' ' Cinema Romantico: Notes on Nicole Kidman

Friday, May 10, 2024

Notes on Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman, upon recently receiving the American Film Institute Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A confession: the first time I ever watched a Nicole Kidman movie was because I thought she was cute. The movie was “Billy Bathgate,” and so this was 1991, and so I was 14 years old, and so, please, cut me at least a little slack. I wanted to see Robert Benton’s adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel because one year out from “Goodfellas” every idiot 14-year-old boy was obsessed with mob movies, but also because every commercial they ran for “Billy Bathgate” during college football games and primetime television showed Nicole Kidman at least once and, man, was she pretty. My embarrassing shallowness, however, was evocative of the shallow, and dense, way Hollywood promoted Kidman in the 1990s. The industry saw her as a movie star, but never understood what that meant, never determined what persona they were selling, sort of mingling generic beautiful woman with Tom Cruise’s Other Half, emblemized in forgettable projects like “Malice” (1993) and “Days of Thunder” (1990). There was not a persona to sell, however, because even then Kidman was what she is now, an actor, subsuming herself in roles rather than standing apart from them. She carried her half of “Dead Calm” (1989) as capably as Sam Neill carried his, demonstrated her future propensity for total commitment in “To Die For” (1995), and in “Batman Forever” (1995), quite frankly, went above and beyond the call of duty. Well before Christopher Nolan invested his Dark Knight trilogy with seriousness, Kidman was helping her movie earn its PG-13 rating by conveying (earmuffs!) just how seriously her character wanted to fuck Batman.

If there was a single moment when the broader populace truly became aware of Kidman’s immense ability it was when she donned a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Wolff in “The Hours” (2002), underlined in her winning the Oscar for Best Actress. Kidman is almost always a transformative actor, whether she is changing her appearance or not, but transformation is so much more conspicuous when it’s literal. It was more than that, though, as the invaluable culture writer Anne Helen Petersen wrote in 2017 when assessing Kidman’s career; in playing the part, Kidman “got ugly...Her performance of dowdiness, in other words, is made remarkable by just how unnatural it must have been.” By not being beautiful, Kidman was “proving” she could act for the doofs who somehow did not already realize she could. “With ‘The Hours’ (Kidman) takes another step away from her movie-star persona and firmly becomes an actor playing a role,” Andrew O’Hehir wrote for Salon, proving Petersen’s point even as he gives Kidman a rave, “rather than a celebrity playing herself under a different name.” He continued: “For an actress to give up her face -- her most marketable commodity -- even for one role, is a startling decision.”

In essence, O’Hehir was writing that Kidman had assumed a mask, but the truth was, Kidman had been donning masks her whole career. Emily Nussbaum noted as much for The New Yorker in 2017, writing that Kidman offered not “transparency, (but) a different gift: she can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.” Though she infuses roles with a sense of her own individual ideas about the person she is playing, like essentially imagining Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos” as Michael Jordan of “The Last Dance,” Kidman is not playing herself, the crucial delineation. Rather, she conceals herself, a kind of Kidman Kabuki, and like that ancient school of Japanese art, she uses such artifice to transmit emotions of who she is playing directly to the audience.

Yet, in the last few years, a curious thing has happened. In our strange present, where the very idea of what constitutes a movie has become muddled, and big screens and small screens and all the screens in-between have figuratively blurred to the point where it can be difficult to tell them apart, few have managed to carve out a distinct presence across all these spectrums like Kidman. Not just in movies and TV, but social media too, and not just by starting her own Instagram account, but in how her work has been harvested for TikTok and memes. This includes clips of her past roles, of course, like her time-stopping close-up in “The Stepford Wives,” and even her various reactions on talk shows and at awards shows, but I’m thinking even more specifically. I’m thinking, of course, about the AMC Theatres commercial in which Kidman was enlisted in 2021 as an ambassador for the movie multiplex chain to help implore the public to return to movie theaters after the pre-vaccine days of the COVID-19 pandemic.


This commercial has been parodied endlessly, from Olivia Rodrigo on TikTok to Jimmy Kimmel at the Oscars to Morgan Freeman at Kidman’s recent AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Crucially, though, Kidman herself is not resorting to self-parody. She is Pure Camp, in the way that Susan Sontag famously saw it, exaggerated, fantastic, passionate, and naive, so deadly serious in effusing such religious grandiosity over the act of going to the movies that it is impossible take seriously. But it’s more. Because she is not playing a character, she is playing herself, except in quotation marks. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman,’” Sontag wrote. And it is not Kidman, but “Kidman.” It is Nicole Kidman finally becoming a movie star by creating her own persona without, still, having to give her real self away.

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