Upon the release of Lars Von Trier's audacious and brilliant DOGVILLE (2003), an exhausted Nicole Kidman decided to drop out of its follow up films and explore some lighter projects. After completing work on the emotionally draining BIRTH (2004) in which she gave possibly her greatest performance, Kidman signed on to two films that promised to be less stressful but hopefully still artistically rewarding.
Nicole Kidman has always been a fearless actress. You can see that in her very earliest work for Australian tv in the eighties, specifically with her turn in the mini-series VIETNAM (1987) but she has also always kept her eye on commercial projects. Between the period between her break though role in Gus Van Sant's TO DIE FOR (1995) and BIRTH she handled this shuffling between overtly mainstream roles and smaller independent productions incredibly well. Whether you are a fan or not, it is hard to deny that Kidman was one of the bravest stars of her generation and her best work shows a complicated actress capable of a deep range and an astonishing spiritual center.
She seemed invincible for a period of about five years after surviving one of Stanley Kubricks most draining, and in my eyes one of his greatest, films EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). She finally won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virgina Woolf in THE HOURS (2002) although personally I would have given it to her for THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996) or THE OTHERS (2001) first. After THE HOURS she could rightly be called one of the most respected and greatest actresses in the world but things suddenly begin to slip for her.
David Fincher's PANIC ROOM (2002) seemed to be the first sign something was wrong. Kidman sustained a bad injury on the set and had to be replaced by an eager and able Jodie Foster. She then unexpectedly dropped out of Jane Campion's fierce IN THE CUT (2003), a film that she did end up producing. Then there was Von Trier.
Lars Von Trier is unquestionably one of the great directors in cinema right now. Controversial, brave, frustrating and never easy to pin down, Von Trier also has a reputation for running his actors into the ground. Bjork is said to have checked herself into a hospital after her legendary turn in his DANCER IN THE DARK (1999) and one glance at the startling DOGVILLE CONFESSIONS (2003) shows that Kidman is in some sort of serious trouble. One particular moment I will never forget has her sprawled out on a bed, around the time of the infamous rape scene, staring into the camera and whispering, "Help Me." It could have been a diva like moment except for the fact that I very much believe Nicole Kidman when she whispers this confessional short plea in this clip.
So I don't blame Nicole Kidman for backing away from her more uncompromising work after the DOGVILLE and BIRTH experiences but that doesn't make me any less depressed about where her career is right now. Starting with the horrendous remake of THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004) right through to the recent and dismal THE INVASION (2007), Hollywood has reduced Kidman to a shell of her former self. Films like BEWITCHED (2005), THE INTERPRETER (2005) and FUR (2006) are not terrible (although BEWITCHED is pretty close) but they have each contributed to Kidman's quick professional downfall. THE INVASION is the worst yet and the biggest waste of Nicole's considerable talents since BATMAN FOREVER over 12 years ago.
So what's next for Nicole Kidman? Thankfully her upcoming projects seem more promising. First up is Noah Baumbach's SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) follow up, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING which will give Nicole the chance to act with the equally fierce Jennifer Jason Leigh (another great actress who has been woefully underused lately). She then has THE GOLDEN COMPASS which will team her up again with Daniel Craig and perhaps most excitedly, Baz Luhrmann's AUSTRALIA. Now, I am not a fan of Luhrmann but I hope that the very fact that Kidman is out of Hollywood and back in Australia will relight some of the fire she has lost in the past few years.
Kidman is also preparing NEED, which will match her with her real life best friend Naomi Watts and she is rumored for Wong's remake of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Where her career leads her at this point remains to be seen. Perhaps she peaked with DOGVILLE and BIRTH but I hope not. Nicole Kidman in the right role is a reminder of how powerful modern English Language cinema can be, unfortunately as of late she has been a reminder of how mainstream Hollywood can suck all of the life out of even the greatest performers. I wish her luck and hope for many future roles that are worthy of her talents.
Nicole Kidman's greatest work can be found in the following films. Anyone suspicious of her abilities are advised to check any of these out.
In Chronological order:
ROOM TO MOVE (1985): One of Nicole's earliest roles was as a teenager in this hour long drama that was a part of the Australian WINNERS series. Even at this young age she was showing an amazing natural depth few actresses can claim to have.
VIETNAM (1987): Nicole won the Australian Film Institutes's Best Actress award for this powerful Australian miniseries. She was just 19 years old when when she made it.
DEAD CALM (1989): Intense, claustrophobic little Australian thriller in which Kidman steals from her more experienced co-star, Sam Neil.
FLIRTING (1991): Totally charming Australian coming of age film that featured early appearances by both Thandie Newton and Naomi Watts.
TO DIE FOR (1995): Although it is becoming harder and harder to believe, Gus Van Sant was once a really fascinating director and this is one of his best films. Kidman eats the screen in one of the most unforgettable performances of the nineties.
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996): Jane Campion's finest two hours and one of Nicole's most subtle and accomplished performances.
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999): I have been called crazy for saying this but I will gladly repeat it here. This is my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, with the exception of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and one of its biggest strengths is the complicated performance Kidman delivers for the grand master in this, his final film.
THE OTHERS (2001): Alejandro Amenabar's creepy and old fashioned ghost story is one of my favorite genre films of the decade and you would have to go all the way back to Mia Farrow in 1978's FULL CIRCLE to find a more penetrating genre performance. A tour de force by everyone involved.
BIRTHDAY GIRL (2001): A real wild card but a winning little film featuring one of Nicole's sneakiest and sexiest performances.
THE HOURS (2002): A film many people seem to hate but I can't imagine too many having much of a problem with Nicole's Oscar winning turn here. Compare her very natural work with the very mannered Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep at her most irritatingly histrionic.
DOGVILLE (2003): Love it, hate it but admit that there has never been anything quite like it.
THE HUMAN STAIN (2003): She is at her peak by this point and this is Robert Benton's best film since 1982's STILL OF THE NIGHT. A criminally ignored performance.
COLD MOUNTAIN (2003): I am still surprised by the cold reception this film from Anthony Minghella got. A beautiful and ambitious civil war drama that brought Miramax to its knees. It features another totally dedicated performance by Kidman.
BIRTH (2004): The end of the line so far. A chilling European Art Film disguised as a horror film penned by legendary BELLE DE JOUR writer Jean-Claude Carriere. Probably the best performance Nicole Kidman has ever given and possibly, along with SOLARIS and IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE, the most underrated film of the decade. If Nicole Kidman's career had to rest on the final moments in this film then she has already qualified herself as one of the true greats.