The visionary director Jonathan Glazer has a way of bringing his lead actresses to a fragile edge (see Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin), and Kidman’s work in “Birth” is her most psychologically-disoritenting to date as a result. Playing a widow who gradually comes to believe her deceased husband has been reincarnated into a young child (Cameron Bright), Kidman expertly charts her characters mental evolution from stubborn disbelief to tempestuous acceptance, making it that much harder for the viewer to figure out the truth beneath the surface. All you need to do is watch this astonishing long take of Kidman’s Anna wrestling with the reality of her situation while at the opera to see why “Birth” will always be considered one of her best.
“To Die For” (1995)
Gus Van Sant brings out a side of Nicole Kidman that’s rarely seen in “To Die For,” the director’s ruthlessly satirical take on one woman’s quest to become a news anchor. Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a newlywed whose regular-guy husband (Matt Dillon) is trying to coax her into a housewife role. But Suzanne has her sights set on bigger things — she wants a career and isn’t about to let anyone get in the way of that. Kidman is hypnotic here, layering Suzanne with a fearsome, near-undetectable edge and always keeping her antisocial tendencies in hilarious perspective. In every aspect of her performance, Kidman appears to be having a ball, embracing her character’s obsessiveness while also grounding her in Van Sant’s peculiar version of reality. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but Kidman does it with aplomb.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
Kidman is at the height of her powers in Stanley Kubrick’s final and most polarizing film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” Shot with her husband at the time, Tom Cruise, over the course of a reportedly grueling 15 months, “Eyes Wide Shut” serves as a mesmerizing showcase for the two stars. They each go to surprising extremes as a married couple whose bond unravels over the course of a long evening after Kidman’s character, Alice, admits to once fantasizing about another man in a four minute monologue that ranks as some of the finest acting of her entire career. “Eyes Wide Shut” came at an important time for Kidman, shortly following the studio projects “Practical Magic,” “Batman Forever” and “The Peacemaker,” none of which truly challenged her creatively. “Eyes Wide Shut” served to remind audiences of what a magnetic and fearless talent Kidman is onscreen.
This Danish film allowed Kidman to add Lars von Trier to her impressive list of collaborations with internationally acclaimed directors. “Dogville” is yet another example of how Kidman thrives in her ability to adjust and master each director’s personal style. Digging up old techniques, von Trier shot the drama in the manner of filmed theater, using a giant soundstage as the set. The film takes place in a small quintessential American town during the Depression. Kidman stars as Grace, a stranger to the townsfolk who claims she ran away from the mob. Full of plot twists and radical elements, it is Kidman’s facial expressions and eye movements that anchor the film and streamline it with a central emotional arc. The director uses numerous close-ups of Kidman’s face, and the actress reveals the internal turmoil of the protagonist in every frame. Her performance exhibits how she is also able to underplay roles with natural charm and an afflicted disposition.
“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” (2006)
“Fur” finds Kidman portraying the celebrated photographer Diane Arbus, whose photos memorably focused on the characters society labeled as odd or uncouth. Though not exactly a biopic — it takes a more fantastical approach to the tortured artist — the film emulates Arbus’ fascination with the peculiar. Kidman plays her with intensity and vigor. Her awakening is powerful, conveying a deep discovery of her artistic self and overall independence. Her whispery lines draw viewers in and hold them with passion. She is nothing short of captivating, taking a peculiar role and portraying it stoically and with great care. While some may be upset with the film for its lack of factual adherence to Arbus’ life, it’s difficult to find fault in Kidman’s moving performance.
“The Hours” (2002)
Kidman disappears into Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s affecting, impassioned melodrama “The Hours.” The film cross-cuts between three different timelines and takes place on a single day in each. To get into the life and the complexity of a figure like Woolf in just a day of screentime is no easy task for an actress, but Kidman, prosthetic nose on-display and London accent mastered, absolutely nails it. Beyond the apparent gimmickry of her facial transformation, Kidman delves into Woolf’s artistic process and imbues her with a vibrancy and deep sense of tragedy. She runs the emotional gamut, capturing her humanity and genius by never going showy or melodramatic. She grounds Daldry’s heightened vision and earned raves to the point of an Oscar win for Best Actress.
“Margot at the Wedding” (2007)
In Noah Baumbach’s 2007 drama-comedy, Kidman brings to life the eponymous Margot, a character that combines a hard-headed, judgmental side with one that is more compassionate and caring. What makes Kidman’s performance so captivating is her downright attitude with her sister and her inability to hide her true dislike of her sister’s fiance. She doesn’t compromise herself and isn’t afraid to make Margot unlikeable, but at the same time she’s able to reveal a likability since the character has the best intentions when it comes to her family. Kidman’s portrayal of Margot comes off as an authentic sister, complete with all the flaws that make families dysfunctional. Her character Margot is the true rock of their family, and without Kidman the role wouldn’t have been so relatable and messy all at once.
“Moulin Rouge!” (2001)
Kidman’s performance as Satine, the crowd favorite chanteuse at the titular nightclub, earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The quasi-musical extravaganza, directed by Baz Luhrmann, tells the love story between the struggling writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and the star dancer. What the visually stunning film may lack in a complex dramatic structure, Kidman’s performance more than compensates. In addition to hitting every note in the musical numbers (“Elephant Medley” will always give us chills), her physical acting provides the allure that seduces audiences as the vulnerability that breaks their hearts. She is melodramatic, sensual and comical, perfectly fitting into Luhrmann’s theatrical Parisian underworld.
“The Others” (2001)
Kidman proves she can conquer any genre with her affecting and deeply committed performance in “The Others,” Alejandro Amenábar’s terrifying and oddly moving ghost drama. In another year, Kidman would have in all likelihood been nominated for an Oscar, but she also had “Moulin Rouge!” open that same year. However, her performance in “The Others” is just as worthy. In it, she plays a devout Roman Catholic mother, living with her two young children, who each suffer from photosensitivity, in a remote country house in the aftermath of World War II. It’s not long before she believes the house to be haunted. It’s no coincidence her character in the movie is named Grace. Kidman eventually went on to embody Grace Kelly in the widely panned biopic “Grace of Monaco,” but she captures the icon’s essence with more clarity in “The Others,” a project that plays like some of the classics Alfred Hitchcock and his muse Kelly made back in the day.
“The Paperboy” (2012)
It’s unfortunate Lee Daniels’ southern fried murder mystery will always be reduced to “the film where Kidman pees on Zac Efron.” Yes, that certainly plays out in rather shocking detail, but “The Paperboy” ought to go down in the books for the entirety of Kidman’s off-the-rocker performance. Exposing an unhinged and uninhibited side of the actress rarely seen, Kidman breaks the hot tin roof off the joint as the sexualized Charlotte Bless, a trashy Southern dame obsessed with a murderer on death row. The performance seems all over the place when taken on its own accord, but everything about it helps build the sweaty and blisteringly nasty world of Daniels’ deep South. By the time Charlotte is visiting her convicted lover in prison and performing some unthinkable gestures to turn him on, it’s clear we’ll probably never see this electric side of Kidman again.
“Rabbit Hole” (2010)
Centering on a couple’s harrowing grieving process after the death of their young son, “Rabbit Hole” is the story of Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, respectively) and the emotional journey that threatens to damage their relationship. The drama follows the couple’s difficult experience in their grieving process — attending therapy groups, forging new relationships, attempting to create normalcy in their lives. But Becca eventually finds comfort in the creative work of the boy who accidentally killed her son, and Kidman is able to portray the profound grief of her character in ways both shattering and inspiring. With an extreme degree of heart-wrenching emotion, her impressive expertise in capturing even the most melancholy of characters with grace makes “Rabbit Hole” one of her biggest triumphs. Her performance as Becca rightfully earned her another Oscar nomination.