Pop Portfolio - August 2017 - Nicole Kidman

The Year Nicole Kidman, Hollywood Enigma, Really Spoke to Us

Nicole Kidman started 2017 with a Golden Globe nomination (and then an Oscar nomination) for Best Supporting Actress for Lion. She’s finishing 2017 with another Golden Globe nomination (and an Emmy win) for Best Actress in a Miniseries for Big Little Lies—fitting bookends to a year in which Kidman dominated the screen and our popular imagination.

In addition to the viral success that was Big Little Lies—when was the last time Nicole Kidman was part of something so delightful?—she also reigned as the unofficial queen of the Cannes Film Festival, where she screened no fewer than four projects (Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer). She returned to form on the red carpet (if, in fact, she was ever out of form) with challenging looks worthy of the 1997 Oscars. She turned 50 and talked about ageism. And she took up domestic violence as her cause célèbre, using her role as Celeste, the abused wife of Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry, in Big Little Lies, as an avenue into the conversation.

And yet, for all her exposure across 2017, Kidman remains as enigmatic as ever. It has been harder, since Kidman married country musician and fellow Aussie transplant Keith Urban in 2006, to evaluate her based on her romantic relationships, as she was for the decade-plus she was married to Tom Cruise. (“Kidman struggled to disarticulate herself from her husband’s stardom—and from the rumors that swirled around their relationship,” Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Peterson wrote earlier this year, in a piece aptly titled “How Many Times Does Nicole Kidman Have to Prove Herself?".)

This, in case it bears saying, is a good thing. Kidman is arguably the more famous of the two of them, and yet her personal life remains largely inscrutable; they have appeared on the red carpet together all year—he at the various screen awards shows, she at ceremonies like the Country Music Association Awards and the CMT Music Awards. “There’s no core sense of who Nicole Kidman is beyond her characters,” Marisa Meltzer wrote for W earlier this year. “She doesn’t have much of a persona and has never seemed to try very hard to get one.”

Kidman made her grand entry into 2017 at the Golden Globes, walking the red carpet with Urban. She wore a silver, puffy-sleeved Alexander McQueen dress from the brand’s Spring 2017 collection—a dress, she told the Daily Mail in January, that had been approved by her daughters Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret: “They both jumped up and said, ‘Mummy, you look like a beautiful fairy in that dress,’ so that was it,” she said. It was, she admitted, “not really what I would normally wear,” but, then again, this year Kidman strayed so far from jewel tones and traditionally flattering silhouettes that “normally” became a moving target. Instead, she opted for daring, fresh-off-the-runway designs by the likes of Rodarte—a notoriously challenging choice—and Calvin Klein, and couture pieces from Chanel, Giambattista Valli, and Armani. At one event, she could go classic, in a strapless Oscar de la Renta gown with an asymmetrical, embellished hem; at the next, she could instead opt for Off-White, the label-cum-lifestyle brand by Virgil Abloh. “Level of difficulty,” I noted earlier this year of Kidman’s Cannes appearances, “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.”

On screen, too, Kidman’s work has been united less by a type of film or role and more by her ability and willingness to dissolve herself into the character. She seemed undaunted by the prospect of the extreme perm that transformed her into Sue Brierley for Lion last year, marking her once again as one of Hollywood’s most mutable stars. “You’ll have to have red curly hair like you used to look,” Kidman said director Garth Davis told her of the role. This year demanded even more of Kidman across her various roles: The physical transformations wrought by Big Little Lies and Top of the Lake: China Girl, simply from a hair-and-makeup and costume perspective, were accompanied by a similarly convincing evocations of her characters’ interior lives. She played the 19th-century schoolmarm of The Beguiled and the repressed ophthalmologist wife of Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer with equal sensitivity.

(Lion is a Weinstein Company production; Kidman has appeared in several of producer Harvey Weinstein’s films and, when accusations of decades of sexual harassment and assault by Weinstein were reported just more than two months ago, Kidman was among the first to speak out—“I support and applaud all women and these women who speak out against any abuse and misuse of power,” she said in October. “We need to eradicate this behavior.”)

In 2017, Kidman, always a praised actress but with a so-so track record in picking her movies, hit her stride both critically and commercially—Big Little Lies was such a hit it was renewed for a second season; The Beguiled, while plagued by a whitewashing controversy, has nevertheless maintained a 78 percent Rotten Tomatoes score; and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, while polarizing, has elicited cult approval that echoes that of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s last film, The Lobster.

At the same time, Big Little Lies offered a particular opportunity for Kidman to delve into speaking on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. Celeste Wright, her Big Little Lies character, in many ways subverts typical depictions of domestic abuse on screen: “Director Jean-Marc Vallée puts us, the viewers, right up in it. He lingers on the arguments that escalate into physical violence and always end in sex,” Meltzer wrote. “The domestic violence script is flipped. … It’s excruciating as a viewer, but you have to watch closely to see what’s really going on between them.” And the subtlety of Big Little Lies’ depiction of an abusive relationship—one that is sensitive to all the reasons a woman might return to her abuser, despite the personal danger—has been matched by the nuance of Kidman’s response to the issue.

“It is a complicated, insidious disease. It exists far more than we allow ourselves to know. It is filled with shame and secrecy. And by you acknowledging me with this award, it shines a light on it even more,” she said in her Emmys acceptance speech in September. The next month, she published a powerful essay about domestic violence in Porter magazine, writing that as a result of her role as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, she has “come to fully understand the barriers that women around the world are facing. I have focused on lending my voice to women who are survivors of violence.”

It’s been 22 years since Nicole Kidman graced the screen in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, a film that, somehow, resonates just as much in 2017 as 1995—which offers all the more reason why 2017 belonged to Nicole Kidman. Viewed today, the film presents a sort of metacommentary on social media, and it features Kidman in an eerily Trumpian role, albeit as a broadcast journalist. Certainly, 2017 was not a good year—and it was likely no better for Kidman, for after all she's also a mortal. Her excellent 2017 was not a product of any inherent 2017-ness, but rather a testament to the fact that, despite the obstacles to women in Hollywood and the simple oppressive state of things, Kidman continued to show up. And that's something.

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