Born: 20 June 1967
Where: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Awards: 1 Oscar, 1 BAFTA & 3 Golden Globes
Height: 5′ 10"
It’s a mark of Australia’s cultural strength that they’ve provided so many of today’s top-line cinematic greats. Aside from the obvious Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett, there’s also the less well-known yet hugely talented likes of Judy Davis and Naomi Watts as well as a couple of New Zealanders who made it in Aussie productions. Step forward, Sam Neill and Russell Crowe. And, of course, there’s the woman who, Gibson aside, is the hottest of the lot, the ex-Mrs Cruise but a fine actress and Oscar-winner in her own right — Nicole Kidman.
Strangely, given what most people know of her, Nicole is not a fair dinkum Aussie at all, actually being born on Honolulu, Hawaii (on the 20th of June, 1967), and holding dual US and Australian citizenship. Her father, Anthony, a biochemist and clinical psychologist, had moved to the island with his wife Janelle to work on a research project. Almost as soon as Nicole appeared (she’d be closely followed by sister, Antonia), Anthony’s work with breast cancer took the family to Washington DC for three years. It was only then that the girl who would be known as one of Australia’s prime exports began life on Antipodean soil, when the Kidmans moved back to the posh Longueville district of Sydney (coincidentally, one of Nicole’s most renowned relatives was also named Sydney — he was a cattle baron).
Nicole was an active, artistic child, and focused from an absurdly young age. She began taking ballet lessons at 3, moving onto mime at 8 and drama at 10. Her first public role was at 6, as a loud sheep in her elementary school’s Christmas pageant. She grew up fast. Janelle was an active feminist and Anthony a labour advocate, both of them discussing the issues of the day with their kids over dinner and having them hand out pamphlets on the street.
When it came to acting, Nicole possessed the same intensity as her future husband. She was always seen as an outsider — she was known as Storky due to her peculiar height (she fast reached a whopping 5′ 11") — and, as she approached her teens she departed even further from her peers. While the other girls were down the beach, eyeing up the boys, Nicole spent her weekends at the Philip Street Theatre, watching, learning. She had her sights set on higher things — as you’d expect from someone whose influences include Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and, above all, Katherine Hepburn — and, indeed, she had her first kiss onstage in Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. As the play concerned sexual repression in the late 1800’s, it was something of a wild one too, Nicole having to yell "Beat me! Harder! Harder!" each night. More impressive than a clumsy fumble under the pier, eh?
Come the age of 14, things started to move. As a sign of events to come, one night Nicole received a note of congratulations and encouragement from an audience member, a film student who invited Nicole to appear in her examination short. Nicole turned it down, as it conflicted with her own school exams. Shame, for the student was Jane Campion, later to direct The Piano and then the Kidman-starring Portrait Of A Lady.
Then the real roles began to appear. There were a couple of TV parts, and then a sudden success. Kidman’s film debut was in Bush Christmas, about a poor family relying on their racehorse to make their fortune in a race on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, the horse is stolen and the kids, with the help of a friendly aborigine, have to track it down. The movie was a big hit, and would become a festive favourite in Oz.
As Nicole continued her education at the Australian Theatre For Young People in Sydney (to which she’d later donate $100,000), and the St Martin’s Youth Theatre in Melbourne (her studies concentrated on voice, production and theatre history), the parts kept coming. She appeared as a High School track star learning there’s more to life than athletics in the TV series Winners, on film in the amusing romp BMX Bandits, and in a video for Pat Wilson’s Bop Girl. Then, at 17, there was a Disney production, the TV serial Five Mile Creek, a family-orientated affair about the wild Aussie West. Shooting five days a week for seven months, this allowed Kidman to gain vital confidence before the camera.
Now there was a blow, as Janelle was diagnosed with cancer. Nicole took time off to take a massage course in order to give her mum physical therapy. Her family’s efforts helped bring about Janelle’s recovery. Back at work, Nicole scored five parts in quick succession, including Wills & Burke, a lampoon of historical epics, the futuristic Nightmaster, and Windrider, about a kid who builds a hi-tech surfboard in order to snatch the World Championship, then falls in love with Nicole. Tough break. Kidman herself fell in love on Windrider — with actor Tom Burlinson, who she’d see for three years (she’d later date another actor, Marcus Graham).
Next came the breakthrough. Kidman won a meaty role in the miniseries Vietnam as a gawky Sixties schoolgirl protestor who evolves into a freethinking Seventies activist, the series covering the activities of Aussie troops in Vietnam (many of them social and seedy) as well as the public and political furore back home. In the meantime, Kidman found her own flat, cooking and cleaning for herself for the first time. The series was produced by the Kennedy-Miller partnership, who’d broken big with Mad Max, and was written by Terry Hayes, who’d penned Mad Max 2 and 3. Hayes in particular was captivated by Kidman’s performance, especially a scene where Kidman is on a radio show, complaining about conscription, when her brother, a returning vet, calls in, causing her to break down. Kidman herself was impressed — now was when she really decided to become a career actress.
So moved was Hayes that, apparently, he was inspired to dive into a new project, an adaptation of Dead Calm. This had begun life as a Charles Williams novel in 1963. It had been picked up by Orson Welles who, in 1969, attempted to film it (as The Deep) with Laurence Harvey and Jeanne Moreau. But Harvey died while on location so the project was shelved, with Welles’ widow refusing to sell the rights to any Hollywood studio as she believed they had treated her late husband so shabbily. Eventually, she sold to Kennedy-Miller, and they brought in Hayes. Initially, thoughts were of hiring Sigourney Weaver or Debra Winger for the part of Sam Neill’s wife, held hostage aboard a yacht by a psychotic Billy Zane. But Hayes kept banging on about Kidman and, despite the fact that the character was supposed to be 30+ and Nicole was but 19, director Phillip Noyce (later to helm Patriot Games and The Bone Collector) relented.
Kidman threw herself into the part, arriving on location a month before shooting in order to learn how to sail the 80-foot yacht. She studied posture and voice techniques to appear older, and met mothers who, like her character, had lost children. Then production began, with the team spending three months at work, mostly at sea off the Great Barrier Reef. On shore breaks, Nicole would take Neill to the local rough-house night-club, wowing him with the freaky dances she’d learned for Vietnam.
Dead Calm did it for Nicole. Vietnam had won her an Australian Film Institute Award and an American agent and now there something genuinely meaty to work with. While at a film festival in Japan, Nicole received a call from Tom Cruise’s people, asking her to come talk about his next project, Days Of Thunder, to be directed by Tony Scott. She had been to America for roles before, believed there was no real hope but, hey, it was a free trip to LA. Meeting Cruise and his people in a hotel conference room, she was embarrassed by the way she towered over the megastar. Now she was convinced she’d be sent on her way. But the next day she was informed she was in. And the height problem? "It doesn’t bother Tom, so it doesn’t bother us".
So, Nicole spent 5 months down in Daytona Beach as Dr Claire Lewicki, the medic who patches up Cruise’s near-dead racing driver and sets him on his way to eventual glory. And there was plenty of media interest. Rumours of an affair were rife, fuelled by the fact that Cruise’s divorce from Mimi Rogers came through a couple of weeks before the end of filming. Kidman stressed the romance did not begin till a little later, but she was seen on Cruise’s arm at the 1990 Academy Awards, and the couple would marry, in a rented house in Telluride, Colorado, on Christmas Eve that same year.
Suddenly, Kidman was a star, and not simply due to her marriage. The TV miniseries Bangkok Hilton, wherein she played an inadvertent drug mule sent to a fabulously unpleasant jail, was hugely impressive, as was her catty senior school-girl in Flirting (alongside Thandie Newton, later Cruise’s co-star in Mission: Impossible 2). Next she was the mysterious moll of Dustin Hoffman’s Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate, then Cruise’s muse and lover, Shannon Christie, in Ron Howard’s epic of Irish exile and redemption, Far And Away.
Now, for those who thought Kidman to be simply Mr Cruise and a very lucky lady indeed, came two roles which proved her excellence for good. In Malice, as Tracy Kennsinger, she was fantastically beastly to Bill Pullman, even having her own body parts removed to work her evil scam. Then, in To Die For, she was even beastlier to poor Matt Dillon as she strove to find TV stardom. Her wicked seduction of young Joaquin Phoenix was masterful, her eventual death at the hands of a supremely sinister David Cronenberg uniquely disturbing. For this role, having knocked Meg Ryan out of the picture by calling director Gus Van Sant direct, she spent three days in a Santa Barbara inn, watching nothing but trashy TV, then spoke in a full-blown US accent from the beginning of rehearsals to the end of production. It worked — she won a Golden Globe for her efforts, having earlier been nominated for Billy Bathgate.
The roles kept coming. She played Michael Keaton’s pregnant wife, helping him accept onrushing death from cancer in My Life. She was Dr Chase Meridian, devouring Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever (reports said she got the role when Val Kilmer stepped into the Bat-shoes for Keaton and producers felt the original Dr Meridian, Rene Russo, was too old for him). Then came Campion and Henry James’ Portrait Of A Lady, where Kidman played Isabel Archer, a wealthy woman whose tricked by wicked Barbara Hershey into marrying the even more wicked John Malkovich. In the meantime, Kidman took time to enrol at New York’s Actor’s Studio to study The Method. Ever conscientious, that Nicole.
For Kidman, the role was extremely stressful, emotionally speaking. She took six months off then, having been persuaded to join Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s upcoming Eyes Wide Shut (not that she needed much persuading), she took the role of Julia Kelly, the nuclear weapons expert who helps George Clooney track down smuggled nukes in the fast and furious The Peacemaker. A big deal, this, as it was the movie that launched Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks. She also managed to squeeze in the witchy comedy, Practical Magic, with Sandra Bullock. And, once Eyes Wide Shut’s incredibly extended shoot was done, she blew away theatre audiences in London and on Broadway, with her performances in The Blue Room, directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, where she briefly appeared naked. Unsurprisingly, the production was a sell-out.
Eyes Wide Shut was a big media event, though many considered it cold and slow (despite the supposedly red-hot trailer). Kubrick himself would die soon after, but all seemed well in Camp Cruise. The couple had adopted two children — daughter Isabella Jane and son Conor Antony — and Kidman’s quote that "I just feel so fortunate that I have found someone who will put up with me and stay with me" seemed based on a solid foundation. The lawsuits that flew at any tabloids printing sordid rumours seemed also to point to the couple’s strength and unity — especially the one against The Star for claiming the Cruises needed a sex therapist to get through Eyes Wide Shut’s more physical scenes.
Yet the marriage wasn’t as tight as we all thought, Tom and Nicole separating in February, 2001, with Cruise quickly taking up with Penelope Cruz. The couple said very little about it publicly, but her professional connection to Cruise will be noted for some time to come. Before their separation, Kidman starred in weirdo thriller The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenabar (writer of Cruise’s forthcoming Vanilla Sky) and co-produced by Cruise himself. The film — slow, surreal and deadly quiet — was an object lesson in how to build tension, with the whole thing being held together by Kidman’s extraordinary performance as a fraught young mother living with her kids in a seemingly haunted country mansion while her husband is away at war. It was utterly terrifying, the best horror movie in years, though the greatest mystery surrounding it must be why Kidman, nominated for a Golden Globe, was not similarly forwarded for an Oscar.
She found consolation in an Oscar nod (and Golden Globe win) for Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, filmed earlier, wherein she played beautiful courtesan Satine, plaguing poor poet Ewan McGregor as well as much of aristocratic society. We see Kidman sing (she’d also have a Christmas Number One duetting with Robbie Williams on Something Stupid) and, utilising the training she began 31 years ago, dance. Indeed, so frenetic were the dance sequences that she at one point badly hurt her knee, delaying production. Moving on to The Others without giving the injury time to heal, it flared up again, forcing her to withdraw from David Fincher’s The Panic Room after two weeks (though she would provide a disembodied voice on the phone to Jodie Foster). Next would be Birthday Girl, where Nicole played Nadia, the Russian mail-order bride of shy Brit bank clerk Ben Chaplin (how does this guy GET these peachy roles?). Speaking different languages, they nevertheless begin to fall for one another — then some thoroughly dodgy Russian types turn up, claiming to be Nadia’s relatives.
After that came The Hours, placing her in what must now be seen as appropriate company. Co-starring with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, she was up there amongst the finest screen actresses alive. The film was set in three separate times and examined the writing and effects of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Kidman playing Woolf herself, struggling in a lifeless marriage, growing ever more distant from her family and friends, and finally discovering a dreamt-for freedom in suicide. Radically altering her appearance with a prosthetic nose, she still managed to convey (mostly with her eyes) the flashes of frustration, indignation and love that kept this highly sensitive depressive going as long as she did. A tremendous performance, deserving of the Oscar and Golden Globe she now won.
Nicole claimed that, throughout her marriage to Cruise, she’d been playing a supporting role, pushing his career before hers. And it’s clearly true that she was hardly prolific during that time. Now divorced (and having suffered a miscarriage just a month after the initial separation) she set about changing this. Having turned down Jane Campion’s visceral In The Cut, which arrived too soon after the Cruise trauma (Nicole would remain with the project as executive producer), 2003 would see her in three productions, beginning with Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. This was a real oddity, with many of the sets and props shown only as lines on the ground. Kidman would play a young woman on the run from the Mob during the Depression, who’s discovered by kindly Paul Bettany and, through his persuasion, a whole Rocky Mountain village decides to harbour her. The price she pays for safety, though, is hard labour and gross humiliation, for which she will eventually seek revenge upon the townsfolk. She’d move on to The Human Stain, adapted from the Philip Roth novel, where Anthony Hopkins played a college professor who, accused of racism, resigns in order to safeguard a painful secret. As the film discusses divisions in race and class, he now embarks on an affair with Nicole, a semi-literate janitor with a wife-beating ex-husband (Ed Harris, one of Kidman’s co-stars in The Hours).
2003 would end with Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella’s American Civil War epic, where Nicole and Jude Law played lovers separated by the conflict, Law going off to fight. Upon the death of her preacher father, city-girl Nicole must now run a farm, aided by local yokel Renee Zellweger and constantly threatened by Ray Winstone, head of the home guard, who fancies her ass and her land. The movie was well-received (Nicole herself being Golden Globe-nominated for the 6th time), but not the huge success anticipated. Most were more interested in the constant flood of stories claiming that an on-set affair between Kidman and Law had broken up Law’s marriage. Nicole denied all of them and, keeping up her former husband’s habit of litigation, successfully sued British tabloids The Sun and The Mail, donating the proceeds to charity. She also began a relationship with rock musician Lenny Kravitz, which would last into 2004.
Movie-wise, 2004 brought first The Stepford Wives, a remake of Bryan Forbes’ 1975 paranoia thriller. Here Nicole played a high-powered but recently sacked TV exec who moves to quiet Stepford with her husband, Matthew Broderick, who’d previously worked as her underling. Both are surprised to find the Stepford women, led by Glenn Close, are crazy-keen to be perfect little wives for their husbands, led by the supremely spooky Christopher Walken. Teaming up with town maverick Bette Midler, Kidman seeks the bitter truth behind the sickly sweet apple pie.
Far more controversial would be Birth, where a 10-year-old boy claims to be the reincarnation of widow Nicole’s husband, now 10 years gone. Having finally entered a new relationship, she’s frightened, shocked, hurt but eventually convinced, now facing the terrible problems of continuing her marriage in such taboo circumstances, particularly when she’s threatened with police action. It was creepy stuff, but also sophisticated and intelligent, seriously questioning the audience in the way that movies should. The year would also see a reunion of sorts with her Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann when she appeared in a 2-minute super-ad for Chanel No 5, having signed with the company in 2003 for a reported $7.5 million (around half of what she was now accustomed to receiving for a movie role).
2005 would bring a raft of new productions, with Kidman continuing to deliberately vary her parts. Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter would be an action thriller which saw her as a worker at the UN who overhears a plot to assassinate an African leader and, with the help of Sean Penn’s federal agent, struggles to foil the would-be perpetrators. Then would come a big screen adaptation of the hit TV series Bewitched, where she’d take the Elizabeth Montgomery role as Samantha, a powerful witch (her first since Practical Magic) who falls for doofus Will Ferrell and, against the wishes of her family and gifted sisters, decides to become a suburban housewife. She’d also play beside Ferrell in The Producers, a filmed version of the successful Broadway update of Mel Brooks’ classic. Here she’d appear as Ulla, secretary to the scheming Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, singing the immortal If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It and acting as Broderick’s love interest (her character having been beefed up from the buxom, ditzy original). She’d been offered and instantly accepted the part when filming The Stepford Wives with Broderick.
Beyond these, there was the serially postponed American Darlings, where she and Jennifer Lopez played swing musicians in the late Thirties, where the male- and white-dominated scene forced women, blacks and Latinos to play the same underground venues. WW2 would then bring them overground as the authorities sought to raise public spirits, and Kidman’s band ends up at the Apollo, in competition with the Count Basie Orchestra. Also on the cards was the long-anticipated Eucalyptus, a magical-realist tale that would unite Nicole with those other Antipodean heavyweights, Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush.
Cruise may be gone, yet Nicole Kidman’s still very much on the up. Can anything stop this Aussie firebrand, famed for her tinkling laugh, self-deprecating humour and crusading work on behalf of abused children? Perhaps only the humble bee — to which she is painfully allergic.