If time is an avenger, then the Naughts have had it both ways with Nicole Kidman. In the span of a decade, Kidman was transformed from arm candy into an artist — the rare movie star who made genuinely interesting choices — eclipsing her ex-husband, Tom Cruise, who filed for divorce in 2000, with an Oscar win and the embrace, finally, of her peers on her own terms.
However, as the ’00s limp to a close, Kidman seems to be succumbing to a personal vendetta against time: by manipulating her face into a mask — a waxworks ideal of “Nicole Kidman” — rather than continuing to deploy it as a functional instrument, an artist’s tool, Kidman is taking perhaps the most surprising risk of her career: she has chosen to age into glacial iconicity. In this, she exemplifies a decade that treated actresses with ambivalence, waving all the flags of empowerment and agency at the post-Julia Roberts cohort, who wanted to have it all without having to play the charming prostitute, only to corral them into the same old pens: ingénue, mother, old maid.
Kidman, of course, showed signs of life during her pre-Naughts career, most notably in her 1989 breakthrough “Dead Calm,” and again in “To Die For” in 1995 and “The Portrait of a Lady” in 1996. Maligned as often for her mannered, on-screen frigidity as she was dismissed for her off-screen attachment to Herr Cruise, audiences gave her her due, particularly for her turn in the Van Sant film, a blackly comic media farce, but it was grudging, as though the director had tapped into a neat utility for Kidman’s innate chill and deserved most of the credit.
Even as a very young woman, Kidman had a particular savvy for directors, aligning herself with both established and up-and-coming innovators; if her own development seemed erratic through the ’90s, her taste in directors was more consistently inspired. By contrast, Kidman’s ex appeared to be on an artistic roll when he starred alongside his wife in 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” that seems to have ended only months later with his Oscar-nominated role in “Magnolia.” Looking back, it would seem that his most interesting roles were all chosen while he was with Kidman.
For her, not so much: in fact, Kidman’s first role of the decade, as the melancholy performer/courtesan Satine in Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge!,” doubled as a sort of emancipation announcement. Filmed during the split with Cruise, Kidman seemed to finally find an outlet for her talent, channeling her famously wintry form into affecting mystique, then contrasting that with a full commitment to the unabashed romanticism and goofy spectacle of Luhrman’s meta-musical. The restraint of her previous roles loosened noticeably; here was Kidman singing and dancing and believably falling in love — a triple threat that even her fans hardly suspected she had in her.
In 2001, she also starred in the psychological thriller “The Others,” working with then-29-year-old Alejandro Amenábar to create a portrait of a mother in the midst — perhaps — of a paranoid breakdown. It was the beginning of a dark period in the country; the terrain Kidman seemed compelled to explore was similarly bleak: although she had to give up the lead role in David Fincher’s “Panic Room” due to injury, Kidman took on the role of suicidal writer Virginia Woolf in 2002’s “The Hours.”
Her Oscar win for her portrayal of Woolf seems somewhat compromised by both the relative brevity of her screen time and the run of rewards (cf. Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” and Charlize Theron in “Monster”) given out to beautiful women willing to ugly up on film in the early part of the decade. Still, the performance confirmed Kidman’s status as a major actress who could hold her own with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, and as a major Hollywood player who would follow up her Academy Award-winning turn with three films in a single year — “Dogville,” “The Human Stain,” and “Cold Mountain” — that captured in microcosm the actress’ competing impulses.
By accepting the lead role in Lars von Trier’s staid, electrifying morality play “Dogville,” Kidman furthered her commitment to working with volatile but essential directors, and in this case, submitted, quite literally, to von Trier’s strict vision of beauty as a burden and the casual conspiracies of violence and oppression just below the surface of “civilized” small-town society. With “The Human Stain,” Kidman indulged what seems to be a persistent tendency towards character roles, a need to disappear within an accent or a hairstyle at odds with her movie star genes. Her role as the mysterious janitor in this film (and that of a Russian mail order bride in “Birthday Girl”) work to the extent that Kidman has not developed a persona as strong as that of a star like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie, one that tends to overwhelm any part they’re in, and yet there is enough self-consciousness in Kidman to prevent her from pulling such roles off completely.