This story originally ran on July 13, 2017. We’re republishing it ahead of Sunday night’s Emmy Awards.
The nominations for the 69th annual Emmy Awards have been announced, which is the perfect opportunity to reopen old wounds. Who got snubbed? Who “deserves” to win? No category feels as weighty, as internecine, as jam-packed with Oscar nominees as Best Actress in a Limited Series or Movie: Jessica Lange! Susan Sarandon! And of course, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman for their performances in HBO’s Big Little Lies. We know you loved both of them, but as per the dictates of American meritocracy: There can only be one. So who gave your favorite performance? Was it Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Monterey helicopter mom Madeline Martha Mackenzie or Nicole Kidman’s quietly, then ferociously, devastating role as Celeste Wright? Pull on a chunky knit and get your throwing wine, because we’re picking sides.
E. Alex Jung: All right, Vultures. Obviously this category is stacked, but this race feels like it’s between Reese and Nicole for Big Little Lies. The irony, of course, is that both women are here in part because their performances helped each other. So to start us off: What have been your favorite moments? And if we’re picking Emmys clips for both of them, what would you choose?
Funnily enough, one of my favorite scenes features both of them. Madeline and Celeste are in the car after defending a legal battle against Renata in Monterey. You get to see Madeline, powered by righteousness and bright prints, gloat in victory, but more importantly, it’s Celeste who suddenly snaps awake. When Madeline tells her, “Your face looked different; your body changed,” she’s right. Celeste realizes how much of herself she has had to suppress in her marriage, and a light turns on. There’s a moment of unbridled joy that only a friend like Madeline could bring out of her, but simultaneously, there’s dread too, because now that she’s awake, what does she do next? It’s marvelous to watch how the feeling of liberation can feel threatening, too.
Jen Chaney: That car scene is also my favorite, Alex. I just watched it again and it made me cry for probably the 18th time. I love Witherspoon’s “I want more!” and her gentle concern for Celeste. And Kidman in that scene is just: wow. Her face illustrates, with a new expression every millisecond, the precise inner conflict to which you’re referring. She’s trying so hard to suppress waterworks, because breaking down means potentially revealing what’s going on with Perry, and she’s not ready to do that. Kidman’s body language, the way she rapidly shakes her head or whimpers softly, then regains her voice, is a constant series of course corrections designed to maintain equilibrium. I cited that scene to make the point that BLL was something far deeper and more meaningful than just a trashy soap, not only because of how dialed-in both of the actors are, but also because of the substance of their conversation, which focuses on the guilt mothers feel for not completely sacrificing themselves to the altar of parenting. That feeling has been expressed before on television, in film, in literature. It’s not new. But the way these two women navigate the conversation makes it feel new.
Jackson McHenry: When talking about favorite Big Little Lies moments, I think we need to carve out a small space for Laura Dern’s exquisite fury as Renata, whether she’s screaming or plotting to take down Madeline’s production of Avenue Q. But since we’re talking about the leads, I want to reflect on Reese’s full-on commitment to Madeline’s love of community theater. The show’s Avenue Q subplots made for some of its campiest elements, but Witherspoon gives Madeline just enough mania for you to understand just how important the ability to control — well, anything — is to her. Of course, we can’t forget the scene where Madeline mistakes Sade for Adele, or her delivery of the line “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” I like that it’s half self-conscious — she’s letting you in on a joke about her, but not really. She knows she’s too much for most people, but never lets that stop her.
Celeste shines in Big Little Lies’ darker hours. Kidman, as many have said, draws you in with this powerful stillness in her therapy scenes, and each and every one feels like a tour de force in a slightly different way — especially how Kidman registers Celeste’s slow but certain realization of how trapped she really is. My favorite Celeste scenes, however, come in episode six, when she visits and later goes back to the apartment where she’s considering moving to with her kids in order to escape her abusive husband, Perry. In a space of her own, she feels both resolve and terror, free and trapped. Other actors might need dialogue to get all that across — Nicole Kidman just has to look at the ocean.
Angelica Jade Bastién: It’s hard to pick just a few favorite moments from the series. Big Little Lies is rich with moments that burrowed under my skin either because they were laced the kind of bitchy, biting humor I love or they were surprisingly tender. When it comes to the two actresses in question, there are a few scenes in particular I want to draw attention to. One of the most important attributes of being a great actor is the ability to truly listen and react. (I have to thank critic Sheila O’Malley for bringing this up in regards to another performance in Big Little Lies.) It’s fascinating to watch Kidman and Witherspoon in scenes that require their characters to listen. When Madeline recounts her intense run-in turned makeout session with the director of the Avenue Q production she’s obsessed with, Joseph, I was first so overcome with laughter that I didn’t realize how present Celeste is as a listener. Everything she’s thinking can be read on Kidman’s face — curiosity, puzzlement, joy. She also can see Madeline more clearly than she can see herself. It’s also just a wonderful scene that further establishes the bond between these women as well as their differences and secrets.
Meanwhile, anytime Renata gets on Madeline’s nerves leads to a moment that allows Witherspoon to shine — in these scenes, she’s equal parts hilarious and vengeful.
I’ll mention just one more moment otherwise I fear I’ll end up just talking about the entire series! The sex scenes between Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård are an acting master class. One of the most instructive examples of the toxicity at the heart of their marriage is also more subtle than other, overtly violent scenes. It’s when Celeste is in the shower and Skarsgård’s Perry worms his way back into her heart with diamonds and sexual gratification. What struck me most is how this scene encapsulates the defining aspects of Celeste: She’s wounded. This is clear physically, of course, since bruises color her body, which makes the sexiness of the scene take on a completely different tone. The tentativeness of her kiss and her initial timidity in this scene speaks volumes.
EAJ: Now, this is probably because I’ve internalized Top Chef where miscooking the protein is one of the inviolable rules of the show, but I feel like we should address the dead kangaroo in the room: Do you think Nicole Kidman’s accent detracts from an otherwise flawless performance?
I think Kidman’s performance is so strong that ultimately it doesn’t matter, but it feels like a technical flaw — something that anyone can point to. There are moments, particularly earlier on, where you can hear her Aussie accent peeking through, which made me wonder if she was just a highly assimilated Australian-American. (But it’s also hard for me to say as sometimes her accent is more in the level of “bare whisper.”) It does make me wish that they would have just let her character be Australian, and for that matter, Skarsgård could have just been Swedish, and they could just be that fabulously wealthy international couple.
JC: Alex, this has been a sticking point for you since the series began. We talked about it on the Vulture TV Podcast (RIP, podcast), even. That sort of thing often does bug me, but in this case it did not, partly because I didn’t feel like it slipped in so drastically as to be a distraction. Like you said, Celeste often speaks softly, so when the accent creeps in, it’s sort of a light, whispery intrusion. I also assumed that maybe she was originally from Australia or elsewhere, even though the show never explicitly says this. She brings so much distinctly feminine heft to her performance that I was willing to let minor accent issues slide.
JM: I do find it funny that TV’s filled with characters who all seem to hail from the same mid-ocean island where everyone whisper-lisps in the same not-quite-American way (see also Damien Lewis in Billions or Rose Leslie in The Good Fight). Alex, I agree that Celeste would have been just as compelling if she were Australian (if not more — it would be a nice shout-out to the book!), but once the show, and Kidman, started to dig deep into Celeste and Perry’s relationship, I tended to pay less attention to Kidman’s accent inconsistencies. Maybe that’s a feat in itself.
AJB: I actually thought the Australian accent slipping in occasionally was deliberate. One of things we learn about Celeste as she gets into therapy is how she’s given up her entire life and moved to be with Perry. I imagined trying to scrub away her natural accent was a way to make her fit into this world and life. Of course, it wouldn’t work entirely, hence the accent bubbling up. So I saw it as a purposeful decision on Kidman’s part in order to nod to Celeste’s backstory we never hear of explicitly.
EAJ: Well, now it’s game time: I know this is a bit like trying to distinguish Celeste’s twins, but if you’re voting, who are you putting at the top of your ballot?
For my part, I’d have to give the edge to Kidman. In many ways, Witherspoon had the range. She was bright and bold and big and could hit the high notes, but she could also let the moments of vulnerability creep in, particularly in her scenes with her elder daughter. She’s the Mariah Carey of this show. But with Kidman, there was an ache that welled up from that bottomless, subterranean part of you that you close off from other people, including yourself. Kidman touches that part; it’s like when you swim out so far into the ocean, the water suddenly becomes cold and it catches your breath, because you realize how deep it is. It’s terrifying and magnificent.
JC: I have to say, I feel a little weird being forced to choose between these two women given that they starred in a show that was ultimately about female solidarity.
Sorry, sorry, I know we have a specific question to answer here. So I will do my duty and answer it by saying, with very mixed feelings, that I’m … Team Nicole. I loved Witherspoon in Big Little Lies. Like, loved her so much I wrote more than 1,000 words about how much I loved her and thought her role in this represents the best work of her career. But the thing about Witherspoon’s performance is it’s the one that immediately announces itself from the very first episode of BLL. As the narrative progress, she takes Madeline to some emotionally deeper places than one might initially expect, but I think of her performance as the showier, bigger one. Which makes total sense: Madeline is a big, showy type of person.
As Celeste, Kidman sneaks up on you. Only as the story moves forward do we truly understand the scope of her abuse and her stubborn insistence on swallowing and suppressing her pain. Celeste is fighting a battle with her husband, but she’s fighting an even tougher one within herself, and Kidman subtly but very powerfully shows us how Celeste ping-pongs between denial and anguished terror, especially in the therapy scenes. Honestly, I think both of them deserve an Emmy. But if there can’t be a tie and only one of them can win, I have to go Kidman. Witherspoon completely knocked me out in Big Little Lies. But Kidman shattered me.
JM: I agree that it’s hell to decide between these two performances. Ideally, the entire Big Little Lies cast should would be handed a bunch of Emmys tied up in a beach towel to spread out in the sand the next time they all vacation in Monterey. I also agree that Kidman and Witherspoon are giving two different types of performances, which both serve the story in complementary, but distinct ways.
As Madeline, Witherspoon had to dial up her manic energy to levels she hasn’t since Election, without alienating the audience’s sympathy. It’s an external kind of performance, and it’s no wonder Witherspoon shone brightest in the first few episodes, since she got to be the shiniest thing in the school pick-up line. As Celeste, Kidman’s all interior turmoil, her facade giving way like rock turning to molten lava — slowly, and under intense pressure. Sample any BLL scene or GIF: Witherspoon is always moving; on Kidman, an eyelid feels tectonic. Going into this conversation, I’d put Kidman ahead by a hair just for her immense level of control, but Witherspoon deserves credit for establishing so much of the show’s very tone in her performance, and I don’t want to discount that. In the end, I’m Team Witherspoon.
AJB: These performances complement each other and both represent two highly different performance styles I’ve been obsessed with since I first discovered the artistry of acting, watching the way Bette Davis would jab her cigarette to punctuate sentences. Reese Witherspoon strangely reminded me of Davis’s energy given the anger boiling just beneath the surface of Madeline and her deliciously exaggerated facial expressions.
She’s not only a joy to watch because she gets the best lines. She also brings unexpected pathos and humanity to a role that could easily have been played as a joke. But as much as I love the performance, I’d rank Nicole Kidman’s work as being the greater of the two just slightly. Part of the reason I say this is personal. It is so rare for me to watch depictions of therapy sessions and domestic violence that I feel embody the nuances and contradictions of these dynamics. Kidman brings layers to Celeste. She’s remarkably subtle and reserved, but every gesture carries immense weight. It’s amazing how even a change of inflection or minor facial expression seems to tell us the entire history and emotional landscape of a woman being pushed to the edge. Kidman’s performance haunted me the way few actors have in recent memory.