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Nicole Kidman: Her 10 best performances ranked, from Moulin Rouge to Big Little Lies

A glamorous Hollywood chameleon with a passion for auteurist directors and complicated characters, Nicole Kidman has long proven herself to be one of cinema’s most indestructible mega-stars. Adam White ranks her greatest roles so far

Thursday 15 October 2020 19:59
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From left to right: Nicole Kidman in ‘To Die For’, ‘Birth’, ‘The Paperboy’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘Practical Magic’
From left to right: Nicole Kidman in ‘To Die For’, ‘Birth’, ‘The Paperboy’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘Practical Magic’

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nicole Kidman declined to entertain questions about the “culture” of female superstardom, brushing away the interviewer’s insistence that she is one of the only living women to embody “the glamorous Hollywood star” in the public eye. It wasn’t surprising. Kidman is famously inscrutable, her distant unknowability linked to her power on screen.

It’s meant that she has transformed herself, chameleon-like, through the kinds of narratives that would normally take down actors of her renown. Thirty years ago, she was the Australian import on the arm of Tom Cruise, who was then the most famous movie star in the world, her own acting roles largely one-note. She then had the greatest divorce in history – professionally-speaking at least – with back-to-back hits and an Oscar in its wake. Even a run of notorious disasters (RIP Bewitched) didn’t dent her. Thanks to her passion for auteur directors and prickly, difficult characters, she became one of Hollywood’s most indestructible mega-stars – reliably brilliant, fearless in her approach, working consistently but never feeling overexposed.

The new Sky Atlantic limited series The Undoing, a psychological thriller based on the book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is Kidman at her best. Playing a Manhattan psychiatrist married to a potentially dubious doctor (Hugh Grant), she embodies that familiar blend of steely defiance and fragility, possesses a complex sexuality, and is eminently watchable.

Ahead of its premiere on 26 October, we’ve ranked Kidman’s 10 greatest performances so far.

10. Practical Magic (1998)

Kidman is so light and loose-limbed in Practical Magic that it’s baffling she doesn’t return to this mode more often. Playing one of a pair of sister witches (the other Sandra Bullock), she’s the chaotic one, all flirtation and free-spiritedness. Kidman wig enthusiasts, of which there are many, will also collectively agree that her hair never looked more spectacular than it does here.

9. Destroyer (2018)

While there’s an on-the-nose quality to Kidman’s physical transformation in Destroyer, from her messy haircut to the dirt smeared all over her face, it doesn’t distract from the ferality of her acting. As a fractured LAPD cop in recovery, she is a crypt of a woman, so devastated by everything she’s lost that she’s become dead to the world. It’s Kidman burying into the depths of despair once again, and remarkable.

8. Margot at the Wedding (2007)

There is a darkness to Kidman’s work here that burrows under your skin. Starring as a Manhattan novelist visiting her estranged sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she is the definition of bad energy, someone whose arrival in a room cloaks it in a cloud of anxious judgment. Smartly, Kidman doesn’t villainise her character – she lets us know that she is human, the damaging force more damaged than anyone.

Kidman as the glamorous Satine in ‘Moulin Rouge!'

7. The Hours (2002)

The Hours, otherwise known as the prosthetic nose seen around the world. Kidman isn’t the only spectacular part of this film, an enveloping beast of a movie that sweeps you up in its majesty and then spits you out again, but she is arguably its most resonant. As Virginia Woolf, she is curt, bereft and numb, depression seeping out of every pore. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and deservedly earned her the Best Actress Oscar in 2003.

6. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

This was the film that elevated Kidman from a beautiful movie star to a screen-burning, Elizabeth Taylor-like goddess. She has often spoken about loving the experience of filming this Baz Luhrmann musical more than anything else she has been in, and it shows on screen. As a glitzy, broad and ultimately tragic Moulin Rouge showgirl, she radiates glamour and majesty. It’s Kidman at her most theatrical, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

5. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Part of the thrill of Eyes Wide Shut is in its casting of Kidman and her then-husband Tom Cruise as a pair of fractured marrieds, Kidman the miserable wife indulging in her private fantasies, and Cruise the bitter cuckold. It provides a meta frisson, but they’re both spectacular here even removed from their real-world intimacy. Kidman has the smaller role, but her presence hovers over the entire film, grounding its subtle eroticism and restless unease. Her standout monologue, in which she recalls her near-fling with a young naval officer, is the best thing in the film.

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4. The Paperboy (2012)

Kidman’s actual work in The Paperboy tended to get overshadowed by the film’s pulpier leanings. Yes, she does urinate on Zac Efron at one point. Yes, she has an intense public orgasm after merely glancing at the imprisoned serial killer she’s obsessed with. Yes, The Paperboy is absolutely deranged. But little better reflects Kidman’s daring as an actor and her utter respect for the vision of a filmmaker, no matter how much trouble it might get her in. She’s sensational here, a carnal nightmare as raw and unpredictable as the movie surrounding her.

Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in ‘Big Little Lies’

3. Big Little Lies (2017)

Kidman’s first significant TV role since her beginnings in 1980s Australia was a tour de force. Regardless of the presence of so many A-listers, among them Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, this HBO limited series (we won’t talk about its lesser second season) was always Kidman’s showcase. Playing a stay-at-home mother suffering violence at the hand of her husband (Alexander Skarsgard), Kidman presented the character’s sympathetic contradictions, her fears and regrets and her heartbreaking despair. Shamefully written off as a throwaway soap by short-sighted early critics, the show developed into something quietly extraordinary, with Kidman the jewel at its centre.

2. To Die For (1995)

Smuggled in between drab love interest roles and the time she played Batman’s girlfriend is this mean and nasty little comedy. To Die For made Hollywood sit up to Kidman’s daring while she was still best known for being Tom Cruise’s wife. She played a ruthlessly ambitious TV weather girl hungry for fame, in what would become one of the most influential performances in modern cinema, a blueprint for Reese Witherspoon in Election, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and even Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – all manic energy and skin-crawling unease encased in a cheery package.

1. Birth (2004)

There is a two-minute, unbroken close-up of Kidman’s face in Birth, one that takes place shortly after her character learns that her dead husband has been reincarnated in the body of a 10-year-old boy. She cycles through horror, devastation, slight joy, and then confused resolve. It is breathtaking. Birth is the trickiest film in Kidman’s filmography, a beguiling and hypnotic psychological drama that is both incredibly provocative and deeply uncomfortable. It also contains her finest performance, one that should rank up there among the greatest in film. She delivers something akin to a slow-motion breakdown here, her timid grace leading to a well of unfiltered grief. Brave, experimental and transformative, Kidman’s work here proves why she has long been one of Hollywood’s most exciting actors.

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