The Curious Case of Nicole Kidman

It’s been a long time since a movie star, regardless of talent, divided opinion quite like Nicole Kidman

It’s been a long time since a movie star, regardless of talent, divided opinion quite like Nicole Kidman. Inevitably the Internet is where much of the hostility is played out, but in the printed media and casual conversation, too, Nicole Kidman has gotten more than her fair share of vitriol.

Kidman was a critical success in Australia, mostly on TV, before "Dead Calm" brought her to international prominence and marriage to Tom Cruise. Though this union occurred in that distant era when the Hollywood PR machine was omnipotent, and would have merrily mounted a posthumous defamation of Galileo if the price was right, it was met with suspicion and scorn from the outset. Many openly opined that Kidman sought a parachute onto the A-list, and that was among the kinder speculations. As Hollywood pacts go this one did had a whiff of Faust about it.

The fan base of Cruise has been in retreat for a few years now and it’s obvious that Kidman has been tainted by her decade on Planet Tom. As willing co-star of the Tom Cruise Show she is a just target to many. With the notorious Pat Kingsley as the director, nothing remotely unflattering of Cruise was tolerated. Kingsley, now retired, and her ilk are responsible for the flourishing of the Internet scavengers who can use her and her tactics as an excuse to ply their trade and rub the noses of the PR puppet masters in the excremental remains of the controlled access game.

Rather than retreat from pointless publicity, the newly-single Kidman recklessly embraced it, though she seems to have learned her lesson. A photograph of her "jumping for joy" after the finalization of her divorce briefly, quickly, became a gift for the media. Whether this snap was taken when she expressed a particular emotion is irrelevant. The Cruise years taught her the inevitable (mis)interpretation of image. After this appeared, she began to affirm her love for Cruise on TV. Then after marrying a singer who quickly turned out to have an addiction she didn’t know about, she and Cruise embarked on a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach to parenthood with their new partners. Like many actresses Kidman has supped the poisoned chalice of fashion and image to maintain her profile even as her occasional appearances like an android delighted her detractors.

What can be said in Kidman’s defense? Well she is without doubt a great actress. Her daring and ambition have never been matched, I think, by an established and connected Hollywood talent. Like them all she had appeared in dross but the failures of "Cold Mountain," "Bewitched" and "The Stepford Wives" should not be laid solely at Kidman’s door, as is the case. It is true she hasn’t brought much of an audience to her smaller movies, but she is hardly alone in that. (Being Mrs. Tom Cruise didn’t do much for Mimi Rogers either, who proved her chops with a sensational performance in "The Rapture" that was ignored. The modest promise of "Pieces of April" is now a distant memory for Katie Holmes.)

Kidman’s exceptional performance in "To Die For," as a young woman who will do whatever it takes to climb the greasy pole, was seen by some as expression of her own ambition. I think it is work more deserving of her Oscar than her gimmicky supporting role in "The Hours." "Dogville," "Birth," "Fur," were all challenging material well off the Hollywood common run and ideal for an actress stretching herself.

Compared to the choices of Cameron Diaz or Halle Berry, say, or the abysmal Katherine Heigl, who gets her mother to help produce a script where she gets "laughs" from remotely controlled knickers — this after belittling the writers on "Grey’s Anatomy," who brought her to prominence in the first place — Kidman is recklessly daring. She is braver and more ambitious than any other prominent actress. She may have bungled the public side of her career but as an actress she is in a different league. Even "Moulin Rouge" was radical compared to "Chicago."

It’s hard to imagine another actress who could have made more of the aimless mess of "Margot at the Wedding," and could anyone else have maintained their dignity in the fiasco of "Australia?" Jane Campion’s "Portrait of a Lady" was rather stiff (except for Barbara Hershey) because Kidman and Campion were arguably too faithful to Henry James.

Kidman has become the totem of Hollywood’s over-rewarded ranks. Despite the talents of, say, Dennis Quaid or Aaron Eckhart, repeated attempts to launch them as leading men have floundered. Jeff Goldblum has been in "Jurassic Park" and "Independence Day" but he is hardly a superstar. I happen to consider all of these actors very talented but despite their consistent commercial failure they are spared the abuse hurled at Kidman.

It is almost impossible as filmgoer, or mere celebrity-watcher, to grasp a star’s true character but anyone who has seen Kidman with her childhood friend Naomi Watts, whose road to success was more tortuous and enthusiasm for privacy unwavering, it’s hard to believe that Kidman is a ruthless master schemer. Yes, they are fantastic actresses, but I have no difficulty believing that their friendship is genuine and that Kidman reveals, however briefly, something true about herself.

As it becomes almost impossible for serious performers to build a movie career, I suspect Nicole Kidman will be judged more flatteringly than has hitherto been the case.

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