Nicole Kidman: a debate

David Thomson believes that Ms Kidman is the finest film star of her generation. The film writer Shane Danielsen doesn't even think that she's the best actress back home in Australia... Gentlemen, to your projectors!
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The Independent Culture

Dear Shane,

Why did I make Nicole Kidman the subject of a book? Because she's an authentic star.

Look at her: by most standards, she's physically beautiful. Very tall and thin, she's a clothes horse; but above all, she has a presence. It's in her skin. So bright - like polished china. And for some years now she's had the confidence to go with it. For good and ill, people care what happens to her, and there's respect for her because of the journey she's made. Once, she was Tom Cruise's girl, a beneficiary of his power. But then she took off on her own and she made unexpected films, with brave material and bold directors. Not everything succeeded maybe, but she was her own woman making her career: Birthday Girl (2001), The Others (2001), Moulin Rouge (2001), The Hours (2002), Dogville (2003). And she has this fascinating split nature: she'll take on Virginia Woolf (The Hours) and she'll do Dogville. But at the same time she loves glamour, photo-shoots, flirting with the camera. She's proved she's a good actress, but she's also like Suzanne Stone, the character she played in To Die For (1995) - a woman in love with the idea of celebrity. She loves being on camera.

That's what made me want to write about her. But I knew as I did the book that she is coming up on 40, and we all know the barrier that age is for movie actresses. So I saw a big question: will she fade away, or is she the best bet to become another Meryl Streep, or even Katharine Hepburn?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I know enough about the movie world to be able to weigh the question. Does it matter? I think so, because people like her. They want her to go on doing unusual things - such as Fur, the forthcoming biopic about the photographer Diane Arbus. That film has been waiting for a decade to be made, and Kidman's commitment is what finally got it done. Stardom can do that.

Dear David,

You're correct to identify Nicole Kidman as a star: she is - and one of the very few, moreover, left in the Hollywood firmament.

Pale, brilliantly luminescent, and with the deep, peculiar gravity of a sun, drawing whole clusters of willing satellites (financing, directors, co-stars) into her orbit. But with stardom, of course, comes a necessary layer of obfuscation. The star's public persona - their celebrity - comes at first to overshadow, and eventually to render irrelevant their ability as an actor. Great as they were, Bogart was always fundamentally Bogart; Brando always Brando. Kidman, with her evident love of publicity, her undeniable ambition (and let's face it, she is Suzanne Stone of To Die For), is in danger of having this happen to her. And while she holds the screen effortlessly - the camera loves her - as an actor, her range seems rather limited.

Not for nothing, I think, is her best performance as Grace in Alejandro Amenabar's The Others: she does sexual hysteria better than anyone since Deborah Kerr. Like Kerr, she's intelligent, wary and refined - but she's also brittle, tightly wound, and these qualities militate against her image as a pin-up. She's beautiful, yes - but in the remote, slightly intellectual way of a Brancusi sculpture, or a Modigliani portrait. She's not sexy, and when she's been cast as a seductress, the result has fallen flat. Moulin Rouge, admittedly, is such a barrage of rapid edits that it's impossible to decipher a coherent performance from anyone. But her scenes with then-husband Cruise in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - in particular, the ones where they're smoking a joint and shooting the shit in their underwear - did more to shatter the notion of them as a conventional married couple than any lurid National Enquirer exposé. Sexiness is, or should be, effortless, but Kidman is fundamentally not at ease in her own skin. Which makes her fascinating, even as it severely restricts her choice of role.

Dear Shane,

I agree with you on Eyes Wide Shut, and I argue in the book that it was the mutual discoveries in filming that helped end their marriage. Furthermore, I wouldn't put it past Kubrick being the master of ceremonies of that break-up. And the comparison with Cruise is very interesting. There is a star who has enormous difficulty breaking out of his own successful persona - and it may even be the end of him. But just look at the variety of people Nicole has portrayed since Eyes Wide Shut. You're a fan of The Others - I'd point to Birthday Girl, a small, rather casual film in which she took on a Russian persona and managed to be funny, sexy and poignant at just the level the film demanded. It wasn't aiming to be a great picture, just a good entertainment.

You say Nicole is uneasy in her own skin, and I like that remark. You also say Brando was always Brando, yet in fact I think he was desperately trying to escape himself. And Nicole, I suspect, is driven to exceed anyone's estimate of her - her own included. Actors and actresses can only do what people ask of them. They are very vulnerable to how the set-up on a film shifts. I talk about this and about the responsibility of a star to dominate a film. That leads me to Birth (2004) a film we've not mentioned yet. In it, Kidman plays a woman who believes that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband. It's terribly misunderstood, but close to greatness and the more mysterious every time you see it.

Dear David,

Birth is, indeed, a mostly fine film - until the final act, when it loses its nerve, and squanders the holy mystery of its premise. And in it Kidman is, once again, brittle and convincing. But you nail it, I think, when you use the word "driven". If not the most talented, Kidman is certainly the most nakedly ambitious of actresses - hungry, not only for fame and the various advantages it confers (of which, more below), but for the private satisfaction of "getting it right".

Gus Van Sant tells of her extreme preparation for her part in To Die For: a level of preparedness that went beyond mere willingness to please - or even the anxious cramming of an aspiring thesp knowing that this might be the role that finally kick-starts their career. She edged toward the obsessive, a desire to control every aspect of the process (not so far removed from her ex-husband's, in fact). This is what makes her mooted collaboration with Wong Kar-wai, on The Lady From Shanghai, so richly amusing to many in the industry: a compact between the most anal, dot-every-i actress around, and a director who rarely even has a shooting script. It will undoubtedly end in tears - assuming it ever happens at all. But this is the other great benefit of her station: the opportunity to take her pick of A-list auteurs (she surely has Almodovar in her sights).

She worked with Lars von Trier on Dogville - a horrible experience, reputedly, and one she conspicuously failed to repeat. Yet her performance at that film's press conference in Cannes, when Von Trier asked her point-blank, in front of the assembled hordes, whether she would return for Manderlay (2005), was one of her finest moments. A heartbeat pause, a slight, contemplative smile (with eyes downcast, naturally), and then, in a gracious murmur, a promise: of course she would come back! It fooled no one, not for an instant - but Eve Harrington could not have done better.

Dear Shane,

Even on the attack, you make me want to see more of Nicole. Your account of the Cannes press conference for Dogville is enchanting, and I happily accept the idea that she's in the Eve Harrington class. But she is an actress, and I am up for all her performances. That she didn't want any more of Von Trier seems understandable to me. That she found a cunning way of promising loyalty to him seems only what we can expect of an actress. And I agree with you that she has no equal in drive, ambition, determination and so on, all of which are qualities that can be admirable or intimidating. The Nicole I felt I found in the book is one who has far more sense of career than of life, and it's easy to be disapproving of that. But I don't want to know her and like her in life - I want to see more good films from her. Yes, I wonder whether the Wong Kar-wai film will ever happen, or should! And there have been much-vaunted productions that turned out hollow - such as Cold Mountain (2003), alas. She told me herself that she knows she has made too many bad films - and knowing it is not enough excuse. But she is quite honest about why - she needs to survive, and she has a high overhead. Don't scold someone about not being able to lower their standard of living until you've tried it. But let's be fair, she is 39 still, and I think we are more or less in agreement that she has starred in some pretty remarkable films. Plus The Blue Room on stage, plus her Esquire interview and events such as the Cannes press conference. Do you want to miss any of them?

The more I think about her the more I think she's like Katharine Hepburn. Someone who could end up a tall, stringy old lady known for her eccentricity on talk shows, and then write her own book called Me.

Dear David,

Ah, you've got it bad... But pray, sheathe that sword: I don't want to miss what she will do next, by any means - and I'm not for a moment suggesting we should. Sure, she's made some lousy choices: The Human Stain (2003), Bewitched (2005), The Interpreter (2005). (And speaking of The Interpreter, whose bright idea was it to cast, as "the soul of Africa", the whitest woman on the planet?) But those films' failures are not, as you say, her fault per se. And her intelligence and poise are all the more laudable in a Hollywood bent upon promoting the insipid, the anodyne, the unremarkable: better one Nicole Kidman, after all, than a hundred Gwyneth Paltrows. However I would argue that, far from being the most accomplished actress in the world, she's not even the best to come out of Australia. When it comes to our record for minting female stars, I admit to a faint shiver of national pride. There's Cate Blanchett, arguably the most gifted actress of her generation, and Naomi Watts, whose work in Mulholland Drive (2001) and We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004) signalled an ambiguous, darkly thrilling sensibility. There's the consistently underrated Radha Mitchell - and now Abbie Cornish. Most of them as accomplished as Kidman, and all (except the still-mostly untried Cornish) with broader ranges. Put simply, the difference is this: they will admit to a vulnerability onscreen that Kidman will not. In her desire for complete control, she has expunged any trace of weakness.

Which leaves only that immaculate surface: the face of Chanel, flawless and distant.

It's admirable, in a chilly sort of way - but not particularly enticing.

And it's certainly not enough to love.

* 'Nicole Kidman' (Bloomsbury £18.99), by David Thomson, is published tomorrow. Shane Danielsen is a former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Film Festival