oliver Hirschbiegel's overblown sci-fi caper The Invasion and the flop epics Golden Compass and Australia.

This dip in her fortunes came as she turned 40, a dangerous age for actresses in an industry obsessed with youthful female beauty. Though she pointedly refused to answer intrusive enquiries about alleged cosmetic surgery, celebrity journalists became obsessed with a supposedly enhanced appearance. Kidman's status as one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars seemed under threat.

But in amongst that sad parade of flops, one film pointed to the remarkable renaissance that lay ahead. In Baumbach's underrated 2007 drama Margot at the Wedding, she delivered a brilliant portrayal of a cold and almost comically self-absorbed writer who causes chaos at her sister's wedding. It was an indie project, with a low budget and no frills, but Kidman excelled in this kind of less financially charged environment, which she would go on to seek out more and more.

Nicole Kidman in Bewitched
Nicole Kidman in Bewitched

Kidman turns 50 next month, and her acting career has never been in better shape. She was the undisputed star of the show at this year's Cannes Film Festival, appearing in no less than three competing films as well as Jane Campion's highly praised TV drama Top of the Lake.

So ubiquitous was she, in fact, that jury chairman Pedro Almodóvar invented a special award for her. Her work opposite Colin Farrell in Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled and the Irish-produced Killing of a Sacred Deer has been particularly highly praised, and suggests that Kidman is adding new dimensions to her technique as she gets older. But she's always been good, and her looks have sometimes obscured her remarkable talent.

Those looks - she's almost six foot, porcelain-skinned and a natural redhead - had a great deal to do with her early success. Born in Hawaii to Australian parents but raised from an early age in Sydney, Kidman was always drawn to storytelling and acting, but had to overcome intense shyness.

"I even had a stutter," she has said, "which I slowly got over, but I still regress into that shyness. I don't like walking into a crowded restaurant by myself, I don't like going to a party by myself."

TOPSHOT - Australian actress Nicole Kidman poses on May 24, 2017 during a photocall for the film 'The Beguiled' at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / Valery HACHEVALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Australian actress Nicole Kidman poses on May 24, 2017 during a photocall for the film 'The Beguiled' at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / Valery HACHEVALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

She was inspired to pursue acting by frequent viewings of Margaret Hamilton's terrifying portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. She joined a theatre group, and at 15 made her film debut in a cheesy Australian family comedy called Bush Christmas. By 17, she was a full-time professional, appearing in teen films like BMX Bandits, and Australian TV soaps like A Country Practice.

In 1988 she got her first real break when Phillip Noyce cast the 21-year-old actress opposite Sam Neill and Billy Zane in his nautical thriller Dead Calm, a clever Hitchcockian drama about a couple who end up trapped on board a drifting yacht with a psychopath. It was critically acclaimed, and Kidman's solid performance was noted. Then she met Tom Cruise.

It's pointless to imagine what Kidman's career would have been like if she hadn't, because Cruise's clout undoubtedly got her to the top much faster than would otherwise have been possible. At 23, this unknown Australian actress was suddenly in the headlines and landing big roles, a fact that caused no end of critical and industry resentment. The young Kidman had a lot to prove.

She and Cruise began dating on the set of Days of Thunder, Tony Scott's noisy and unsubtle motor-racing drama, which would be one of the biggest box-office hits of 1990. The pair married in December of that year, adopted two children in quick succession and instantly became Hollywood's reigning golden couple. But Kidman initially struggled to emerge from his shadow.

Listless turns in such forgettable films as Flirting (1991) and Batman Forever (1995) did her no favours, and the less said about Far and Away - she and Cruise's ghastly and overblown drama about Irish emigrants in 19th century America - the better. But in 1995, she suddenly emerged as an actress of real talent.

Loosely based on a true story, Gus Van Sant's To Die For darkly satirised the modern obsession with celebrity, and starred Kidman as Suzanne Stone, a weather girl at a local cable TV station whose wild ambitions are thwarted by her affable, stick-in-the-mud husband Larry. Suzanne wants to be a world-famous news presenter, and when Larry quietly suggests starting a family, she decides to do away with him.

Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix played two high-school dropouts she seduces into killing Larry, and Matt Dillon co-starred as her unfortunate spouse. But this was Kidman's film, and she was a revelation playing the vacuous, cold-hearted Suzanne. At various points , the character talks directly to camera, and while Suzanne clearly believes her beauty and charm will allow her to get away with anything, Kidman shows us the wheels turning, and the ugliness within.

After that extraordinary performance won her a Golden Globe, her first major award, she was no longer so easily dismissable as Mrs Cruise. She and her husband worked together for the last time in 1999, in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, a steamy, paranoid erotic drama charting the marital dysfunctions of a wealthy New York couple. Kubrick died shortly after finishing it, and within 18 months of the film's release, Cruise and Kidman had separated.

Following their split, in February of 2001, over-excitable celebrity journalists filled the information vacuum by claiming that their physically and emotionally exhausting experiences with Kubrick had pushed their marriage to breaking point. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, and Eyes Wide Shut involved a lot of intimate and gruelling sex scenes, but Kidman has always insisted that the shoot had nothing to do with their separation.

Cruise's deepening involvement with Scientology may have had something to do with it, and though Tom married again in 2006, he divorced Katie Holmes in 2012, and his marriage to Kidman remains his longest. The two children they adopted together remained with Cruise, and the Church of Scientology, and reports suggest they remain estranged from Kidman.

That must have been a very difficult experience for the actress, but through the aftermath of the divorce, and Cruise's subsequent love-struck couch-jumping on Oprah, Kidman has retained a very dignified silence.

In fact, she seems to have realised that being in the tabloids isn't very good news for someone who wants to be taken seriously as an actress. In 2006, she quietly married Australian country star Keith Urban, and has since had two daughters with him. Though they have homes in Sydney and Los Angeles, they live mainly away from the limelight in Nashville. And that stable home life has given Kidman the freedom to blossom in her professional life.

The mature Kidman has become ever more fearless in her choices. In 2002 she donned a prosthetic nose to play a spectacularly miserable Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's The Hours, and won an Oscar - her only one to date. She was treated like a stray hound by cruel townsfolk in Lars von Trier's boldly experimental 2003 film Dogville, and later the same year played a woman caught up in the nightmare of the American Civil War in Anthony Minghella's lush and Oscar-winning drama Cold Mountain.

Then came that slump we mentioned earlier on, and Kidman's output very understandably dipped around 2008, when she gave birth to her first biological child. Re-establishing herself wasn't easy, and there's been the odd hiccup along the way, like the risibly silly and stilted Grace Kelly biopic Grace of Monaco.

But that film's awfulness had absolutely nothing to do with Kidman, who has become a byword for excellence over the last few years. I thought she was astonishingly good as Dev Patel's fragile adoptive mother in last year's genuinely moving Oscar contender Lion. And 2017 looks like being a really special year for her. We'll shortly get to enjoy those acclaimed performances in The Beguiled, Killing of a Sacred Deer and How to Talk to Girls at Parties, while the second series of Jane Campion's compelling New Zealand drama Top of the Lake will air on BBC2 later this year.

But before Cannes ever happened, Kidman stole the show earlier this year on the excellent HBO drama Big Little Lies, playing a woman with a seemingly perfect life who's in denial about the fact that her husband is an abusive maniac. It was typical Kidman: intense, focused, brittle and compellingly watchable.

Directors and actors who've worked with her in recent years have referred to Kidman's lack of airs and graces on a set, her willingness to experiment, her good-humoured, collegiate approach. And she seems more at ease than she used to be, more prepared to laugh at herself, as she recently proved on The Graham Norton Show.

It's no mean feat for a Hollywood actress to remain a big star into her ­fifties, and only the very best manage it. But it looks like Kidman will be busier than ever over the next decade or two.

NICOLE KIDMAN'S HITS...

The films in which the Australian actress has impressed include...

1) To Die For (1995)

Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of sociopathic weather girl Suzanne Stone was, well, to die for, and she oozed a kind of insane girlishness in the role.

2) The Paperboy (2012)

Lee Daniels’ steamy southern drama was not perfect, but Kidman was superb as an unstable woman whose obsession with a death-row inmate will be her undoing.

3) Rabbit Hole (2010)

But one of her most compelling performances of all came in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2010 film about a couple who react in very different ways to the sudden death of their son.

...AND MISSES

And three she failed to light up the screen in...

Bewitched (2005)

The 2005 comedy was bad, and Nicole was disastrously miscast as a suburban housewife and secret witch who casts spells by wrinkling her nose.

Nine (2009)

Kidman seemed ill at ease playing a flamboyant Scandinavian actress in the messy Frederico

Fellini-inspired musical directed by ob Marshall and also starring Judi Dench.

Grace of Monaco (2014)

Kidman must really blush at the mention of this tinny 2014 biopic in which a suspiciously lanky Grace Kelly saves Monaco from a French stealth attack.

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