Books

Her Own Brand of Stardom: 'Nicole Kidman: BFI Film Stars Series'

The British film historian Pam Cook examines 20 years worth of Nicole Kidman's varied career to place this unique actress within a new context as Australia's first global star.


Nicole Kidman: BFI Film Stars Series

Publisher: Palgrave-MacMillan
Length: 148 pages
Author: Pam Cook
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-07
Amazon

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.