Grace of Monaco is released this weekend, and for those in-the-know, Olivier Dahan’s take on Grace Kelly’s regimented and conflicted Mónegasque, post-Hollywood life has recently been under fire in Cannes Film Festival last month, blowtorched with a hellfire of bile and one-stars enough to topple any actor’s career. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw called it a “breathtaking catastrophe”, while Daily Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin shamed it as “fantastically silly”. The rest of the world jumped into the fire-breathing bandwagon and brayed, as you’d expect. It’s as if Dahan’s film is so physically, psychologically and intellectually abominable than the war going on in Ukraine that it left everyone who saw it in the Palais des Festivals wounded and scathed for life, largely forgetting that there are far worse films that played in Cannes this year – and in a larger context – released in cinemas outside of the French Riviera. Since everyone was in Cannes, probably only five people back in home turf saw Blended, the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore cash-wipe that needs no introduction whatsoever.
I, for one, didn’t think Grace of Monaco was awful and there are certainly far worse films in the entire history of cinema to deserve the opprobrium (altogether now, let’s vomit for Diana). This Grace is flawed, yes, but it’s more a retro, throwback melodrama of the Max Ophüls style that our contemporary collective minds have somehow largely forgotten or ignored. Few scenes, and even Dahan’s camerawork, are reminiscent to the elegant shots in Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame De… (again, a film about a woman ridden with first-world problems that the world unanimously loved – different epoch, different levels of cynicism), and there are palpable nods to the Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk cinema that remain admirable, to say the least. The narrative, swathing quite a few subjects – marital drama, biopic, actor’s portrait, political thriller, espionage, Pygmalion, Red Cross charity ball all wrapped up in a princess movie – swerves dramatically from one scene to the next with little consistency, but Dahan is not known for his subtlety.
And yet despite the pastiche-ridden execution, only one element emerges from the figurative, media-scorched ashes of Grace – Nicole Kidman. The world goes aflame with vitriol and what does Kidman do? Ain’t giving a damn and goes on to work on the six features she’s lined up next. The woman is a dyed-in-the-wool professional, and it’s little wonder why she’s persevered over two decades in the business. A true, talented actor grabs a role by the balls, takes risks, gives it all and never frivolously frets about failure.
In defense of Kidman’s performance in Grace of Monaco, the actress perceptibly brushes aside mere mimicry and narrowed on Grace Kelly’s core essence instead. Kelly’s icy cold looks, movie star demeanour and girlish vocal pitch are all there, but Kidman does something more – she provides an emotional substance that eluded Kelly’s public persona. Kidman manages to be by turns vulnerable, conflicted, angst-ridden, and intermittently fierce and loyal.
But to judge Kidman as a great performer in Grace may be slightly ill-judged in a film mired by fairy tale aesthetics, as the actress has given far more extraordinary turns in her curriculum vitae. Seriously, guys, there isn’t any actress out there who goes from playing white-trash whore in The Paperboy to a regally coutured royalty in Grace of Monaco in roughly a year’s work, to further emphasise Kidman’s rampant versatility. Herein, I’ve listed her ten definitive performances in cinema (and one extra TV stint) to remind you why Kidman is one of the most committed, scintillating and immensely fearless actors to grace our silverscreen.
Just when we all thought Kidman was settling down in the safe zone, within a space of a year, she propelled three distinctive and diverse turns in The Paperboy, Hemingway & Gellhorn and Stoker – but it’s her raucous, wildly unhinged performance as Charlotte Bless in Lee Daniels’ sweat-soaked pulp that deserves a mighty applause. Kidman drops the poise and goes full-on, maximal, Southern white-trash whore this side of John Waters – and in the process, ripping a pantyhose, having a shared telepathic orgasm with John Cusack and pees on Zack Efron’s jellyfish-stung face. Charlize Theron would have done crazy shit like this – but guess what, she didn’t. Kidman ferociously owns every scene she’s in, stealing all the lights from her co-actors and emerges as the film’s most spectacular asset. Her performance is carved out of steel – and despite critics booing this film down – Kidman will forever have my respect for having the sheer balls to do this.
This is perhaps Kidman’s most undervalued performance, overshadowed by the fact that this isn’t one of Noah Baumbach’s stronger films. But if you ever wondered what Kidman would look and sound like in a Woody Allen movie, her scathing, scatological and vile turn as the titular Margot, the world’s most bitter wedding crasher, is most likely the closest chance we get for now. Another testament to Kidman’s predilection for unlikeable characters, her Margot is a despicable creation and seeks no sympathy from her audience whatsoever. Every barb, vicious line and razor-sharp takedown is wince-inducing, but another merit to the actress’ set of fine skills, Margot emerges from the bitch-from-hell character trappings. She’s a terrible human being and she knows it, and Kidman makes this realisation poignant and believable.
Tom Cruise may be the top-billing actor of Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut, dominating the film 80% of the screen-time, but in the 20% that Kidman appears, she gives the more eloquent, devastatingly cruel and very human portrait of a wife on the verge of marital infidelity. The scene alone where her character Alice Harford, in scanty underwear and high on weed, unleashes a ruthless confession of a privately dreamed-up sexual fantasy with another man is one of the most honest, remorseless monologues in cinema, even worthy of an Ingmar Bergman. Kidman showing some skin serves as a distraction, but it’s her emotionally naked performance that sets this film reeling into the Illuminati circle of sex orgies, where Cruise is drawn into. She also has the film’s, and to an extent in Kubrick’s oeuvre, final word: “Let’s fuck”, as spoken with stunning veracity by Kidman, no less.
For those who disagree that Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman bear no resemblance, look no further. Alejandro Amenábar’s classical ghost story The Others offer up a striking similarity between two actresses, and the central role of a haunted post-WWII Catholic matriarch is named Grace (natch). It’s a character that, given the chance of this film being brewed up during Hollywood’s Golden Age, would have ended up in Grace Kelly’s hands. But too bad for Kelly, Kidman nails it down to the ground and gave us one of the finest performances in a horror film, of all-time. You watch it over and over again, and despite the major twist that’s been replicated and spoofed to eternity, it’s Kidman’s haunted gravitas and her deeply affecting emotional awakening that lends that twist still as effective as it is today.
Released the same year as The Others, Baz Lhurmann’s lunatic yet groundbreaking musical Moulin Rouge! is one of the early testaments of Kidman’s propensity for showcasing her limitless versatility and prowess within the range of a calendar year. Covering skills more than any actress can do, she strutted, danced, warbled and acted the hell out of the contemporary courtesan Satine, including breaking two ribs in the name of her sheer commitment to art. Lhurmann executes this musical with a Russian roulette approach, and Kidman’s vibrant, glamorous yet tragic postmodernist heroine is at the centre of this carnival cinema, her emotional range suitably making Satine’s downward spiral all the more heartbreaking.
The performance that launched Kidman back into the game. After a string of mediocre roles in less-than-mediocre films, the actress pulled a self-produced comeback in Rabbit Hole. Hers is a galvanised, complex, multi-layered piece of screen acting, proving Kidman’s affinity with intimate human dramas. Her Becca Corbett doesn’t stereotype the ‘grieving Mum’ character, but rather peels layers leading to the rationale beneath her emotional deep-freeze. Kidman wrings out all manners of expressions rarely seen in the actress’ period of career hibernation. The film’s rawest moments briefly reminds of Cassavetes-level of inspired acting, and if you think Kidman has it easy, feel the pain her character writs large on the screen. It’s no mean feat for any actor to make the audience feel the hurt beyond the fourth wall.
We’ve now all heard about winning Oscars “by the nose”, and it seems unfair that Kidman’s sublimely chameleonic performance as existential author Virginia Woolf has been reduced to lampoonery. Her transformation in The Hours is one of the actress’ most complex, deeply nuanced portrayals of suffering women, even going so far as changing her bodily movements, lowering her voice down to deeper decibels and that piercing stare. It’s a calculated performance, yes, but it’s also wholly, magnificently effective – allowing Woolf’s mental, psychological and indeed existential crisis unravel through Kidman’s ontological interpretation of an artist’s strife. That train scene is enough to quell down the detractors. We forget Kidman. We see Woolf in all her anguish, despair, isolation, sorrow and madness. And that’s more than just an Oscar clip.
Out of Kidman’s prolific filmography, her masterful manifestation in Jonathan Glazer’s much-ballyhooed Birth is perhaps the closest she’ll get to playing a Bergman-esque heroine. Resembling a mix of Jean Seberg (a la pixie cut) and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Kidman projects an image of a contemporary, urbane and middle-class woman, an image that’s soon deconstructed as a ten-year old boy starts claiming to be her dead husband. Glazer’s camera is aloof and distanced at first, but when the mystery abounds, it creeps operatically closer to Kidman’s visage, launching barely suppressed emotions in that face as if it were Liv Ullman acting in front of Bergman’s camera. Kidman is an emotional actor, and that two-minute slow-zoom into her face is one of the most finely calibrated and tremendously precise moments in Kidman’s entire career.
For those who have seen Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, you can certainly justify that Kidman’s comedic talent is something that’s severely underrated in her oeuvre. And the finest showcase of her comic skill is manifested in the monumentally delusional, overly ambitious small-town weather girl Suzanne Stone, a character that still remains one of the best representations of power-hungry, publicity-starved fame whores in cinema. Kidman reaches the levels of media satire, as brilliantly encapsulated by Faye Dunaway in Network, a towering feat since this was released in 1995, back when Kidman was under her then-husband Tom Cruise’s shadow. No one expected that a Hollywood A-lister’s wife would do something so profoundly scabrous and magnetic as this, as Kidman delivers a riotously funny, electric, downright sexual and demented as this. Indeed, an early sign of Kidman’s principle in acting: work not to please, but to perform and subsequently, impress.
Of the few Graces that Kidman played throughout her career, it’s her Grace Mulligan in Lars von Trier’s vivid and powerful social deconstruction Dogville that the actress has met her ace card. By stripping off cinematic affectations to its cold, Brechtian bare bones, the genius of von Trier allows us to focus instead of what Dogville is trying to dissect, and in turn, observing the actors that navigate in the cinematic space. Kidman, who conveys startling meticulousness, goes down the abyss of social humiliation, sexual abuse and profound suffering in the scope of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and this dehumanised and demoralised Grace is perhaps von Trier’s most wrenching portrait of female suffering. Backstage, it’s been widely reported that Kidman suffered her own in demons and with von Trier’s exhausting direction, but suffice to say, that torment is very much palpable in her art. Her final vengeance wrecked upon her adopted society is made all the more devastating, and a vindication of Kidman’s COMMITMENT as both an actor and artist.
The line “not dead yet, you fuck” in HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn might as well be Kidman’s brave takedown to any of her detractors. Y’all criticise this woman, but at the end of the day we’re all just critics, and she’s Nicole Kidman, the screen legend. No prize for guessing who wins in this argument.