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Nicole Kidman: From To Die For to The Northman

Is Nicole Kidman the bravest actress of her generation? Arguably, yes. That might sound a bit hyperbolic, considering some of her contemporaries include mighty actresses like Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett, Laura Linney, and Olivia Colman. However, there’s something about Kidman that makes her unique among the best of the best. No actress can quite do what she does, including starring in costume pictures, superhero films, bizarre indie movies, highly stylized television dramas, and even an oddly beloved ad for AMC Theaters.

It’s not just her seemingly perfect face —  that appears to be sculpted by either a higher power, genetics, or highly skilled mortal doctors – or her undeniable talent, which took her from Australian television to the height of Hollywood success. No, Nicole Kidman’s biggest asset is her unflinching bravery, a sense of courage that endows her résumé with a level of acclaim and diversity that few other actresses match.

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The ultimate risk-taker

Matt Dillon and Nicole Kidman in To Die For.

Throughout her career, Kidman has used her considerable pull to be as curious as possible. Even at the height of her fame, circa 2005, right after claiming the Best Actress Oscar for The Hours, Kidman used her goodwill to push the boundaries Hollywood imposed on its leading ladies. Films like Dogville and Birth cemented her as the rare star who was more interested in honing her craft than achieving mainstream success. Both films were difficult sells, surreal stories that actively challenged audiences to look beyond the images on the screen. Birth and Dogville stand out because they perfectly represent the type of film that Kidman has become closely associated with: Highly emotional and introspective stories that allow her to display a wide range of emotions in challenging and sometimes unsympathetic roles.

Therein lies the difference between Kidman and other Hollywood icons. Whereas so-called movie stars rose to prominence thanks to their many box office hits, Nicole Kidman became a legend despite her lack of blockbusters. Sure, Batman Forever made her a household name, but To Die For made her an actress worthy of in-depth consideration. Moulin Rouge! made her a leading lady, while Eyes Wide Shut turned her into a screen icon who could sell the most difficult material with a sly smile. Kidman is a movie star by merit, not beauty or success, although she has both to spare. She saves the traditional star persona — perfect hair, perfect smile, gorgeous gowns, intense stares — for her many brand ambassador deals, magazine covers, and red carpet appearances. On the screen, however, she’s never content with being only a star — Nicole Kidman always wants to be more.

This willingness to explore often leads to uneven movies. Indeed, some of Kidman’s most interesting work — The Portrait of a Lady, BirthMargot at the Wedding, The PaperboyDestroyer — comes in divisive films that received a mixed reception from critics and audiences. Yet, she remains the best part of these projects, often carrying them entirely with a skill that seems effortless on screen. Kidman plays supporting roles just as often as she portrays leads, eliminating any egotism from the equation. Many of the most lauded performances — StokerLion, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Boy Erased, and most recently, The Northman — come from supporting turns that take her away from the spotlight, allowing her to disappear into her roles.

Queen of chaos

Howie conforting Becca in Rabbit Hole.

There’s a certain lack of vanity in Kidman’s choices, to the point where her filmography looks like a wide and somewhat chaotic canvas of many colors, with no particular order or sequence. One second she’s playing the lead in the appalling Grace of Monaco, and the next, she’s delivering a once-in-a-lifetime performance in Hemingway & Gellhorn; one year, she’s got a kooky wig and makeup for How to Talk to Girls at Parties and the next, she’s totally de-glammed for Destroyer. Kidman easily transitions from small art-house films like The Killing of a Sacred Deer to heavy CGI movies like Aquaman, her biggest blockbuster by far.

Kidman possesses a malleability that many would kill to have. She’s as comfortable in the wilderness of The Northman as she is in the fantastical world of The Golden Compass. Kidman can play a suburban mother grieving over her son’s death in Rabbit Hole as easily as she can bring to life a determined 1930s English aristocrat in Baz Luhrmann’s underrated epic drama Australia. Kidman understands this, using it to her advantage to jump from time to time, never content with only one lane. She’s an actress who wants it all and isn’t afraid to show it.

Audiences don’t expect cohesiveness from Kidman’s filmography. Movie lovers have come to understand that she marches to the beat of her own drum. Indeed, it makes sense that she appears in a Southern-gothic thriller like Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, only to follow it with a glitzy, mindless musical like Ryan Murphy’s The Prom. No matter the part, big or small, Kidman gives it her all, overcoming any issues the screenplay might have. Whether it’s a by-the-numbers melodrama like Strangerland or a sharp comedy like The Family Fang, Kidman is often the standout. If a film is bad, she rescues it; if it’s average, she elevates it; and if it’s good, she makes it great.

A champion of television

Celeste Wright smiling in Big Little Lies.

Kidman’s courage led her to television, where she became one of the first A-listers to embrace the medium, seeing it not as the hell where careers go to die, but as the ideal vehicle for actors to flourish. And flourish she did; most of Kidman’s strongest work in recent years comes from television. Her crowning achievement, Big Little Lies, presents her at her most raw and vulnerable, a position not many actresses would agree to find themselves in: Exposed, physically and emotionally, for the world to see. But Nicole Kidman, ever the trailblazer, stepped into the role of Celeste and gave it layers upon layers of emotion and trauma, crafting a subtle yet intense portrayal of vulnerability that never once came off as weakness.

Finding a new home for her hunger, Kidman crafted a niche for herself, becoming the queen of the miniseries. Shows like Top of the Lake: China GirlThe UndoingNine Perfect Strangers, and the recent Apple TV+ anthology series Roar confirm her as a force to be reckoned with, one of the loudest voices in a room roaring with activity. The current television climate is highly competitive, with Netflix and HBO leading the charge in quality and quantity. Kidman, ever the pro, knows how to navigate these turbulent waters, giving each studio a chance — she’s made shows for HBO, Hulu, and Apple TV+ — while simultaneously satisfying her unique desires.

Critical response to her shows has been mixed, but what else is new for Nicole Kidman? She’s proven herself an enduring part of show business, impervious to the divisive reception of her projects. Hollywood and audiences need Nicole Kidman’s bravery, even if the projects that showcase it aren’t always the best.

No signs of stopping

Nicole Kidman on the floor looking up in a scene from Apple TV+'s Roar.

Even now, nearly f40 years after her film debut, Kidman is unstoppable, surprising audiences with her strength and versatility. This year alone, Kidman graced the screen with one of her most commanding performances yet, Queen Gudrún in Robert Eggers’ brutal revenge tale, The Northman. Kidman is as ruthless as the film itself, sinking her teeth into the savagery of the story with considerable gusto. It’s a nice departure from her most recent role, Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, and the perfect reminder of Kidman’s versatile acting skills. Not content to be in only one medium, she is back in a television series in an episode of the Apple TV+ anthology Roar, described as a collection of “darkly comic feminist fables.” As a woman who eats old photographs of herself as child to recall her forgotten youth, Kidman makes the absurd premise work by rooting it in a deeply committed performance that doesn’t flinch from the material. In a way, it’s not surprising, as this is what we come to expect from Kidman: Focus, determination, and above all, magnetism.

Whatever the project, Nicole Kidman is the closest thing to a guarantee audiences have. Undeterred, relentless, curious, and above all courageous, Kidman is one of Hollywood’s greatest talents, an actress of unrivaled skill and performative strength. Love or hate her projects, one thing is certain: No one can say Nicole Kidman never took any risks.

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