In 1997, actress Nicole Kidman set the red carpet at the Oscars ablaze. She hadn’t yet been nominated for an Academy Award, and hadn’t appeared in Eyes Wide Shut or Moulin Rouge! or Cold Mountain (the roles that would launch her from rising star to household name), but she was fresh off To Die For and arm-in-arm with Tom Cruise—and she was wearing chartreuse.
Kidman’s silk John Galliano for Christian Dior gown, embroidered with chinoiseries and lined with mink along its slit up the side, was a landmark moment for both designer and wearer: Galliano had just been appointed creative director of Dior the previous fall, and Kidman’s Oscars appearance signaled his arrival as a potent new force on the red carpet. Equally, it marked Kidman as a daring, experimental fashion darling; her previous two Oscars looks, by Valentino and Dior, were lovely, but didn’t elicit the polarized reactions of her 1997 look.
“John made it for me, and I love it. I don’t know if people will get it,” Kidman told writer Merle Ginsberg at the time. “But if they don’t, well, maybe they should.” Smithsonian, that bastion of fashion criticism, called it one of the most influential Oscars dresses of all time; the look, Galliano’s first celebrity outing with Dior, has landed on countless more best-of lists since its debut.
This week—and really, this year—Kidman has returned to late-’90s, early-’00s form, both on screen and in her wardrobe. She has premiered no fewer than four projects at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, a mother lode even by the festival’s marathon standards: Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer; the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake; John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties; and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. (Kidman and co-star Elle Fanning, who appears in both How to Talk to Girls at Parties and The Beguiled, have made a particularly joyous pairing on the red carpet. It’s not difficult to envision Fanning maturing into a Kidman-esque figure in two decades; already, she’s cultivated the requisite diverse resume and challenging, yet delicately feminine, aesthetic on the red carpet.) Earlier this year, Kidman captivated audiences of HBO’s limited series Big Little Lies, in which she played Celeste Wright, the wife of Alexander Skarsgard’s abusive Perry, and she stepped into the Dolby Theater as an Oscar nominee once again, for her supporting role in 2016’s Lion, her first nomination in six years.
At the same time, as in 1997, Kidman has championed new designers at old houses, like Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior or Raf Simons at Calvin Klein, as well as mainstays like Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and Rodarte—industry darlings all of them, and responsible for some of the most-anticipated and most-lauded shows of the past season, as well as some of the most inaccessible. But here, Kidman is at an advantage, for her red carpet forte is the bold and difficult. Her recent balletic Calvin Klein By Appointment look, a black bodice with a wide white tutu, is deceptively high-demand; at the premiere of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Kidman wore a shimmering sequined dress by Rodarte’s Laura and Kate Mulleavy to great success. In fact, that level of difficulty is the unifying trait of Kidman’s red-carpet aesthetic; more than a penchant for the romantic or gothic or avant-garde, she cycles between disparate looks as if getting into character, burying herself inside an individual piece rather than embracing a particular aesthetic. In fashion, she’s a cipher.
“She is an actor known for thoroughly inhabiting a role,” Marisa Meltzer recently wrote in an analysis of Kidman’s performance in Big Little Lies. “There’s no core sense of who Nicole Kidman is beyond her characters. She doesn’t have much of a persona and has never seemed to try very hard to get one.” Those same qualities hold true for Kidman on the red carpet, as if dressing for a premiere were simply an extension of the role.
Nicole Kidman never disappeared. Before 1997, she had already begun her ascent thanks to roles in Days of Thunder and To Die For; in the late ’00s, after Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Hours made her into a critical and art-house darling, she continued to work prolifically, if not particularly memorably—aside from an Oscar-worthy turn in Rabbit Hole in 2011, the just-okay films far outnumbered the excellent ones. But this year, on and off screen, Kidman has returned to form: Big Little Lies was a sensation; after the Cannes screening of Top of the Lake: China Girl, Indiewire critic David Ehrlich tweeted, “by far the best thing I've seen at my first Cannes.” The Killing of a Sacred Deer reportedly elicited a few boos, but then, so did Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, and Marie Antoinette upon their inaugural screenings. And through it all, Kidman is in the audience, watching her work, wearing something fabulous.
At 49 years old, Nicole Kidman is still quite impressionable: