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25 may 2007
Nicole Kidman grew out of a chapter in David Thomson's wonderful history of Hollywood filmmaking, The Whole Equation (2004). Intrigued by Kidman's Oscar-winning performance in The Hours (2002), Thomson went into raptures about the nature of the desire that the screen actor inspires in the audience – or more specifically, that Kidman inspires in him. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called the rhapsody "ridiculous." Undeterred, Thomson elaborated his appreciation of Kidman into a book-length essay.
Nicole Kidman will be 40 next month, so it's not quite correct to call this book a "biography"; one hopes that its subject's life isn't even halfway run. Of course there's no requirement that celebrity biographers wait for the celebrity to die, or retire, or even reach voting age. And Thomson is old enough to be Kidman's father, so he is well-advised not to wait for the end of her career to compile a retrospective.
Though perhaps Kidman's career is already over, at 39. Thomson makes this fear explicit: too many great film stars have vanished (by choice or not) after reaching two-score, from Greta Garbo to Tuesday Weld (who features briefly here in a monitory anecdote) to Kathleen Turner. In part this book is an intervention in Kidman's career. Choose wisely, Nicole, and you could become the rare Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep who continues to do topnotch work in middle age or later. Keep choosing The Stepford Wives and Bewitched, and you may softly and suddenly vanish away.
The premise of Nicole Kidman is that Kidman is a great actress as well as a great star and high-powered tabloid magnet. If you don't accept this premise, you will be disappointed in the book. Thomson's book is not the usual celebrity puff, but neither is it an intellectual demolition of celebrity. It is a serious celebration of Kidman's work, and it is seriously in awe of Kidman's tenacity in pursuit of both her work and her celebrity at once.
Exhibit A in the case for Kidman's genius is of course The Hours, with the famously beschnozzed star impersonating modernist writer Virginia Woolf. The Academy is fascinated by celebrity impersonations, and fascinated by performances where an actor loses himself or herself in the role (or the makeup). Now, screen acting can also depend on delivering a consistent star persona; many a terrific film works because a star (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Hepburn herself) simply shows up and plays the same character they've played in a dozen other pictures. Kidman's ex-husband Tom Cruise has delivered that star power in many a picture, and walked away Oscarless. In The Hours, Kidman proved that she could eschew star power, and got her Award. (As Thomson points out, the Oscar for The Hours could have been sawn neatly in thirds and distributed to Kidman, Streep, and Julianne Moore. Kidman won the award by stooping to a character role – but no-one doubted that she was the film's sine qua non.)
Exhibit B is the picture that made Kidman a star, the nasty and compelling To Die For (1995). In fact, much of the argument of Thomson's book is implicitly directed against the assumption that To Die For is as good as it got for Kidman. So many Hollywood careers, as Thomson (a biographer of Orson Welles) knows, peaked at their beginnings. If pressed, I would have to say that Kidman's is so far one of them. She both showed and fulfilled a world of potential as homicidal weathergirl Suzanne Stone. Has she ever topped that achievement?
Thomson says that Kidman's best work is in Birth (2004), where her character meets a ten-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. As one of the tiny handful of people who actually saw Birth in a movie theater, I feel qualified to demur. It's an unpleasant film, and Kidman delivers a rather somnambulist performance in the central role. Thomson simply wishes that the film and the performance had been better, as clearly they could have been; but wishing doesn't change the film as we have it.
In fact, Thomson spends a great deal of time in Nicole Kidman imagining work that Kidman did not do: mentally rewriting the preposterous screenplay of Birth, giving To Die For a less just-deserts ending (a là Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy ), inventing imaginary remakes of classics (Rebecca, Belle de jour) for Kidman to star in. Fun stuff, but only tangentially related to what Kidman has actually done. I mean, I have for several years been fantasizing about John Malkovich and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a remake of The Maltese Falcon, but the exercise hasn't really added anything to their careers.
The implication is that for such a fine actress, Kidman hasn't made many good movies. The one picture that Thomson shows no inclination to rewrite in his head is Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001), which I agree is a perfectly-put-together film, anchored on Kidman's energetic star turn. But I have to concede (and so does Thomson, more grudgingly) that even Moulin Rouge is an acquired taste. Nicole Kidman has really made no films – yet – that are likely to be of lasting interest to a lot of people. Which is only another way of saying that her films are of limited interest even in the present moment.
One of the best things in Nicole Kidman is Thomson's wry trashing of some bad Kidman pictures, like Malice (1993), The Interpreter (2005), and even the ambitious but ultimately rather dreadful Portrait of a Lady (1996). Kidman herself rarely comes in for his scorn, but indirectly, he wonders what she could have been thinking of when she took certain roles or joined certain casts. Thomson notes that the script of The Portrait of a Lady requires her character to kiss Malkovich's Gilbert Osmond, an undertaking that would have given Henry James permanent nightmares. Don't do it, Isabel!
And then there's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the dreariest drain on the careers of its talent and the attention-span of its audience in recent years (Thomson rewrites this one heavily in his imagination). And the too lovely Cold Mountain (2003), where during the war-torn 1860s, Kidman's Ada Monroe "seems to have daily access to shampoo in the inner folds of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains" (181). I liked Cold Mountain as much as any other transfixed fan of Charles Frazier's novel, but I have to admit, this ain't deathless filmmaking.
If Nicole Kidman retired tomorrow, she would still make headlines when she is 90. Luise Rainer, for example, still gets considerable press whenever she resurfaces, and Rainer walked away from the screen almost 70 years ago. Celebrity has a way of enduring beyond the lifespan of art – particularly when the celebrity is magnificent and the art much less so.
Thomson, David. Nicole Kidman. New York: Knopf, 2006.