An honour too far?

The NFT season for Nicole Kidman may be premature, argues Jackie Hunter
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The Independent Culture

What would Lauren Bacall say? The octogenarian grande dame of cinema, who at last year's Venice Film Festival poured scorn on the suggestion that her Birth co-star Nicole Kidman was "a screen legend", may raise an eyebrow on hearing that London's National Film Theatre is to honour the 37-year-old Australian actress with a month-long retrospective in March.

What would Lauren Bacall say? The octogenarian grande dame of cinema, who at last year's Venice Film Festival poured scorn on the suggestion that her Birth co-star Nicole Kidman was "a screen legend", may raise an eyebrow on hearing that London's National Film Theatre is to honour the 37-year-old Australian actress with a month-long retrospective in March.

It's not immediately clear what's behind the cinema programmers' decision to focus on Kidman at this time (unless it's simply to refute Bacall's claim that she is "merely a beginner" in the screen trade): Birth opened last year to unspectacular reviews and her next release, Bewitched, a kitschy comedy based on the 1960s TV series, is due out in the autumn, so why now? "Perhaps," says Brian Robinson, the NFT's spokesman, "it's because Nicole Kidman is one of the most accomplished performers of her generation. More interestingly, she has never fought shy of taking risks in her career, as is evidenced by the very different directors she has worked with."

The season comprises 11 films, ranging from her impressive 1989 breakthrough feature Dead Calm to Birth, representing roughly half of her cinematic output from that 16-year period. The eclectic programme includes The Hours, To Die For, The Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut and Moulin Rouge. Those that didn't make the cut include such flops as The Human Stain, The Stepford Wives, Batman Forever, Billy Bathgate, Days of Thunder and the execrable Far and Away, begorrah and bejabers.

Acclaimed directors such as Lars von Trier, Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann, Stephen Daldry, Alejandro Amenabar, Jez Butterworth and Gus van Sant declared themselves fans of Kidman and cast her in diverse and challenging roles. Yet in spite of the success of these films, and her leading-lady status in them, Kidman's performances have largely failed to eclipse those of her co-stars (Julianne Moore in The Hours; Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain; Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, the choreography and the sets in Moulin Rouge). She is a solid performer who wins interesting parts yet rarely manages to transcend the material; the only roles in which she truly shines are that of the terrorised young honeymooner in Dead Calm, the flinty-eyed psychopath in To Die For and the frustrated feminist Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady.

Robinson also cites the fact that Kidman has passed her 35th birthday without suffering a noticeable dip in employment - an accomplishment for any modern-day Hollywood actress, he points out. But while casting agents continue to hammer on 20-year-old Scarlett Johansson's door, other talented actresses of Kidman's vintage, such as Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, are not having too much trouble landing high-profile roles, either.

Kidman is pretty busy at present, with two films in post-production and another two on the starting blocks. However, a fifth project, Eucalyptus, in which she was due to star alongside her old mate Russell Crowe, has been canned owing to a catastrophic falling-out between the two Aussies, allegedly resulting from Crowe's public lambasting of actors who cash in on their celebrity by appearing in TV advertisements. You would have to have been taking a gap year on Mars to have missed the hoo-ha that surrounded Kidman's 2004 appearance in a commercial for a certain French perfume house, which was directed by Baz Luhrmann and put a fat £2m fee in the lady's pocket. Evidently she has taken Crowe's comment in his interview with this month's Australian GQ magazine as a personal attack and betrayal, although her name was not mentioned.

Kidman certainly appears to pursue the Hollywood limelight as energetically as she does artistic credibility, indeed she commands a fee that's exceeded only by Julia Roberts and matched only by Cameron Diaz. This may be key to the screen-going public's ambivalent feelings towards her, and to the lukewarm reviews she often receives from critics unconvinced of her integrity. She may be willing to get down and dirty in films such as Dogville and Birthday Girl, but it's hard to imagine her ever eschewing her spot on the red carpet, looking exquisitely groomed in a succession of haute-couture gowns.

As the spouse of Tom Cruise, one of America's biggest box-office draws throughout the 1980s and 1990s, for more than a decade Kidman was Hollywood royalty by association, regardless of the quality of her own work. At the time of the couple's separation in 2001, it was largely predicted that, as the "less famous" one, she would sink without trace, having become unshackled from the most ruthlessly charming and ambitious actor in the business. Could she maintain her career without the Cruise publicity factory behind her?

The answer, as we now know, was yes; the lady did not vanish and the velocity of her transformation into a successful single entity left many of the naysayers to eat their words. She became a highly glamorous emblem for the reluctantly emancipated woman, and it is testament to her popularity among established directors that she began to receive so many varied offers of work. Four years on, what we may glean from this latest phase in her career is that her acting talent is not as versatile as her taste in roles; that she can convincingly deliver intelligent period performances and buttoned-up modern characters, but her dramatic weight is not sufficient to carry a film on her own.

All credit to the NFT for giving a mainstream Hollywood actress a mid-career retrospective; but let's hope it's not a one-off and that they continue in a similar vein. There are better actresses of Kidman's vintage (Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer to name but a few) in the Hollywood pantheon whose work is also ripe for review, whether or not any of them becomes the stuff of Hollywood legend in decades to come.

The Nicole Kidman season at the NFT, London SE1, runs from 1-29 March (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk)

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