Nicole Kidman is in the Oscar race now, though for the life of me, I can’t figure out how it happened. The Paperboy is an incredible, unmissable film, but not because of its style, technique, or narrative finesse. It is sorely lacking in all these departments. The Paperboy is essential cinema because of its gratuitous, dirty content, which is unthinkably unique and, in a certain sense, brave. Its emotions are heightened, perpetually climaxing in sexual tension, but this isn’t the kind of erotic power we saw between Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, or any other movie star couple we’ve seen. The content in The Paperboy is uncomfortable and – for lack of a better term – gross, and I never expected that awards voters would be inclined to reward its joyful brand of raunch.
But Nicole Kidman, a movie star if there ever was one, will likely earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Paperboy, which calls on her to urinate on a teen heartthrob and simulate a psychically achieved orgasm in a prison cell. If there’s any actress who one would think might pull this sort of thing off, it isn’t Nicole Kidman. Even in a film as charged as Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman remained a symbol of unattainable poise and beauty who wouldn’t last long in a small town. Maybe Charlotte Gainsbourg was unavailable?
Regardless, this performance stands out among her fellow nominees for the SAG award and the Golden Globes. Anne Hathaway and Sally Field are big, bold, emotional performers who milk their small roles for all they’re worth and are more than expected nominees in this category. The other “brave” nominee, Helen Hunt, appears nude in a “heartwarming” sex comedy about disability, but her performance is defined by her character’s withdrawn emotionlessness; in The Sessions, sex is a day job, and the detachment makes the audience respond with pity and respectful desire.
There is no pity in The Paperboy. There is only awe. Nicole Kidman, the quintessential ice queen, has never, ever been this willing to shed her flawless skin and play dirty. When a movie star does a sexy role, she is normally the focus of desire. There is nothing to desire in this performance. Her sexual desires come from a disturbing place, and the audience doesn’t know how to assume our position. We can’t be voyeurs, we can’t be participants. At some points, we just want to look away.
Maybe that’s what’s so stunning about Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy. In Hollywood, an actress’s performance in a sexual role is almost always defined in terms of its audience. In Basic Instinct or Duel In The Sun or even The Sessions, the brazen hussy at the center is there for the audience to look at, and filmmakers will rarely care about her psyche. When Nicole Kidman assaults the audience with her psychotic and needy desires, it’s uncomfortable for us, because it’s just not something we’re used to responding to. The Paperboy doesn’t think about pleasing its audience, it simply wants to show us a kind of sex we’ve never seen on screen before. And Nicole Kidman, with an absence of vanity unseen this side of Nick Nolte, gives Lee Daniels all she has. Since the sexual politics of cinema in 2012 are so neutered that The Sessions is considered risque, if this can be called bravery, than Kidman’s is the bravest performance of the year. I just never expected voters to be ready to embrace it, so kudos to them!