Nicole Kidman turns 50 on Tuesday. It’s hard to believe because 50 seems like middle age and Kidman, with her shiny, ceramic skin and glamorous sense of style, doesn’t look anything like middle age.
Yet, at the same time, it feels as if Kidman has always been here; a fixture of the Australian pop culture landscape, like Neighbours or Dolly (which she graced the cover of back in 1982). She feels to so many of us like the freckly redhead who grew up in the same cul de sac.
It doesn’t matter that age has rendered BMX Bandits and Bangkok Hilton vaguely naff; at the time it felt like our patriotic duty to watch and adore. By the time she starred opposite Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder we felt like a member of our own family had made it.
On Tuesday the actress will have a lot to celebrate; she’s enjoying what many are calling The Nic-aissance. But it’s taken a good while to climb back up the mountain. It’s not that Kidman hasn’t always chosen interesting, challenging roles: singing in Moulin Rouge, turning herself in knots for Dogville, a South African accent in The Interpreter. Her range is impressive. Yet she’s remained strangely modest, squirmy, if you will, in the face of fame. And we have squirmed right back, wondering if she’s the same girl we thought we knew.
Something has recently shifted, though. Right now we view her as authentic; unaffectedly cool – and this is a big call, considering her self-confessed shyness. How did this happen? How did she regain our trust?
She was one of the pioneers; one of the first few Australians to make it in Hollywood. This was helped, in part, by her break-out role in Dead Calm in 1989, and in part by her marriage to the biggest movie star in the world at that time. They married in secret but their public affection was well, a tad OTT. Tom appeared to sniff her neck at film premiers. She nuzzled into him, whispering what we imagine were deeply sensual secrets. (She would continue the performative PDA with Keith Urban).
Then there was the red carpet. In the 1990s, nobody was dressing like Nicole Kidman. Before stylists, the actress wore a Galliano gown the colour of chartreuse to the Oscars in 1997 and changed the course of red carpet fashion.
Together, Kidman and Cruise were golden. They also understood the power of their brand as a couple, making the psycho-sexual drama Eyes Wide Shut in 1999 with Stanley Kubrick.
It’s a great irony that the film they thought would cause intrigue was a flop, and only in the shadow of their breakup did the rigorous analysis of their relationship begin.
Yes, the shock divorce from Tom Cruise in 2001. We had no idea where it came from. It seemed like even Kidman didn’t know. Her grief appeared seeped into films that followed, like The Others, in which she played an unknowing, brittle ghost; and then The Hours, which was ostensibly about the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Kidman wore a prosthetic nose for the role and ended up winning an Oscar. It was sad and strange and yet somehow fitting that Kidman would want to disappear into a depressive person so completely.
The night she won the academy award for best actress she called the loneliest of her life.
And then… it all got a bit weird. Especially Tom Cruise, who seemed ultra-weird, as if the great and powerful Oz was really just an insecure perfectionist wrapped in robotic facade and trapped in a cult.
Kidman was made weird by association. Even when she remarried in 2006, we still had trust issues. We wondered about her kids, Isabella and Connor, from whom she seemed estranged. We wondered about Keith Urban and his time in rehab when they were still newlyweds; we wondered what she meant when she said in an interview that she had never had any work done on her face; that she was ” completely natural.”
And then, along came Big Little Lies. It’s not simply that the HBO series was compelling. At its heart was the story of a secretive marriage, an abusive marriage, that looked to everyone on the outside like the perfect one.
Two good-looking, wealthy people with two adorable kids, living in a waterfront palace with an extremely healthy sex life. Kidman’s character, Celeste, is teased about her near-perfect looks and relationship, while she deflects. We know that the Kidman and Cruise union was not abusive, we collectively believed they were in love.
But the dynamics, the hiddenness, the secrets of the relationship in Big Little Lies gave us the cathartic moment we’ve been craving from Nicole since 2001.
It also happens to be the best acting of her career. The scenes with the therapist have Emmy practically stamped across them. Kidman managed to play a version of the self we long suspected she actually inhabited; moreover, she played a relatable woman. A suburban mum struggling in a toxic marriage.
There it was, the Nic we felt we knew, back here. It’s possible that what Kidman is enjoying now is a version of tall poppy syndrome.
Whatever it is, Kidman has earned the right to kick back and ignore us for her birthday. And, true to her modest persona, she’s said she wants to keep it low-key.
“I don’t need any big parties; I just need my family around me. If I have my family around me I am happy.”