Last year, the New York Film Festival threw galas in honor of two great cinema auteurs, David Cronenberg and Pedro Almodóvar, on the occasion of screenings of their respective new films, A Dangerous Method and The Skin I Live In. This year, the festival is throwing a similar fete in honor of the Southern-noir pulp nightmare The Paperboy; the guest of honor, though, is not the film’s director, Lee Daniels, but a supporting actress, Nicole Kidman.
With relatively brief screen time in The Paperboy, Ms. Kidman takes over the film; a lurid mélange starring Zac Efron as a young man who stumbles upon conspiracy and evil, the film tips all too often, as did Mr. Daniels’s last effort, Precious, into excess. But the Australian actress, playing a past-her-prime beauty with a deadly attraction to things that are just plain wrong, clarifies the film’s Baroque obsession with violence.
In her polymorphous perversity, Ms. Kidman’s character humanizes the film’s nastiness. She puts a face on its obsession with the depraved, and through a conscious dulling of her intellect and her stock-in-trade melancholia, makes that depravity seem almost sweet. A scene in which she takes a near-naked Mr. Efron, 21 years her junior, into her arms and waltzes with him is the communion of two broken souls; when she urinates on him to relieve a jellyfish sting, it’s is an act of pure, frenzied love. “She gets her—she understands this woman,” Mr. Daniels told The Observer. “And she understands my insanity.”
That is precisely what, at least since her reinvention as a serious actress 11 years ago, Nicole Kidman does for every serious movie in which she chooses to act. She personifies the human consequences of directors’ intellectual arguments. And of all the actresses working today, she has the riskiest attitude when it comes to her collaborators. Among her contemporaries and past co-stars, Meryl Streep has winnowed her stable down to a few subpar directors who let her to do her thing. Meanwhile, few directors seem to have any idea what to do with Julianne Moore, who’s largely moved to TV. By contrast, Ms. Kidman has worked with Mr. Daniels, John Cameron Mitchell, Noah Baumbach, Jonathan Glazer and Lars von Trier, among other iconoclasts, and in each case she hasn’t merely been a part of an exacting vision, but pushed it to new places.
Part of her uniqueness, as has been widely observed, is her appetite for a kind of chic suffering. Before 2003’s Cold Mountain came out, New York Times critic A.O. Scott, in an essay on Ms. Kidman, noted of her characters, “Their misery is a sign of her independence, her courage, her victory over unpleasant circumstances, and our applause is the measure of our compassion.” This view of the actress’s career took into account her then-recent divorce from Tom Cruise and all the subsequent tabloid attention. In the years since, Ms. Kidman’s celebrity has dimmed—her name is no longer, as Mr. Scott’s put it, “inscribed at the very top of the Hollywood A-List.” With her name coming up only in the context of a paycheck movie, like 2007’s The Golden Compass, or a magazine spread on alleged plastic surgery victims (remember last year, when she claimed her beauty was natural, then admitted having used Botox by saying she’d stopped?), her audience’s compassion has waned commensurately. “Everyone was against hiring her. How could you hire her? She’s an ice princess,” said Mr. Daniels. “But those are the roles Hollywood offers you. They put you in a box. And she refuses.”
Through it all, though, she’s kept on trucking, with the loud flops of 2007 (The Invasion was the other one) reminding her that the Hollywood route is not exactly for her. There’s something deeply unsympathetic about Nicole Kidman both on- and offscreen. She’s uninterested, in a chilly way, in the give-and-take of Hollywood. Her Oscar acceptance speech for The Hours, delivered while wearing a deeply un-belle-of-the-ball, downright funereal black gown (granted, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq) and while taking out for a spin an increasingly, ahem, immobile visage, is a case study in elegant boredom. “Art is important,” the actress intoned. We may have really liked her, but did she really like us? During her two-year window of extreme fame, Mr. Scott argued that Ms. Kidman wanted to suffer for a broad audience. But the period since the fading from collective memory of her divorce from her famous Scientologist ex has proved that the more apt formulation might be that she wants a very limited art-house audience to suffer alongside her.
Her directors are, broadly speaking, known for contorting their performers into uncomfortable or compromising positions, and yet, in every case, Ms. Kidman has taken the initiative, pushing her movies further than, it would seem, even their directors intended. (Mr. Daniels said he was initially embarrassed before she urged him to direct her forcefully, at which point he told her she’d need to sit on a washing machine and spread her legs.) No moment in Mr. Daniels’s work, which has gained two performers Oscar nominations and one a win, has ever been so deeply felt as the scene in which his Paperboy star pushes younger women out of the way so that she might pee on Zac Efron.
So too do her performances in other movies push the bounds of what their directors might have intended: people remember Birth, her 2004 psychodrama about a woman united with a child she believes is her reincarnated husband, not for its directorial flair, but for a minutes-long shot of Ms. Kidman silently emoting as she watches an opera. The actress is feeling the consequences of the action more deeply than her director, who tosses away the plot of the movie in a dumb, poorly paced finale, and far more deeply than her audience, who greeted Birth with disdain and negligible box-office returns.
And consider The Hours, the film that earned Ms. Kidman an Oscar. Out of a triple-lead miasma in which two of the actresses, though credible, projected vague, early-2000s mumbly indie-film disdain for their surroundings, Ms. Kidman, playing Virginia Woolf, wrenched the film into melodrama through her sheer dogged commitment to the emotional, despite director Stephen Daldry’s clinical detachment. Or Rabbit Hole, in which director John Cameron Mitchell’s clear hope for another indie triumph—complete with animated interstitial segments—was waylaid by Ms. Kidman’s dogged earnestness in the face of losing a child. Or Dogville, in which Ms. Kidman, nearly alone among Lars von Trier’s long line of tortured leading ladies, manages not to transform into something more or less virtuous than that which she essentially is. Mr. von Trier’s other favored actresses, including Björk and Charlotte Gainsbourg, usually fall somewhere within a dull, nihilistic Scandinavian good-bad dialectic, whereas Ms. Kidman presents the sort of reactions a real person might have to being held captive and enslaved in an isolated Western town. Mr. von Trier’s films, generally, are meditations on broad themes, but with Ms. Kidman in place, Dogville became the story of a woman under duress. Amid a stream of postmodern ideas, she was, implacably, that most conventional of devices: a character.
Mr. Scott’s appraisal of Ms. Kidman’s career, for the Times, concluded that suffering was the essential element in bringing audiences to love and idolize her. Lincoln Center tributes aside, those fans have largely moved on after an unrewarding period between 2004 and 2008. Suffering is Ms. Kidman’s alienation effect—she manages to turn every picture she is in into a woman’s picture. Hers is a very particular talent, one not seen since the heyday of Joan Crawford, and Ms. Kidman’s icy public persona—buffed, polished and impervious to both age and negative press—is its perfect complement.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ms. Kidman has never been a whiz with accents, and viewers of The Paperboy will have to forgive her tortured attempt at a Southern one. She’s never, in any sense, disappeared into a role (leaving aside The Hours, in which makeup and special effects rendered her unrecognizable). When she plays an American, as in, for instance, Margot at the Wedding, her Australian lilt comes to the fore, but it works as an aid to her portrayal of hauteur, rather than an impediment. It’s not range in the sense of breadth of possible roles that Ms. Kidman seeks—she can play a very narrow slice of the roles offered to 40-something actresses—but in the range as depth of emotion. And she has succeeded in conveying a shocking depth of emotion to an unfeeling audience in our post-ironic age. “I now know what those old-time directors felt like while working with Bette Davis or with Greta Garbo—one of the legends,” said Mr. Daniels. A director like Michael Curtiz would know exactly what to do with Ms. Kidman. As it stands, she’s had to make her own way—a vaguely defined mission that Lincoln Center honors even as audiences remain puzzled.