Fans of Nicole Kidman know she’s no slouch. For decades, the actress has demonstrated her chops, braving the cold waters of high camp, the effulgent fantasy of the modern musical, the lonely life of a Southern belle, even a famous prosthetic nose to become one our most beguiling and discussed big-screen thespians. And thanks to a standout performance on the HBO mini-series Big Little Lies this year, Kidman is raking in praise like never before. A recent BuzzFeed article by Anne Helen Petersen, “How Many Times Does Nicole Kidman Have to Prove Herself?”, questioned the nature of this reappraisal. Why, Petersen asks, is an actress so meticulous and iconic reconsidered so often? “Issues” like her famous ex-husband, famous current husband, plastic surgery, and ties to Scientology are cited, all reminders that while famous men often eschew their entanglements, famous women are frequently defined by them.
Now that Big Little Lies may have drawn new adherents to the Church of Kidman, people previously unexposed to her master-class filmography may need a primer. Here is a sampling of the underrated, stellar work Kidman has been turning in since the 1980s, roles that prove she’s multifaceted, engrossing, and willing to get weird. In other words, she’s the most interesting — and, frankly, the best — actress of her generation.
1. Dead Calm
This adaptation of a 1963 Charles Williams novel was almost put to screen by Orson Welles, though his version was never completed. Instead, it became a 1989 high-seas thriller starring Sam Neill, Billy Zane, and a 21-year-old Nicole Kidman. The film was Kidman’s first big success, and led to her casting in Days of Thunder, her international breakthrough (and the film that introduced her to Tom Cruise). But it’s here that we first see the superstar Kidman would become. As she and Neill are tortured by Zane’s sociopathic Hughie, she displays a gravitas that extends far beyond her years. She’s gripping and intelligent; you can’t take your eyes off her. It’s her “star is born” moment.
2. To Die For
Depending on your circle, this one may not qualify as “underrated.” The 1995 Gus Van Sant satire is well-remembered for Kidman’s galvanizing turn as a ruthless news anchor and contains star-making performances from Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix as the high-school students she manipulates into killing her husband. It’s the part that helped Kidman transcend her status as Mrs. Tom Cruise, and her $2 million paycheck cemented her as a bankable Hollywood actress. Still, the dark comedy lacks mainstream pop-culture appeal and is sometimes sidestepped in Kidman conversations.
3. The Portrait of a Lady
It’s a shame Kidman hasn’t done more costume dramas since she has just the face and body to lend vulnerability and fluidity to stiff corsets and repressive layers of fabric. She demonstrates this ability in Jane Campion’s 1996 adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, where she shares the screen with maestros like John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey, but remains the movie’s centerpiece. As Isabel, her even face guides us through every revelation, every flush of passion. As men bide for her hand, she considers them with her trademark steely grace. The film itself comes up a little short, but every performance is stellar, and Kidman is the anchor. She will team up with Campion later this year for the second season of Top of the Lake.
4. Practical Magic
As Gillian Owens, a sensual witch whose talents pale in comparison to her more naturally gifted sister, Sally (Sandra Bullock), Kidman uses her serpentine body like an instrument. She’s seductive and funny, and later in the film, when she’s possessed by her dead lover, she slips easily into tortured and venomous. Practical Magic has seen a recent renaissance as witch culture grows popular among young women finding power in the message of nature and sisterhood. Kidman and Bullock sell that message well. Both are entrancing and lovable, elevating the film above the rom-com trappings used to market it.
5. Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final film remains polarizing. The auteur famously tapped real-life couple Cruise and Kidman to play a husband and wife in the throes of sexual panic, and also famously died before he could wrap up postproduction. The result is a distant, bizarre portrait of a marriage torn open by doubt and jealousy. Cruise gets most of the screen time, but Kidman is the real sizzler. Her bedroom speech about a sexual fantasy is the movie’s bedrock moment. The camera barely leaves her face as she rides a tidal wave of guilt, emotion, and regret. The scene also lays bare the film’s central theme: that we’ll never fully understand the multitudes our partners contain, and that maybe it’s better that way.
A young boy claims to be the reincarnated version of a woman’s dead husband. That’s the bizarre plot of Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s divisive 2004 drama. Kidman, as the mourning wife about to be remarried, is mesmerizing, her pixie cut and demure mannerisms evoking Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby — curious in an increasingly ominous situation. That she’s able to briskly sell us on the possibility of the child’s claim is no easy feat. One notable scene focuses the camera firmly on her face as she sits in the audience of an opera. The arch music accents her emotion, her eyes communicating the conflict taking place in her id with a subtle crescendo. It’s a stunning piece of work in a film that demonstrates her keen eye for projects you won’t soon forget, whether you like them or not.
7. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Fur has its limitations. Truly capturing the mind’s eye of famed photographer Diane Arbus is an impossible task, and despite its best attempts, Fur never quite gets there. But it’s not aiming for reality. Director Steven Shainberg creates a fantasy situation where Arbus, played by Kidman, explores the fringes of society after meeting a man covered in fur, played by Robert Downey Jr. As with Birth, you see a Kidman who’s not afraid to get downright strange. She is somehow able to makes a shaving scene oddly sensual. It’s a weird film with a weird premise made substantial by the subtleties of both Kidman and Downey.
8. Rabbit Hole
Kidman received an Oscar nomination for her work in Rabbit Hole, but it has since receded into the less memorable regions of her filmography. It’s a shame, because it’s some of her finest work, and probably the most similar to her eventual performance on Big Little Lies. As Becca Corbett, a mother whose 4-year-old son was recently killed in a car accident, Kidman is absolutely devastating. Her grief doesn’t fit into a neat little box. As her husband, played by Aaron Eckhart, goes to grief counseling, she strikes up a relationship with the young man who ran over her child. Her performance is a kaleidoscope of sorts; twist the knob and you get something new every time. She can be light on her toes one minute, and destroyed by pain the next. It’s a portrait of grief that never feels preachy. Kidman is astounding.
9. The Paperboy
The Paperboy features a much talked about but seldom seen Kidman performance — one that really, really must be seen to be believed. Yes, she pees on Zac Efron and orgasms in a courtroom. But the whole performance is a schlocky, camp-fueled tour de force. Even a rotten spray tan and bottle-blonde hair can’t betray Kidman’s natural beauty, but she goes to great depths to make herself grotesque. The film was mostly maligned, which is a shame, because it’s a ton of fun, and in addition to Kidman’s bravado work, it also features great turns from Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo and John Cusack.
Perhaps the most criminally under-seen and under-loved film in the Kidman oeuvre, Stoker is a feast of gothic delight, like a Shirley Jackson novel animated by Edward Gorey then filmed to life by director Park Chan-wook, in his first English-language film. Kidman plays Evelyn Stoker, mother to India (Mia Wasikowska), in a nasty, delicious play on rivalry between attractive families. After the death of India’s father and the arrival of his handsome brother, mother and daughter must vie for his attention in equally despicable ways. As India undergoes a sexual awakening that aligns her passions with violence, Evelyn must find it in herself to love the daughter that sucked away her husband’s devotion. Weirdly, it winds up being bravely feminist and powerful. But before it arrives at that conclusion, we get another trademark Kidman monologue, this time about the travails of motherhood. “Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” Evelyn snips to India before devolving into tears. It’s Kidman at her wicked best.