Nicole Kidman: Eyes wide open

She takes acting seriously, and has come a long way and sacrificed a great deal to be at the top
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The Independent Online

So maybe a second marriage is a way of allowing that to happen. She could do the thing she has often talked about, of having children of her own, of giving time to bring them up (very likely in Australia), of letting a few years go by at less than her own fierce pace. After all, she has two children, Isabella and Connor, the ones she and Tom Cruise adopted together, and they are getting close to those awkward teenage years.

A few months ago, in Ladies' Home Journal, Nicole declared that she was ready to devote more of her time to the support of battered and abused women all over the world - and that would need some time. Equally, long-term Kidman-watchers point to the fact that she has no fewer than six films in the can and ready to open or being made or about to be made. They maintain the evidence of 25 years, to say that Nicole Kidman is the most ambitious, hard-working, determined, controlling, perfectionist actress they have ever seen. I mean, she takes it seriously, and she has come a long way and sacrificed a great deal to be where she is - which is at the top. So some of these watchers wonder how much of her Keith Urban is going to see.

When the general public outside Australia first saw or heard of Nicole Kidman, she was already the girlfriend of one of America's most powerful and confident stars. Yes, she towered over him, and she was an extraordinary specimen - a wild redhead with a fabulous pale skin and blue eyes. But she giggled a lot; she was shy; she seemed to be an innocent in America in a business where Tom Cruise knew everyone and everything there was to know. There were those who reckoned she was very lucky to have found a guy like that to take an interest in her.

Tom Cruise is not a common man: he is a real star, and a brilliant businessman, and he is a devout Scientologist. (Nicole never was.) As the world knows, he is engaged to Katie Holmes and the father of her child. I'm sure that he and Nicole were in love at first, but the thing the public missed was that the girl, the "bimbo", who went everywhere with Tom was not a naive innocent. Indeed, when they married, she had made more films than he had. More important, Nicole came from a strong, well-educated family that had raised her with love and care. She had a grounded maturity such as Tom's very disordered early life had never enjoyed. Tom knew the business, but Nicole knew life and acting and how far that might carry her.

Nicole Kidman was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, 20 June 1967, to Australian parents. That gives her American as well as Australian citizenship. Her father, Antony, was doing medical research at the University of Hawaii. Her mother, Janelle, was teaching nursing. Then they moved to Washington DC where her father researched biochemistry for the National Institutes of Health.

It was only in 1971 that the parents took Nicole and her younger sister, Antonia, back to Australia. They lived in the smart North Shore area of Sydney, where Dr Antony Kidman established the Health Psychology Unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital. He is an authority on his subject, the author of books.

Nicole went to the best schools - Lane Cove Primary and North Sydney Girls' High School. But she didn't graduate. No one thought she wasn't smart enough for that - though she had been giving all her spare time to stage acting. But she was a very attractive girl, and at 17 she went off to Amsterdam for an adventure with an older man. Why did those parents let that happen? Because they'd taught Nicole responsibility and because they trusted her. And all the while she was acting in movies and for Australian TV. She was known nationally for appearing in TV mini-series Vietnam and Bangkok Hilton, and that's why Phillip Noyce cast her in the lead role in his thriller Dead Calm.

Dead Calm is still a very taut thriller, and it got noticed in Hollywood. Meetings followed, and then suddenly Tom had seen her. He cast her as Dr Claire Lewicki, a neurosurgeon (at 22!) in Days of Thunder (Top Gun on four wheels). His marriage to Mimi Rogers collapsed. Quicker than anyone had anticipated, Miss Kidman was Mrs Tom Cruise.

Nicole was not one of those who regarded this as a terrific advantage. Days of Thunder was as silly as any film she had made, and in the first years with Tom she had work that largely encouraged the legend of "bimbo". There was Billy Bathgate, Far and Away (with Tom - one of his few flops), Malice, My Life and even Batman Forever, which wasn't her film. Against that, she missed getting cast in Thelma & Louise, Sleepless in Seattle, The Silence of the Lambs and Mary Reilly.

To Die For was a script aimed at Patricia Arquette, Meg Ryan or

Jennifer Jason Leigh, but Nicole and her agent launched an intense campaign to argue that Nicole was this girl, Suzanne Stone, so keen to get on TV that she might kill her husband. Everyone involved says her own determination got her the part - and some who know her add that she got it because she was so like the character in the film. That may or may not be flattering. But the result was astonishing - she was smart, wicked, funny, and at last she was in a real movie.

Something was released. She then did the bold The Portrait of a Lady with Jane Campion. She developed her own project - In the Cut, with novelist Susanna Moore doing the script. And then she and Tom signed on for their third film in harness, Eyes Wide Shut. What happened during that prolonged London campaign is very complicated. But I'd guess that the director Stanley Kubrick, who liked her a lot, was maybe the first person who told her she was in a different category from Tom as an actor. The film flopped and Kubrick died; a year later the marriage to Cruise was over.

But Nicole's time in London had changed her. She met new people: with writer David Hare and director Sam Mendes she would do The Blue Room on stage at the Donmar Warehouse - nude for 15 seconds. "Everyone" saw that small show - not least Stephen Daldry, who offered her the role of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and Baz Luhrmann who asked her to be the lead in Moulin Rouge!, a musical, set in Paris but shot in Australia.

There was great gossip over the divorce, because Nicole acted surprised and acted it pretty well. Let's just say they no longer liked each other. Still, Tom was the powerhouse - what would happen to Nicole? Anyone who had known her long guessed that she would take over her own career and leap forward.

In the next few years, no matter her private distress (perhaps because of it), she was dazzling as an actress - singing, dancing, very flirty, very funny in Moulin Rouge!; hardly recognisable as Virginia Woolf - it wasn't that she actually looked like Virginia, but she didn't look like Nicole Kidman; The Others, for Alejandro Amenabar, a very unusual horror film; brilliant as a mail-order bride from Russia in Birthday Girl; and then the lead part in Dogville, Lars von Trier's dark fable on the end of America.

You didn't have to like all those films in the same way, but the range of her choice was so daring and fresh. In the space of a few years, the world woke up to her great talent. She had an Oscar for The Hours and, although there wasn't a single smash hit in her record (in the way Tom had hits), she had pushed her salary up to $15m a picture.

Well, she said, I'm a single woman now. I have to look after myself. As quickly as the pictures had become exciting, she settled back into a run of big ventures that generally disappointed at the box office and which looked cautious: Cold Mountain; The Human Stain; The Stepford Wives; Birth; The Interpreter; Bewitched. That is a mixed list - Birth seems to me close to a masterpiece - but Nicole knows that it includes bad choices, and bad because they seemed safe.

That's why she is at a cross-roads now - nearly 40, married again, but with these films ahead: Fur, in which she plays the photographer Diane Arbus; The Visiting, a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; a film for Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) where she and Jennifer Jason Leigh play sisters; another film for Jez Butterworth, who made Birthday Girl; a big Australian epic for Baz Luhrmann, with Hugh Jackman; and even a film for Korean director Wong Kar-Wai.

If three of those six are good, she could be set up again. If one is great, she may get another Oscar. But if four or five are flops, then Nicole Kidman will have marriage and family to get on with. I wish her well, and I trust her extraordinary creative need to surprise us all - including a husband.

David Thomson's new book, Nicole Kidman, will be published by Bloomsbury in September

A Life in Brief

BORN: Nicole Mary Kidman; 20 June 1967, Honolulu, Hawaii, to Antony (a biochemist and clinical psychologist) and Janelle (a nursing instructor) Kidman.

EDUCATION: Left school in Australia at 16 to work as an actress.

FAMILY: Married Tom Cruise, right, 24 December 1990; two adopted children, 13-year-old Isabella and Connor, 11; divorced: 8 August 2001. Engaged to country singer Keith Urban.

CAREER: First Australian film role in Bush Christmas (1983), followed by BMX Bandits (1983) and Vietnam (1987); first US film, Dead Calm (1989), followed by Days of Thunder (1990) with Tom Cruise. Principal films include: To Die For (1995), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Eyes Wide Shut (1999); Moulin Rouge! (2001 - Golden Globe); Birthday Girl (2001) The Hours (2002 - Academy Award, Golden Globe); Dogville (2003); The Stepford Wives (2004). Theatre: The Blue Room (London, 1998).

SHE SAYS: "I have a boy's body. I would prefer to have more curves because I think that's more beautiful. I would rather have J-Lo's body than mine."

THEY SAY: "Nicole won't cross the street without a hat."

Naomi Watts, actress