'Legend? Nicole Kidman is a mere beginner'

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The old adage about never performing with children or animals will not have been lost on Nicole Kidman during her 21 years in showbusiness, but two appearances with her latest co-star in Venice yesterday left her to reflect on why no one had thought to mention the dangers of Tinseltown grandes dames.

The old adage about never performing with children or animals will not have been lost on Nicole Kidman during her 21 years in showbusiness, but two appearances with her latest co-star in Venice yesterday left her to reflect on why no one had thought to mention the dangers of Tinseltown grandes dames.

Kidman, whose controversial appearance with a boy aged 11 in her new film Birth drew boos at its Venice Film festival press screening earlier this week, seemed to be on safe ground when she appeared for a GMTV interview with her co-star, Lauren Bacall. Instead, she was privy to an outpouring of resentment in which, after the interviewer described the 37-year-old Australian as a "screen legend", the 79-year-old Bacall insisted that she was a mere beginner.

On the face of things, Kidman had nothing to fear in Bacall. They have past experiences to swap of heart-throb screen husbands (Humphrey Bogart for Bacall and Tom Cruise, who is also in Venice, for Kidman). Historical analysis also gave Bacall grounds for comfort: a survey of the most elegant females recently placed her at seventh, way ahead of Kidman.

But Bacall, who refuses to age or go out of fashion, has evidently taken no comfort from her plaudits. In the interview she cut off GMTV's Jenni Falconer in mid-sentence when, after recalling her 60-year career, the reporter said: "And now you've worked alongside another screen legend, Nicole Kidman ..." Bacall snapped: "She's not a legend. She's a beginner. What is this 'legend'? She can't be a legend at whatever age she is. She can't be a legend, you have to be older."

Tensions were equally palpable at a later press conference to promote the film. It started well for Bacall when she was greeted by a standing ovation. But as the conference wore on, it became clear that the assembled journalists were far more interested in speaking to Kidman.

As question after question was directed at the Australian actress, Kidman pleaded: "Please ask somebody else." When she was asked about her status as one of the world's most famous actresses, she insisted: "I certainly don't feel like a big star in Hollywood."

When a question finally did come Bacall's way, she was not impressed. Asked who she would like to come back as if reincarnated (in the film Kidman plays a women whose dead husband has been reincarnated in the body of a 10-year-old), Bacall snapped: "It's not a fascinating question. No offence." This was from a woman best remembered for sizzling dialogue opposite Bogart in The Big Sleep, the classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel.

Bacall has hardly been circumspect about modern actresses, or films, of late. In April she dismissed the majority of actresses as having no fashion style. "I cannot believe what they wear; they are all so overdressed, " she sighed. But she insisted that the exception was Kidman, a good friend to whom she played a supporting role in Dogville and whose mother she plays in Birth.

When she had recomposed herself yesterday, Bacall - who is also remembered for her part in Key Largo but who has no Oscar to match the one Kidman collected last year for her performance in The Hours - insisted that she and Kidman get along famously.

"I love working with a young actress," she said. "Nicole and I worked together on Dogville and we were friends when we started this. That laid the groundwork for our fabulous relationship on screen and off."

But, true to current form, Bacall said that she was not looking forward to last night's premiere.

"I take no pleasure in watching any movie I've been in or watching myself. [I am] not my favourite subject, obviously," she said.

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