Why is Nicole Kidman so Hard to Love?

Photo: Elizabeth Peyton

You could argue that marrying Tom Cruise was the best career move Nicole Kidman ever made, but that would be just plain wrong. It was the second-best move. Divorcing Tom Cruise was the best, because it meant that, suddenly, she had the one ingredient for stardom she’d lacked: a cohesive story line.

Here’s the official narrative: She rose, phoenixlike, from the ash heap of her marriage to emerge as a strong, resilient, independent woman. She didn’t shy from the spotlight or wilt into anonymity. Rather, armed only with a huge personal fortune and the most powerful PR machine in entertainment, she gamely continued to accept starring roles in high-profile films. Only in Hollywood could this story be spun as a tale of plucky survival. But the narrative worked: Kidman evolved, in the public’s mind, from lissome arm-candy to bona fide silver-screen star. Her divorce gave Kidman an emotional hook: Fans might have admired, and even envied, her before, but now they could feel for her.

As a result, she has the ideal career, at least on paper. She’s one of the two or three biggest female movie stars in the world. She’s tackled an impressive array of roles, or at least of accents: a southern belle in Cold Mountain; a brusque English mother in The Others; a down-at-the-heels American janitor in The Human Stain. She’s won an Oscar. She alternates between award-courting epics (The Hours, The Human Stain) and controversy-courting art films (Eyes Wide Shut, Dogville). She’s back this week in Birth, a controversial film from Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer, in which Kidman plays a woman who becomes convinced her dead husband’s been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy.

In fact, her superstar sainthood is now such an article of faith that when Lauren Bacall took issue with a reporter’s characterization of Kidman as a “legend,” the press was aghast. Hadn’t Kidman been featured as one of Vanity Fair’s “Legends of Hollywood”? Right next to Catherine Deneuve! Just who does this Lauren Bacall woman think she is?

But is Bacall so far off? Let’s look more closely at Kidman’s current status. She’s a movie star, but one whose movies have gone largely unloved. She’s never had that one defining hit: no Breakfast at Tiffany’s, no Pretty Woman. Her best performances, in To Die For and The Hours, might be described as admirably brittle. Moulin Rouge!, a tsunami of karaoked pop songs, was hardly borne aloft by Kidman’s charms. The Others, a spooky success, was, in essence, an extremely well-art-directed episode of Scooby-Doo. And this summer’s Stepford Wives arrived stillborn. Perhaps audiences felt that, in watching Kidman play a feisty wife who subjugates herself robotically to her husband, they’d already seen this story played out in the tabloids, with better acting.

Kidman’s always been dogged by the charge that she comes off as distant and icy—so much so that nearly every profile of her strains to upend this impression, remarking on her fiery red curls (since straightened and blanched) and her Aussie-bred lust for life. “Bring it on! Consume me! Intoxicate me!” read her quotes on another Vanity Fair cover, as she affected her rapacious, life-gobbling grin. But somehow this pose never takes.

And for all her celebrated beauty, she’s got to be the least carnal movie star around. It’s not for lack of trying: She stripped naked onstage for The Blue Room, and she hasn’t been shy about doffing clothes in recent films, including Birth. Offscreen, she’s been linked to a series of increasingly improbable beaus: Q-Tip, Tobey Maguire, Lenny Kravitz. Yet she can’t spark a sexual charge. Compare her to, say, Angelina Jolie, who makes even wearing an eye patch seem lascivious.This is where Kidman’s story line—the one written after her split from Cruise—may be hurting her as much as it helps. Movie stars are like our very own Greek gods. As they ascend, they come to represent one specific quality: Tom Hanks is the God of Affability; Meg Ryan the Goddess of Button-Cuteness. Now Kidman’s taken her place in this pantheon: She’s the Goddess of Will. It’s a role that inspires admiration but not much affection. Just think back to Julia Roberts’s Oscar win: a hearty human-interest story that everyone could cheer. Kidman’s Oscar win, on the other hand, felt earned but inevitable, like someone battering at a door until it finally gives.

If anything, the stringent discipline of Kidman’s ascent has been both laudable and off-putting, and even harrowing to watch. Greek goddesses lived and breathed in the imagination, but existed in the world as statues, idealized but cold. Kidman may yet rise to the status of full-blooded legend. So far, though, she’s been simply statuesque.

Why is Nicole Kidman so Hard to Love?