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the star market

The Star Market: Can Rabbit Hole Help Nicole Kidman Reconnect With Audiences?

Nicole Kidman has been receiving her best reviews in almost a decade for her performance in Rabbit Hole as a prickly, grieving mother. They couldn't come at a better time. Ever since winning the Oscar back in 2002 for The Hours, the 43-year-old Kidman's box-office clout and art-house cache have been on the decline, pushed along by the residual weirdness of being Tom Cruise's ex and her masklike visage. It's been easy to forget the most basic fact about Kidman: She's a great actress. Can Rabbit Hole and the awards nominations it all but guarantees goose Kidman's career? Can her talent trump and transform her icy rep? Or is it too late? We spoke to industry experts to answer these and that other question: If Nicole Kidman were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Kidman began acting as a teenager in Australia, but came to the attention of American audiences in 1990’s Tom Cruise race-car movie Days of Thunder. On Christmas Eve of that year, she and Cruise, who met on the film, married. By the time she appeared in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 dark comedy To Die For, serving notice that she was a better actress than Mrs. Tom Cruise had any need to be, the couple had adopted two children. Kidman’s stature rose in the years following To Die For, as much owing to her relationship and newfound fashion-icon status (earned with the one infamous chartreuse Galliano dress she wore to the 1997 Oscars) as to her film roles (Portrait of a Lady, The Peacemaker, Batman Forever, Practical Magic).

In 1999, Cruise and Kidman teamed up for the third and most high-profile time on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Between the provocative subject matter (orgies!), Kubrick’s untimely death, and the rumors they’d had to have a sex coach on set, the movie became a total spectacle, and ultimately the pair’s swan song. In 2001, Cruise publicly and suddenly filed for divorce. Perceived as the wronged party, for the first time Kidman enjoyed an outpouring of audience goodwill. She was able to capitalize on this by turning in a pair of performances in The Others and Moulin Rouge that remain among the most lucrative and praised of her career. (The Others was a surprise hit, raking in $209 million; Moulin Rouge scored Kidman her first Oscar nomination.) On a roll, Kidman next donned a fake nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours and won the Academy Award.

Since that career highpoint, Kidman has switched between mainstream projects that have done increasingly poorly (Cold Mountain, Stepford Wives, Bewitched, The Interpreter, Invasion, The Golden Compass) and smaller, serious, actorly films (Dogville, Birth, Fur, Margot at the Wedding), while attracting tabloid attention in 2006 for her marriage to Aussie country singer Keith Urban, in 2007 for her immobile face, and in 2008 for the birth of her daughter.

Peers: “The Kates” are her main competition — Kate Winslet (35) and Cate Blanchett (41) — as well as old friend Naomi Watts (42).

Market Value: Kidman's mainstream movies since The Others have all been flops, some minor, some major. (Minor: Stepford Wives $59 million, The Interpreter $72, Bewitched $63. Major: Australia $50, The Golden Compass $70, The Invasion $15.) The most alarming thing about this string of underperformers is that on paper they’re all solid choices — a Nora Ephron comedy co-starring Will Ferrell, a thriller with Sean Penn, an adaptation of a beloved children's book. In other words, Kidman has been picking smart projects, but she still can’t connect with an audience.

To be fair, while she's been in the box-office desert, Kidman’s put together a résumé so chock-full of serious, challenging, highbrow parts — Dogville, Birth, Fur, and Margot at the Wedding — it puts almost every actress of her stature to shame. (Again, Cate and Kate are her only real competition, though admittedly both have managed to keep their highbrow fare more box-office and awards friendly. Kidman hasn't received an Oscar nomination since she won for The Hours.) But as the buzz around Rabbit Hole proves, Kidman is still taken seriously as a serious actress, she's just not a particularly popular one.

To address just this, Kidman's next two projects are a blatant play for mass appeal. She's appearing in Just Go With It, an Adam Sandler comedy, and Tresspass a Joel Schumacher thriller co-starring Nicolas Cage. Of course Kidman is still Kidman, which means she's doing challenging work too. She'll be playing the writer Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemmingway's third wife, across from Clive Owen in an HBO movie. (Since almost nothing is as guaranteed to be well-received as an HBO film, this seems like a wise move, sure to have Kidman picking up multiple mini-series awards.) And then there's the long-gestating The Danish Girl, based on a true story, and would have Kidman playing the first person to undergo male-to-female gender-reassignment surgery. (Just think, they gave her an Oscar for wearing a funny nose.)

What Hollywood Thinks: Says one rep, “She’s in a bad spot. Sort of at a crossroads. Outside of The Others, she’s been box-office poison. And these roles for fortysomething women are hard to come by. People want to root for Sandy Bullock and Julia Roberts in a movie — they don’t really want to do that with Nicole Kidman."

Both the manager and a publicist agree her frosty persona is to blame for the "bad spot." Says the manager: “I think she comes across as rather cold as an actress. It’s hard to draw sympathy from the audience. In Eyes Wide Shut and The Hours, that quality really worked for her. But it matters. I remember when I read the script to Australia. It was a pretty good script. You have to wonder if they’d cast Naomi Watts, maybe we’d have cared more about this character. Maybe it would have done better. Part of it might be that she was just drawn to these noncommercial, but interesting character pieces." Says a publicist, "“She is completely inaccessible and un-relatable to the majority of the population. And she has the baggage of having been married to Tom Cruise. It's not her fault that he’s seen as so weird, but that’s also unrelatable. Her beauty makes her unattainable, and she doesn’t emit any warmth.”

They suggest that Kidman aggressively try to loosen up. "I would try and put her in something more commercial," says an agent. "I mean that’s what [Kidman’s new manager] Geyer Kosinski did. He signed her, and first thing he did, he put her in the new Adam Sandler movie, Just Go With It. Those things are as close to money in the bank as you can get." The publicist adds, “She has to become and be more real — to both women and men. Don’t just stick yourself on the cover of Vogue. We know how those photos are going to come out. Do something lighter; more of a portrait, something accessible to people. Something smiling, in jeans and T-shirt. Or do a “Funny or Die” video with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Make fun of yourself. Do something that totally pokes at whatever clichés exist around you."

That said, Kidman appears to be trying to do something about her predicament: Her forehead is working again, she's opened up a bit doing press for Rabbit Hole, and she's got that Sandler movie coming up. Most important, she's finally in a film that reminds people of what she does best: acting. Kidman seems all but assured an Oscar nomination for Rabbit Hole, which would be her first nomination since The Hours. She has to use that part and the related hoopla to take a bit of the edge off her ice-queen persona, or all Kidman's talent won't to be enough to keep her career thriving through her forties.

That said, Kidman appears to be trying to do something about her predicament: Her forehead is working again, she's opened up a bit doing press for Rabbit Hole, and she's got that Sandler movie coming up. Most important, she's finally in a film that reminds people of what she does best: acting. Kidman seems all but assured an Oscar nomination for Rabbit Hole, which would be her first nomination since The Hours. She has to use that part and the related hoopla to take a bit of the edge off her ice-queen persona, or all Kidman's talent won't to be enough to keep her career thriving through her forties.

Bottom Line: Kidman's got chops, and the guts to use them, but no common touch. If Rabbit Hole catches on, she'll be in better shape than she was before, but not quite in the clear. At this point, only a hit, or an Oscar can do that for her.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Hold, for now: If she doesn't get an image bump from Rabbit Hole, sell.

Photo: Mejia/Asadorian/Splash News