While in everyday life it may conjure images of people charging into burning houses or diving into choppy oceans to save drowning dogs, “bravery” has a rather different connotation when applied to Hollywood actors and their choice of roles. Threatening to simply become a byword for “gets his/her kit off” or “plays a gay character,” the word “bravery” as critical currency has perhaps been a little undermined by reductive overuse. But there is still value in separating the kinds of performances that are calculated simply to rake in dollars, raise profiles or cement a star persona from those that seem chosen to test an actor’s limits and challenge the audience’s expectations. For the sake of argument, the latter roles are the ones we’re labelling “brave” here, which comes in handy when discussing the varied and thriving career of Nicole Kidman, who turns 46 today. This time last year we talked about her 5 Essential Performances, and while there’s obviously some overlap, this year we thought instead about which we might consider her bravest.
Of course, it’s a concept that does imply some level of achievement and recognition already attained, as it’s not every actor who has the option of choosing the challenging indie over the formulaic romantic comedy or the tentpole sidekick. Kidman herself broke through with the really quite good but still totally B “Dead Calm,” which got her the role of romantic interest in “Days of Thunder” and Tom Cruise’s life for a decade. But as soon as she established a foothold, she started to try to change things up, with erratic results — she was totty in “Batman Forever” the year after she was so brilliant in “To Die For” and more recently still, bracketed Jonathan Glazer’s sublimely unsettling “Birth” (see below) and Sydney Pollack’s fine-we-guess “The Interpreter” with the twin stinkers of “Bewitched” and “The Stepford Wives.”
Undoubtedly TWC will be making a push later this year for Kidman to win Best Actress a second time for “Grace of Monaco,” and of course she already has her “The Hours” statue under her belt. But though prestigey roles based on real-life people score highly with the Academy, there are other films of of hers that we admire her more for taking. Here are five performances she won no Oscars for, in films of wildly varying quality, that we feel required not just talent and profile, but chutzpah to take on.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
There are probably as many shades of opinion on Stanley Kubrick’s last film as there are people who’ve seen it. But for all the frustrations and triumphs it contains (and there are both), and for all some of the actors seem to drift through unanchored to any particular intention or motivation, Kidman is one player here who seems completely sure of what she’s doing and what she means by it — maybe even more so than Kubrick himself, if we may be so sacrilegious. She out-acts her then-husband by some distance, giving Alice Harford an inner life and a consistency that makes her character kind of the pole star in the movie which can be hard to navigate through. In fact, as not-massive-fans of the finished film, we have to say we kind of miss that sureness when she’s not onscreen. And the bravery part? Well, the role of a woman who causes her husband to explore an underworld of erotic revelation in response to her own sexual confessions would be a tricky enough one to negotiate even if you weren’t playing against your real-life husband, the biggest star in the world, about whom rumors of closeted homosexuality had been swirling, as well as talk of your possible impending divorce. But it seems again Kidman placed trust in her director almost above all else — impressive here if for no other reason than that the shooting went on for two years. By the end of that time, she clearly had developed a close relationship with Kubrick, as lovingly detailed in this THR article.
“The Portrait of a Lady” (1996)
Even those critics who disliked Jane Campion’s interpretation of Henry James’ classic novel (and it is an interpretation, not an adaptation) — and they seemed in the majority overall — singled out Kidman’s central performance for praise. And on that level, if on almost no other concerning a film we admire hugely, we can certainly agree with those critics. Kidman is riveting in the central role of Isabel Archer, the naïve, impetuous and intelligent young woman whose promise and curiosity are gradually throttled to nothing after she makes the mistake (the “generous mistake” as her cousin Ralph puts it) of falling for and marrying the wrong man. While “To Die For” the previous year had already suggested that there might be more to the actress than thriller/romance/action furrow she’d been ploughing in Hollywood till then, the arch irony of that film’s satire just didn’t prepare us for the simple rawness of her performance in ‘Portrait.’ It was really one of the earliest examples of traits Kidman would demonstrate again through films good and bad; her unswerving commitment to the character and her total faith in her director. Minimally made-up and with frequent raw close-ups that push almost unbearably close in to her, Campion gives Kidman no part of Isabel to hide behind — even the lavish costuming and set design is constructed to oppress her from all sides — and instead she simply embodies her. There were James purists who called foul at, for example, Isabel crying, which she never does in the book, but we’d urge them, or anyone, to take a second look at this performance outside of the context of its fidelity to the novel, or even some of the arthouse flourishes Campion adds. For us, the empathy, the tragedy and the strangeness of the story rewards immensely, and all that is channelled through Kidman’s remarkably egoless but elegant turn.
Of the many epithets that have been attached to Lars von Trier’s name over the years — enfant terrible, provocateur, genius, misogynist, Nazi — one of the stickiest has been “torturer of actresses” (you can read about his bust-up with “Dancer in the Dark” star Bjork here, along with other notable actor/director spats). And Kidman was certainly not immune to his hectoring, temperamental ways, with director and star reportedly taking frequent long walks so they could shout at each other in private. But whether the working relationship was better or worse than with his other leading ladies, the performance Kidman gave is among the best he’s ever elicited (and remember both Bjork and Kirsten Dunst won Cannes Best Actress trophies, and Emily Watson was nominated for an Oscar, for their roles in von Trier movies), and definitely among the best she’s ever given. On the one hand it’s a gift of a role for an actress ambitious to show her range, of course, tracing an arc from naivety and innocence through increasingly gruesome psychological and sexual victimization, to powerlessness and hopelessness, before building back up and culminating in a towering act of revenge that wouldn’t seem amiss in a Park Chan-wook movie. But the film’s experimental theatricalism, and hyper-unreal stylization means it could easily have run the risk of alienating the viewer from the human drama and losing the performance or worse, rendering it ridiculous, within the avant-garde trappings. But Kidman is again fearless, and makes us believe the environment through sheer power of her own conviction in her performance.
“The Paperboy” (2012)
Ah well. For every few gambles that pay off there has to be at least one that doesn’t, right? And boy, Kidman’s all-in, bet-the-farm-and-throw-in-them-gator-hides-too roll of the dice on Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” did not pay off. Which actually makes it an interesting and honest addition to this list — after all, if all daring choices guaranteed even a qualified triumph, there’d be nothing truly daring about them, would there? The instinct for unembarrassed trust in the director’s vision that marks some of her most interesting collaborations is also on display here, but Daniels is no Kubrick, Campion, Glazer or von Trier. Instead his impulse seems to be to coach Kidman (and in fairness, the rest of the cast who rise/sink to the occasion in accordance with their talents too) into avoiding as much as she can any approximation of real human behavior. But whether it’s the headline-grabbing, pun-ready moment when she pisses on Zac Efron or whether she’s causing John Cusack to spontaneously ejaculate by writhing and touching herself flanked by near-strangers at a prison interview, Kidman flings herself into the role, such as it is, purring and clawing and pouring herself wholly into some kind of platonic ideal mould of a hypersexualized white trash woman with a taste for bad boys.The whole thing plays at such a lurid pitch of straight-up bad taste, that perhaps the only unforgivable crime you could have committed as an actor already contractually obliged to complete filming would have been to back out, even a little, to try to wink or nod or allow even the slightest note of irony to creep in to your performance. It’s a credit to Kidman’s professionalism that that never happens, though we fear the results would make us a bit gunshy about committing to as risky a role in the near future.
“Hey, let’s go see that movie where Nicole Kidman takes a bath with then kisses a 10 year-old boy who she thinks is the reincarnation of her dead husband!” was what pretty much nobody said back in October 2004, ensuring Jonathan Glazer’s uncategorizable, flawed but eerily beautiful “Birth” went gently into the good night of box office obscurity. But while maybe a hard sell for even the most adept of arthouse marketers back then, it’s a film that has gradually grown in retrospective acclaim, contrary to some poisonous reviews at the time, and when people do go back and rediscover it, one of the things that can’t be denied is the shimmering loveliness of Kidman’s performance. Yes, the film plays to her patrician, statuesque beauty, but the tenderness she brings to her role, the edge of a grief so old it seems almost physically painful to have it flare back up into hope, is a special sort of lightning in a bottle: a thousand things go on behind her eyes, and yet she retains, as the film’s tone requires, a sliver of unknowability. And for the majority of the running time, she and her director again seem in perfect sync, with Glazer weaving the film around her, as she betrays with only tiny moments, the oceanic feelings inside. The underplaying is vital in a film that has potential to become silly or salacious but actually retains a tone of uneasy intrigue throughout. Well, almost throughout — the great misfortune is that the film’s ending undoes a great deal of the compelling and uniquely-voiced work up to that point, both over- and under-explaining a plot which till then operated more on the level of fairytale than real-world what-if. But even as it’s crumbling around her, Kidman retains her focus, and her grasp on her character and our attention.
Narrowly missing out on a spot in this list were Kidman’s turns in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” in which she throws herself into a deeply unsympathetic role (but we did feature it in Essentials, in addition the downbeat but minutely observed “Rabbit Hole” and “To Die For“), and “Fur” which despite an intriguingly offbeat premise ends up just too slight to count among her more daring choices. “Moulin Rouge!“which was of course a challenge from the point of view of the singing is otherwise less about performance than costuming, choreography and design, but she’s also terrific in a gruelling early TV miniseries “Bangkok Hilton” that came about before her Hollywood breakout. And there could have been any of several more — Kidman, even in genre fare, has matured into an actress who can almost always be relied upon to commit to a project and a director completely — an act that requires a certain courage every single time. Before the end of the year we’ll be seeing her possibly cameo in “Anchorman 2” and after that channel Grace Kelly in “Grace of Monaco.” In the meantime, we’re aware how subjective an assessment of a role’s risk value can be, so feel free to tell us in the comments why our list should actually have included “Trespass,” “Australia” and “Practical Magic” instead.