Nicole Kidman by David Thomson

Actors don't alter at the altar
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The Independent Culture

If you like fanzine, paste-and-scissors "biographies" of beautiful film stars don't read this book; in fact don't even read this review. If, on the other hand, you are used to reading David Thomson's witty, quirky and acerbic articles in this magazine and own a copy of his near miraculous A Biographical Dictionary of Film - every literate home should have one - then you will know what to expect of his latest volume. After all, who but Thomson would want, let alone dare, to dedicate this book "For all the actresses in French cinema"?

Thomson tells us all - or rather as much as we mere mortals need to know - about Kidman but he also, in his coolly aphoristic way, tells us much about the clash between reality and make-believe that affects most actors, and all stars, in both ordinary life and in marriage. In his chapter about Kidman's separation from Tom Cruise, he offers the generalisation:

"It is easy for actors to kiss and feel excited, and it is quite natural for them to find a bed. But to marry is a real misfortune and a sign of minds desperate for belief when other parts of the body speak to them of mere lust."

Earlier on he writes: "Actors and actresses are seldom marriageable... It is as if they knew the spell put upon them and understood that anyone raised in any other craft or system would collapse with incredulity if confronted by the endless fascination performers only find in themselves."

The English edition omits the next sentence, to be found in the American version: "They go to the altar - they do not alter."

Thomson is a bit of a tease about whether or not Kidman co-operated with him. There's certainly no real evidence that she did. He merely describes the usual overtures for an interview, which "her people" parry in the usual way, so he started writing. After he had finished the first draft, in February this year, his "phone rang and it said, 'It's Nicole', like a languid, superior but amused prefect who had called a naughty boy to her study to see what he had been up to.

"I think it's true: she tries to be what you want her to be."

Kidman will be 40 next year and he deals in great detail with her changing physical appearance and the power of her sexuality, and how both still and movie cameras love her. Having been born in Hawaii, while her father, a medical scientist, was doing a PhD and her mother was teaching nursing, she has US as well as Australian citizenship. Dr Kidman also wrote some self-help books, and his views that mind could assist matter were not too remote from the tenets of Scientology which loomed so large in Tom Cruise's psyche. She dropped out of high school in Australia and went off at 17 with a much older man, so that her early life was far from conventional. At 13, she was five feet nine and, at 18, no longer called "Stalky" (or should this not perhaps have been Storky?) had become, in Thomson's phrase "a very commanding young woman". She began acting in Sydney, having missed out on a part in an early Jane Campion short film because her headmistress wouldn't let her take time off from school. Happily, Campion remembered her and cast her later as Isobel Archer to John Malkovich's Gilbert Osmond in her patchy, but compelling film of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady.

She soon had some 18 credits in Australian TV including a big part in a TV series, Vietnam, which enabled her to get her own apartment. Vietnam led to her breakthrough role as the young wife of Sam Neill in Philip Noyce's thriller Dead Calm, which, with its respectful nod to Polanski's Knife in the Water, was a brilliant essay in claustrophobic sexuality and showed that she could portray irresistible allure by being a beautiful actress and not just another Hollywood bimbo.

Rightly, Thomson points out that her early Hollywood films such as Days of Thunder were, not least because she was cast as the token love interest for the vastly better paid Tom Cruise, real clunkers. But Dead Calm also led to her first American success as the murderous, wildly ambitious, small town TV weather girl in To Die For. If, on the proverbial desert island, I was allowed only one Kidman film, it would have to be To Die For. More than any of her more successful or famous films, this is the one which combines her gifts for deadly sexual power and for brilliant comedy and Thomson's analysis of both the film and her role is masterly.

Thomson clearly adores her but there is little hagiography. He explains why several of her big films did not really work and is just as interesting on the big failures, including The Portrait of a Lady (because of the miscasting of Malkovich) and Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. He even painstakingly, but always rationally and lucidly, explains how and why, despite her huge talent, films such as The Human Stain, The Interpreter and Bewitched were such disasters. His chapter on Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and the break up of the marriage with Tom Cruise shows how the film and their lives were so psychologically entwined. This is done with both great tact and immense critical acuity. Oddly, it is The Interpreter which produces, for its co-star, Sean Penn, Thomson's worst ire: "Sean Penn does not have what it takes to fall in love with him. Or is it that he has himself monopolised that territory?"

He's entertaining about the "Pure theatrical Viagra", over the top view of her stage appearance in London in David Hare's The Blue Room, his version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde and how it led to Baz Luhrmann's inspired casting of Kidman in Moulin Rouge and his account of her Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours could not be bettered. He praises her performance in Lars von Trier's under-rated Dogville but leaves you in no doubt as to why she dropped out of the sequel.

Thomson ends with a note about Kidman's new marriage and, recalling that she was once nearly cast as the photographer and beauty Lee Miller, looks forward to Fur, her latest film as the not-so-beautiful but prodigiously gifted photographer of damaged people, Diane Arbus. This is the most illuminating book about a film star that I've read.