From her breakout film Days of Thunders to the Academy Award-nominated Being the Ricardos, Nicole Kidman has captivating audiences for decades. From lead roles in films such as Eyes Wide Shut and Moulin Rouge! to ensemble roles from The Killing of a Sacred Deer to Big Little Lies, Kidman’s presence elevates the quality of a film. In the fifth decade of her career, Kidman continues to find compelling roles such as her upcoming film The Northman, released next Friday. In this month’s Retrospective Roundtable, we commemorate a number of our favorite performances from her below:
To Die For (1995)
An early film from both director Gus Van Sant and actress Nicole Kidman, To Die For puts a ghastly price on fame… and infamy. Kidman stars as Suzanne Stone, a woman who wants to become a world-famous journalist. She takes a job as a weather woman for WWEN, a local cable news station, but is savvy – she makes the most of her limited air time and is unrelenting in terms of suggestions provided to her network to improve their content (and, of course, suggest opportunities for herself to maximize her screen time). Stone believes that one is the best version of themselves when on air, for that is when everyone is looking. On the flip side, Stone is abhorrent when she thinks no one is looking.
To Die For is akin to a 90s version of Ingrid Goes West. Both films examine the perils of celebrity culture through satire, in the 90s through television, and today through social media. As a result, To Die For is very much contemporary even though one might not regard their television set these days as a means to stardom. Something isn’t quite right with Suzanne Stone, and we know this within minutes through Kidman’s portrayal of her overconfident character. She knows what she’s capable of, and in time the world just might find out. – Alex Sitaras
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
There’s much intrigue in orbit of Stanley Kubrick’s ultimate feature: its mixed critical reception, its censorship issues, its record-breaking 400 day production duration, Kubrick’s despondency and his untimely death, and the disintegrating real-life marriage between Kidman and Tom Cruise. But what has provided such a lasting impression is perhaps its most mysterious player, Kidman. Kidman’s character, Alice, wife to a paranoid husband, Bill (Tom Cruise), is far more grounded compared to the film’s labyrinthine mysteries. Though it is precisely her ordinariness and the banality of her dissatisfaction that positions her as central to the plot. Indeed, it is her unforgettable monologue about an attractive sailor, her confession that she once desired another man, that prompts her husband to embark on a sexual odyssey and into the perverted inner-circle of New York’s secret society. In fact, the film as a whole can be read as a cautionary tale of giving into envy and lust, and who better to front such a parabolic story than the enticing Nicole Kidman and her then husband Tom Cruise?
Eyes Wide Shut boasts a psychological conscience; it is a decadent case study of a man unable to coexist with his wife’s autonomous sexuality. In a stroke of Kubrickian genius, the film never leans too heavily on its narrative. As if conjured from a dream, with Kidman’s character as the only semblance of normality left intact, events swing openly, tempting a variety of interpretations. As the saying goes, did it happen or was it all just a dream? Did infidelity between a husband and wife ever strictly occur? Answers to these questions seem not to matter. As Alice reminds us: “the important thing is we’re awake now”. – Jessica Moore
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
With a backdrop of doomed love, frenetic energy and the dazzling Technicolor of one of the most thrilling movie musicals, Nicole Kidman shines bright in a role that is emblematic of the time and expertise invested into her career.
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, now over two decades old, is a turbulent account of the dramas of the stage and life in 1899 Paris. Writer and lovesick narrator Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls hopelessly for both the star courtesan Satine (Kidman) and the prospect of using her to wedge his way into a writing credit for the Moulin Rouge. The owner of the cabaret, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), intends to use Satine for his own purposes, basically selling her to the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) in exchange for funds to convert the failing Rouge into a theater.
As quietly as they can, and among many of the compounding interests that Luhrmann has no trouble throwing at his stars, Christian and Satine fall in love. When a life-end diagnosis is lodged against her, Satine tries to save Christian from both the heartache of loss and the threat of violence against a jealous and vicious Duke. Regardless of these trials, their love is everlasting.
In a role slightly left of her usual work, Kidman uses her dramatic expertise and on-screen magnetism to bend Moulin Rouge!’s tempo to the beating of Satine’s heart. Kidman rolls with every one of Luhrmann’s punches, and amidst a dazzling, anachronistic inferno of musical grandeur, she shines as bright as any Rita Hayworth or Esther Williams golden girl. It’s a one-of-a-kind performance and a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. – Lauren Mattice
Anna (Nicole Kidman) is about to remarry ten years after her husband collapsed while on a run in Central Park. A young boy (Cameron Bright) suddenly appears in her life, claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. His presence threatens to undermine the delicate balance of the very insular and privileged world that Anna finds herself in. Critics and viewers were focused on the appropriateness of the story, whether we were seeing some sick endorsement of aberrant behavior or if there was more to the film. Apart from the story, Birth boasts impeccable craftsmanship. From the beautifully warm cinematography of Harris Savides to the pulsating yet delicate Alexandre Desplat score that permeates and conveys both yearning and mystery, every element is in place for this film. Yet sometimes, when a movie is technically excellent, it could all be for naught if there is no emotional core to relate to. The whole product could end up feeling airless.
Birth avoids this trap because of Nicole Kidman’s performance. Kidman sometimes has the problem of not being a particularly immersive actor (not necessarily a problem for many roles). Her statuesque figure and striking eyes are difficult to get past. Yet she often more than makes up for it with the rich, emotional lives she can bring to characters. Kidman does her subtlest and most masterful work. Her voice is quiet and despite being so striking physically, she manages to be a shrinking violet towards the beginning of the film. As Birth progresses, we see her slowly come out of her shell and be more assertive. Even if the story veers into the absurd or uncomfortable, like when she believes that the young boy truly is the reincarnation of her husband, she never wavers in her emotional conviction so we go along with her. Kidman takes the natural intensity of her persona and doesn’t dial it down but rather channels it through quietude and subtlety, becoming one of the most empathetic characters ever in a film about grief. – Eugene Kang
The Paperboy (2012)
After making a huge splash with Precious in 2009, Lee Daniels would return with The Paperboy, which has more in common with that controversial hit than one might think. Like Precious, The Paperboy deals with working-class characters and rubs up against stereotypes with an alarming friction. Racism is blatant, with the “N” word being freely thrown around. The film also has some jaw-droppingly strange scenes such as when John Cusack and Nicole Kidman are both faking orgasms like Meg Ryan in the diner in When Harry Met Sally. It is a sweaty, pulpy movie that would rub a lot of people the wrong way, and no one could blame them. But The Paperboy does boast excellent performances. The whole cast, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, all understand precisely what kind of film they are in, and they fit this heightened fever dream of a movie quite well. But none of them go as hard as Kidman does. She is a hot mess, barely able to function as a rational human being. This could be seen as a fault of the screenplay, but Kidman makes it work. She is compelling to watch as a woman on the edge of an emotional and existential abyss. Her dalliance with Zac Efron’s character feels genuinely like an act of desperation rather than exploitation, even if we see her do something as gobsmacking as urinating on his face to neutralize a jellyfish sting. She manages to bring pathos and depth to what could have been a horrible stereotype of a poor White working-class woman. – Eugene Kang
Nicole Kidman isn’t best known for her work in the thriller genre, but Destroyer quickly leads us to wonder where else Kidman might shine that we haven’t seen her. In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays the role of Erin Bell, a former undercover police officer. Kidman’s performance is practically nauseating – her character carries a sickly demeanor through her gritty journey into the criminal underworld as she takes revenge on a gang who had killed her former partner in a heist.
As its title suggests, Kidman’s character is a force of nature. Her resemblance to a caged animal is uncanny and, we soon find out, well-deserved. Erin lashes out on those who have wronged her as she moves closer and closer to the gang’s leader. A couple and twists and a gnarly performance from Kidman make Destroyer a memorable crime thriller in very capable hands. – Alex Sitaras