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The Essentials: The 5 Best Nicole Kidman Performances

The Essentials: The 5 Best Nicole Kidman Performances

Few actresses seem to make as diverse an array of choices as Nicole Kidman. The actress has spent the last decade or two as one of the few actresses who can truly call themselves A-list, but swings between incredibly bold, interesting choices with world-class filmmakers, and nearly irredeemable crap (“Bewtiched,” “The Stepford Wives,” “The Invasion,” “Trespass“). She rarely gives a turn that’s anything less than totally committed, but one always feels a little nervous settling in for a new Kidman flick.

That being said, one only has to skim her resume to remember that she is, after all, one of our most gifted and interesting movie stars, and has given more great performances than most of her contemporaries. Today is Kidman’s 45th birthday, and as such, we thought we’d mark the occasion by picking out five of our favorite performances from the actress. Did we miss out on yours? You can advocate for your own favorite in the comments section below.

To Die For” (1995)
In the mid ’90s, Kidman was really best known for playing relatively thankless wife/girlfriend parts. But it took Gus Van Sant to spot the devil inside, when the director cast her as the murderously ambitious weather girl Suzanne Stone in his delicious satire “To Die For.” Working from a script by “The Graduate” writer Buck Henry, it was a prescient look at celebrity culture and the hunt for fame that’s only gotten more and more relevant as we settle into the era of TMZ, the Kardashians and Casey Anthony. And Van Sant delivered one of his best, least indulgent films, neatly using a mock-doc framing conceit to ground the sometimes absurd comedy. Kidman excels as Stone, a small town would-be reporter who seduces a group of teens (including Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck in early roles) into killing her husband (Matt Dillon), who wants to start a family. Malevolent, manipulative, teasing and dead sexy, it was a real departure for Kidman, and she steers just this side of caricature, never making Suzanne redeemable, but also showing that she’s much more than a murderous pretty face.

Dogville” (2003)
Never let it be said that Nicole Kidman avoids a challenge. Kidman had finally cemented her place on the A-list and escaped from the shadow of her ex-husband Tom Cruise, thanks to “Moulin Rouge” and “The Others” becoming big hits in 2001, and to winning an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” in 2002. Her next project? A gruelling, nearly three-hour metaphorical drama shot entirely on a stage from Lars von Trier, the button-pushing Danish auteur behind “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark.” The Brechtian drama sees Kidman as Grace, who arrives in the small Rocky Mountain town of the title, seemingly fleeing from gangsters, and is given shelter by their inhabitants (who include Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson), only for them to gradually enslave her physically and sexually. The theatrical artificiality allows a stronger light to shine on the performances, which are superb (how did this Paul Bettany become the star of “Priest“?), and Kidman stands first among them. It’s arguably the purest of von Trier’s suffering women, Kidman thanklessly accepting every last indignity thrust upon her by the people of Dogville, until… well, she doesn’t, at which point the quality of her turn is truly revealed. It’s a shame she didn’t return for “Manderlay” (or the yet-to-be-made “Wasington“), because we’d have loved to have seen more of her Grace.

Birth” (2004)
Badly received and much misunderstood at the time, “Birth” has grown in reputation as the years have gone on, and it now reveals itself as, if not Kidman’s very best performance, than certainly in the top rank. In Jonathan Glazer‘s firmly original film, she plays Anna, a privileged New Yorker about to remarry, ten years after the death of her husband. At a party for her mother, she’s confronted with a young boy, Sean, who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead spouse. A bold, brave, extraordinary and unique picture that never goes where you expect it to go, it’s one of the great unsung pictures of the last decade. And Kidman is wondrous in it, as Anna navigates old wounds reopened by this unsettling young upstart; she’s angry, vulnerable and increasingly won over, and even turned on (an incredibly brave choice to take) by the possibility that her true love has returned. It’s a beaut of a part, and Kidman plays every note like it’s the last role she’d ever play, right down to the genuinely surprising (if perhaps a little too neat) third act twist. If you’ve never seen it, rush and find it as soon as you can, if only for Kidman’s face in the breathtaking, wordless opera sequence.

Margot At The Wedding” (2007)
One of Kidman’s great virtues (and perhaps something that’s kept her from really excelling in more straight-up romantic fare like “Australia“) is her lack of need to be loved by the audience, and that’s never been clearer than in Noah Baumbach‘s “Margot at the Wedding.” Another film somewhat undervalued at the time (and it is admittedly a step down from the sheer brilliance of the director’s previous film, “The Squid and the Whale“), it sees Kidman play the titular Margot, a self-absorbed, petulant author who blows into a seaside town like a hurricane for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Malcolm (Jack Black), with designs on an old flame (Ciarán Hinds) who’s hosting a Q&A in a local bookshop. More than any other film on this list, you feel that Kidman’s simply having a blast in the part, revelling not just in the chance to play such a terrible fucking human being, but also in the relatively rare occasion that she doesn’t have to carry an entire film on her shoulders, with Leigh and Black each giving impressive turns too. We understand entirely why people find it a difficult film to love, but you’re missing out on one of Kidman’s most acerbically funny turns (and her sense of humor is one of her more underrated tools) if you avoid it.

Rabbit Hole” (2010)
Unlike “Birth” or ‘Margot,’ Nicole Kidman was given serious recognition, including an Oscar nomination, for “Rabbit Hole,” and yet the film still managed to elude audiences. Which once again is a great shame. It’s got a degree in common with “Birth,” in that Kidman plays a woman haunted by grief who finds solace in a friendship with a much younger boy. In this case, however, she’s part of a married couple, alongside Aaron Eckhart, whose 4-year-old son chased his dog into the road and was killed by a teenager (Miles Telller). Becca, Kidman’s character, is so overwhelmed by grief that she simply wants to wipe the slate clean, getting rid of her child’s possessions and moving away, and her quiet fury is impressive, matched by lovely moments of serenity. And it’s one of the more moving portrayals of life going on after grief — the couple are trying to struggle on, and almost find themselves forgetting their troubles for a second, which is how it actually happens. The film doesn’t quite overcome some of the issues of David Lindsay Abaire‘s source play, or the essential staginess of that material, but Kidman (and Eckhart, who didn’t get the same plaudits, but should have) is a wonder.     

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Yep…you hit my top 3 with "Dogville", "Birth", and "Margot at the Wedding". I watched "Dead Calm" not too long ago, and was surprised at how good she was in that as well…for being so young.

Diana Duran

Spot on,well written … Of course there are more but I would have to add Birthday Girl …


Fantastic list! As far as the other films commenters are listing, I'm really surprised that nobody is mentioning "Fur," a truly under-appreciated film with a stellar performance by Kidman.


My top 5 is a bit different.
1. Moulin Rouge!
2. The Hours
3. Rabbit Hole
4. To Die For
5. Birth

I guess not THAT different (I do have 3/5), but I think Moulin Rouge! and The Hours are amazing performances, and should definitely get a mention. Margot at the Wedding was a good performance, but she's definitely done better work than that…


Nicole Kidman is my Favorite actress. what i admire her the most is that she has a style in her performance and it's a very unique style . and also her choices always seem like she picks what she only feels …
My Favorite performances are : To Die for, The Others, Moulin Rouge!, The Hours, Rabbit Hole …these are the top 5 and also she did a great job in eyes wide shut and Dogville.


Top 10
1. To die for
2. Birth
3. Margot at the wedding
4. Eyes Wide Shut
5. The Others
6. Moulin Rouge
7. Rabbit Hole
8. Bangkok Hilton
9. The Portrait of a Lady
10. The Hours
(RU : Dead Calm)


I agree with your #1 and #2, but The Others IMO is her third best performance, and deserves to be on the list.


come on. Eyes Wide Shut all the way


Great list and write-ups to go along with them. And I'm glad that you included Margot at the Wedding! Love her so much in that. Kidman has indeed proven, if nothing else, that she's one of the bravest actresses of her generation. Even if it doesn't always pan out, she's not afraid of a challenge and will go wherever is needed for her director. Which is ironic because you can see how shy she can be in her interviews sometimes. Her bravery in her choices will ultimately be her legacy, I think. And I think it's just a testament to her that there are still great performances from her that aren't included here. It is only a Top 5 after all.


No bad choices, but Eyes Wide Shut deserves at least a mention. She was absolutely brilliant in it, outshining Tom Cruise despite his much bigger role, and since the film as a whole is arguably better than any of the others on the list, well…


And not even a mention of "Eyes Wide Shut"? She truly understood Kubrick's vision, unlike Mr. Kidman!


I can totally agree with this list.


First of all, I'm so glad you people are also celebrating Kidman's 45th birthday.
I kind of agree with your top 5. Mine would be something like this:
01. Birth
02. To Die for
03. Rabbit Hole
04. The Others
05. Margot


My favorite Kidman performance is still one of her first, in "Bangkok Hilton". It's a powerful miniseries she did in Australia just after DEAD CALM and before leaving for American and stardom. She plays a shy Australian girl wrongly arrested for heroin smuggling in Thailand, who has to survive and escape with the help of her long-lost father, Denholm Elliott, who spent time in that very same prison years before as a POW under the Japanese. It's one of my favorite films ever, though sadly underseen. It was remade as the apparently terrible BROKEDOWN PALACE a few years later.


I have to agree. It has hard to do a best-of list without including Moulin Rouge, The Others or The Hours

oogle monster

To Die For reminds me a lot of Jason Reitman's Young Adult and Kidman's choices remind me a little of Charlize Theron's bold and interesting choices. I would have included Moulin Rougue which proved the woman can do it all- act, sing, dance, etc. Do you guys hate the Baz THAT much? Jeeeez. Also The Others is one of Kidman's best performances… I prefer it to Birth. Margot at the Wedding is a gem of a film… a lot like Young Adult once again.


No list is complete without BMX Bandits. Not just this list, but ANY list. Top 100 films of all time: BMX Bandits. Best movie soundtrack: BMX Bandits. Greatest novels of the 19th century: BMX Bandits. Favorite sexual position: BMX Bandits.


No EWS? shame on you


Great list. But I would swap out 'Dogville' for 'The Others,' in my opinion.

Ryan Sartor

I'm glad you included "Birth." The whole list feels spot-on.

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