Thursday, April 13, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Nicole Kidman—A Star is Born

Nicole Kidman lit up the screen in '90s films like Batman Forever.

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Nicole Kidman rose to prominence in the 1990s, her star shining brighter with each passing year of the decade. This isn't to say she was the most popular actress of the decade—that honor likely goes to one of America's sweethearts, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, or Sandra Bullock—but Kidman's unique talents and serious acting chops came to the forefront during those years in a series of challenging roles. The Australian actress was laying the foundation for a terrific career that continues to this day.

Kidman's started acting in Australian films during the 1980s. On the cusp of the '90s, she drew critical raves with her performance in the tense thriller Dead Calm (1989). Then, alongside her husband Tom Cruise, she starred in the trashy but fun Days of Thunder (1990), the maudlin and forgettable Far and Away (1992), and the confounding classic Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Of the three films she made with Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut left the most lasting impression, for several reasons.

First, it was the last film from legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick. He died soon after showing the studio his final cut. Second, Kubrick chose Hollywood's then-current King and Queen, Cruise and Kidman, to star as a couple pushing back against the boundaries of their staid marriage. Critics had a field day with this added layer of meta-commentary. Cruise turns in one of his strongest performances to date as the naive husband, while Kidman imbues her role as the trophy wife with both smoldering resentment and barely contained eroticism. As in most of her work, she goes all in with the material, baring body and soul in the process. She's remarkable here, really scorching the screen.

Kidman, framed in classic Kubrickian style. Note the Edward Hopper feel to the composition.

Kidman didn't need Cruise's star power though, as she went on to chose a series of intriguing roles throughout the decade that only further cemented her as a serious talent. 1995 was a particularly big year for her, showcasing her talents in two vastly different films: Joe Schumacher's campy box-office smash Batman Forever, and Gus Van Sant's searing social commentary-cum-crime-comedy To Die For. It certainly doesn't hurt that her sex symbol status with movie audiences reached DEFCON 1 levels in '95—she was about to go nuclear.

She's ferocious in both films, attacking the material with an insatiable appetite and reckless abandon. As sultry psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian in the silly popcorn flick Batman Forever, she chews the scenery with such gusto that her jaw must've been sore for weeks after production ended. She practically devours Val Kilmer's Batman every time she's on screen. Then, in To Die For, as aspiring news anchor Suzanne Stone, who will do anything—or anyone—to get what she wants, Kidman is electric. Its no wonder she was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. Yet again she dominates and manipulates the men on screen, seducing them into submission.

In films like To Die For, Kidman's characters often dominated weaker men.

She may have excelled as a femme fatale, but Kidman was far more than just a sultry starlet. Throughout the '90s, she methodically put together an impressive body of work across a disparate array of films. It was clear that she respected the art form and put in the time and effort to make her performances memorable. Even if her fans swooned with every magnetic smile or flip of her long cascading locks, they ultimately respected her talent above all else.

All of these hyperbolic statements about Kidman's talent do serve a purpose: to underscore how on fire she was during those years. I didn't even mention her work in Malice (1993) yet, a deliciously nasty and subversive little film that I recall fondly—who can forget Alec Baldwin as the narcissistic surgeon, delivering that memorable line, "I am God." I was already familiar with Kidman when I saw Malice, but that's the role that made me sit up and take notice. It's a layered performance, full of notes and textures. Ultimately, what made Nicole Kidman such a star in the '90s was her determination, her commitment, and her willingness to pour all of herself into a role. She still does this today. No matter the film's quality, genre, style, or budget, you can count on Nicole Kidman to bring the heat.

The look: Kidman's trademark smoldering intensity, from Malice.

Nicole Kidman's '90s filmography:

Days of Thunder (1990)
Flirting (1991)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Far and Away (1992)
Malice (1993)
My Life (1993)
Batman Forever (1995)
To Die For (1995)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
The Peacemaker (1997)
Practical Magic (1998)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Postscript: Kidman's ascension during the '90s continued early in the following decade when she was nominated for an Academy Award Award for Best Actress for Moulin Rouge (2001) and then won the award for The Hours (2002).

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