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 (Bewitched, 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.
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.
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.
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 irtues (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.
IASFM with all of these, although IMO The Portrait of a Lady and Moulin Rouge! are two of her strongest performances, but w/e they're all perfect.