It’s always a challenge in scholarship to contextualize what’s happening in the present. We don’t have the advantage of history’s distancing effect to give us additional perspective. We’re compelled to scrutinize what’s around us in greater detail while filtering through that inevitable bias and complacency that comes with being a spectator to the world around us. The British film historian Pam Cook has to do this in her British Film Institute guide to Nicole Kidman.
What’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they think of Nicole Kidman? Glamazon, Australian, ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise, the current Mrs. Keith Urban, gifted Oscar winning-actor, re-inventor of her own image. Cook, of the same generation as groundbreaking feminist historians like Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston, attempts to give us a comprehensive, multi-faceted portrait of Kidman’s career in cinema. The book is divided into three chapters: “Stardom”, “Performance”, and “Persona”, that discuss aspects of Kidman’s broad range of roles, acting technique, and brand image.
In “Stardom”, Cook does an effective job of examining the growth and transformation of Kidman’s image from a natural, rosy-faced, red-haired tomboy beauty from Australia to the statuesque blonde actor/model of couture houses and Oscar-winning films. If you were to look at the Kidman of movies like Bandits (1987) or Dead Calm (1989) to the Kidman of The Golden Compass (2007), you’d have to take a step back to comprehend that it’s the same person. But of course, the actor’s skin can be easily worn and easily cast off. Who is the person under the mask? Is there even any point trying to find out?
The sub-chapter, “An Australian in Hollywood”, is key because Kidman’s Australianness is an integral part of who she is and the barriers she has broken through. Before Kidman, there were barely a handful of stars in Hollywood from Australia and New Zealand. There was Olivia Newton-John, Rod Taylor, and Errol Flynn (though he didn’t keep the accent), and a few astute serious actors like Judy Davis, Sam Neill, and Barbara Hershey.
Kidman’s success in movies paved the way for a generation of new actors—Naomi Watts, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Simon Baker, Rachel Griffiths, Heath Ledger, and a host of others. It’s important to remember that these actors came after Kidman. From the days of Flynn, where the accent had to be masked because of comic hick associations with the outback to today, in the Age of Murdoch, where Australia is a global player in politics and business, Kidman has been able to negotiate the terms of her own image from a post-colonial specter.
Cook sharply outlines the precariousness of the star image that floats in that zone between creative integrity and commodity culture:
“Certain performances, such as those in which she is perceived to be at one with the character are lauded, whereas those in which her acting is deemed non-authentic are denigrated… It is also a symptom of Kidman’s position as a commodity star, who lays claim to being a serious actress. This contradiction is difficult to accommodate in the context of the opposition between art and commerce in conception of screen acting.”
Cook does a good job of explaining this fine line between art and commerce—the Kidman channeling Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) to the Kidman of the Baz Luhrmann Chanel No. 5 ads (2004). The performances that Cook describes in detail in her chapter, “Performance”, include the well-known roles, The Hours, To Die For (1995), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), though she glosses over other perhaps lesser known, but significant roles in Portrait of a Lady (1996), Dogville (2003), and The Interpreter (2005). No mention is made at all of a little seen, but arresting performance of Kidman’s as an off-kilter Russian mail order bride in Birthday Girl 001), though her roles in Practical Magic(1998) and Bewitched(2005) are covered.
The years 2002 to 2008 were intensely prolific years for Kidman. She was going through her highly publicized divorce from Tom Cruise, she’d had a miscarriage, and she threw herself into her work. Some of her best movies were made during this first decade of the 21st century. The Hours, The Human Stain (an astonishing, feral performance opposite Anthony Hopkins—the director Robert Benton who used Kidman before opposite Dustin Hoffmann in 1991’s Billy Bathgate really knew how to bring out an impassioned, sexy quality in her), Cold Mountain, and the campy, but entertaining Australia.
It’s difficult to cram all of Kidman’s diverse performance history and evolving image into a concise 148 pages. Some important aspects will regrettably get glossed over, while the intense packing in of information (long paragraphs, small font, not very many photographic reproductions) tends to numb the reader into a hazy lull. Because this book was assembled around 2011, it’s had to leave out a few fascinating current details of Kidman’s career, particularly her compelling performance as Martha Gellhorn in Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), or her role in The Paper Boy (2012), though Cook adroitly discusses Rabbit Hole (2010) and Kidman’s raucous cameo in the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston comedy Just Go With It (2011).
At times, Pam Cook falls into the academic’s self-inflicted trap of imposing meaning and subtext on situations. There’s a compelling segment in the final chapter, “Persona”, called “Whiteness”, which discusses issues of postcolonial identity and race in relation to Kidman’s star image. Cook cites another British film historian, Richard Dyer, who examines how directors and photographers have shot Nicole Kidman in certain ways to maximize the otherworldly glow of her pale ivory skin. It’s their attempt at maximizing a colonial fascination with “whiteness” and Anglo-Saxon superiority.
“Kidman’s lean, trained physique with its connotations of whiteness and progress are a part of her identity… Kidman’s persona emerges from a context of Australian postcolonial culture in which white European women were positioned as active participants in nation-building… Her whiteness has an ethereal, transcendental quality… with Aryan connotations of visual excess.”
It’s true that branding Kidman as the face of Australian movie stardom might deny the chance to many other actors, particularly non-white actors, to be heard and seen on screen. Dyer and Cook seem to be saying that Kidman has had a great advantage by being born a white woman. This is true to a certain extent, but it misses the point of what makes Kidman stand out as an actor and as a star. This issue of race from the perspective of a white woman in a predominantly black country is highlighted effectively in Sydney Pollock’s The Interpreter, where Kidman plays an African expat trying to settle an old score with an ageing dictator.
With so much contextualizing and theory-based discussions, Cook can glide over some important qualities of what makes Kidman such a star. It’s not only her unusual beauty—the Van Eyck quality of her features—it’s the rare volatility and intensity she brings to the screen. From her confession scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, her sunny, brash malevolence in To Die For, her listless, angry wantonness in The Human Stain to her most recent performance in Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy as an overripe Southern femme fatale, she brings shades of danger and unpredictability to her characters. It’s a quality that you see in performances by Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and, when he’s really focused, Jim Carrey.
Kidman is a unique star in this respect. She’s crossed the lines from ingénue to sex goddess to serious actress seamlessly over the course of 20 years in a way that few others have.
Cook’s guide is an immensely helpful resource for film students and scholars. For those who want to examine the sociological and theoretical implications of the concept of stardom in the 21st century, Cook’s profile of Kidman’s career is eye-opening and informative. She does an excellent job of highlighting what makes Kidman so compelling. As Cook says in the book, “A star is made many times over.” Transformation and renewal is something we’ve come to expect from Nicole Kidman as her star continues to evolve and grow.