I can think of no better illustration of the different ways an actor can succeed in Hollywood than Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who’s currently starring in HBO’s “The Undoing.”
The pair, whose marriage diverged just as their careers did, clearly think about their work very differently. Both are stars. But while Cruise cranks out action movies that are as blockbusting as they are indistinguishable (even the titles sound the same: “Never Go Back,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Oblivion”), Kidman consistently chooses the weirdest projects she can find. Cruise makes money; Kidman makes art.
One of the most intriguing movies either made, they made together: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” While it’s an outlier in Cruise’s career, it fits a template that has guided Kidman ever since she got past the girlfriend-of-some-dude roles she was initially offered. Kidman consistently allies herself with visionary directors — big names such as Kubrick and bolder choices such as Park Chan-wook (“Stoker”) — and pledges to do whatever they need, even if it meant devoting nearly two years to a role, as she did for Kubrick.
In a fascinating interview with David Marchese, Kidman said not only that she wished Marchese would ask harder questions, but that she likes tough directors who force her to dig into painful, difficult territory.
Going back as far as “Dead Calm,” the tense Australian thriller that brought her to Hollywood’s attention and that hinges on us believing her character is more complicated than the script suggests, you can pick almost any period of her career and see how that plays out. Close your eyes and stick a pin in 2017, for example, when she did five projects, each with one of the world’s most compelling directors.
There’s a movie Kidman probably hoped would be a hit, the feel-good “The Upside,” which didn’t turn out well but paired her with Neil Burger, whose movies include the riveting, tiny-budget “Interview With the Assassin.” There’s the bizarre “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose next movie would be the Oscar-winning “The Favourite.” There’s an experiment that didn’t quite work with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” creator John Cameron Mitchell, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” There’s “The Beguiled,” under the direction of Sofia Coppola. And there’s the miniseries “Top of the Lake” with trailblazer Jane Campion, who previously directed Kidman in a nervy “The Portrait of a Lady.” Many actors don’t work with that many top talents over the course of a career, but Kidman did it in one year.
You could point out that not everything on that list was great, but part of creating art is taking risks, knowing it’s not going to be a masterpiece every time. The thing about Kidman’s prolific career is that there are misfires, including on rare occasions when she chases the box office, as with the Adam Sandler comedy “Just Go With It.” But even her duds are worth seeing: “The Paperboy” is a garish mess, but her cornpone accent and brazen horniness are big fun. “Aquaman” is as overstuffed as most superhero movies but she brings heart and calm to her role as a mysterious mom. She outclasses the script in “Destroyer,” but short of Catherine O’Hara on “Schitt’s Creek,” has anyone ever worn a wackier collection of wigs?
When the experiment works, as it does in these seven favorites, the results are incredible.
You can tell how weird it is by how hard the generic trailer works to convince us it’s not weird. Lars von Trier’s drama unfolds in nine chapters, set on a bare stage with chalk outlines to indicate the “set,” and acting and plotting that remind us we’re watching something closer to a filmed play than a movie. Kidman’s most stripped-down acting draws us into the mind of a drifter, enslaved by residents of a Colorado town, who eventually seeks revenge.
Kidman occasionally picks projects because they’ll be fun, as with next month’s “The Prom,” where she’ll be a dizzy bombshell, and this children’s classic, where she’s basically Cruella de Vil. Kidman’s taxidermist wants to catch and stuff the titular teddy bear, and yes, her performance is as cheerfully perverse as that sounds.
Kidman came to Hollywood to make “Days of Thunder” with Cruise, but it took five years to establish herself as a talent in her own right. She beat out many top female actors for the role of a scheming “weathergirl” who believes “you’re not anything in America unless you’re on TV,” which is fascinating because Kidman herself usually seems to be running away from fame.
“Over the top” is not generally a phrase you’d use to describe a Kidman performance, but it does apply to quite a few of her movies. It’s true of both in this thriller, where she channels “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”-era Bette Davis in what resembles a kinky 1950s psychodrama such as “Suddenly Last Summer.” This romantic-triangle thriller finds Kidman as a viper in a house where almost everyone is capable of killing to get what they want.
Baz Luhrmann’s Paris-set musical is a lot. Outsized performances, song mash-ups, multiple story lines and assaultive camera moves make for a sometimes-exhausting experience (not just for us — in dedication to Luhrmann’s vision, Kidman had dressers cinch her corset so tight that she broke a rib). It’s dazzling, but it would feel empty if it weren’t for Kidman’s humanity as the showgirl at the center of the fireworks.
Kidman played Grace Kelly in “Grace of Monaco,” which was not a great idea because Kelly is so singular. But Kidman projects a Kelly-like, placid elegance as a haunted British mother in this effective ghost story, which has been showing up a lot on cable TV lately.
Kidman is just as willing to grab a flashy lead in an indie movie as a supporting role in an ensemble piece such as the excellent “The Hours,” which earned her an Oscar, and this one. She projects calm decency (and doesn’t overdo the accent, thank you) as Minnesota native Gretchen Carlson, helping lead the charge against Fox News’ sexist honcho Roger Ailes.