HBO’s Big Little Lies has caused many people to notice that Nicole Kidman is very good at acting. This may seem like a surprising discovery, given that on the night the second episode of Big Little Lies debuted, Kidman was attending the Academy Awards, where she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the movie Lion. But movie stars’ worth dwindles if it is not constantly renewed, and, as Anne Helen Petersen argued at BuzzFeed, Kidman has never stopped having to prove herself. Kidman, Petersen writes, has been described as “a revelation” over and over again, as if the depth of her talent were a continual surprise, and although she’s taken on plenty of “serious” roles, Kidman has never quite succeeded in branding herself as a capital-A actor the way, say, Cate Blanchett has. When the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s John Ourlser pitted the two against each other in a Twitter poll, he found, to his horror, that Blanchett wiped the floor with her fellow Aussie redhead, by a margin of 2 to 1.
Variety critic Guy Lodge was similar dismayed at the lack of Kidman propers. So he created the Kidman World Cup, a bracket-style tournament of Twitter polls designed to determine the one Kidman performance to rule them all. The first round, composed of eight four-way contests, had plenty of clunkers: Strangerland netted a fitting 1 percent of its bracket’s 716 votes, with such forgotten films as Billy Bathgate and The Interpreter lagging not far behind. But as soon as the round of 16, the decisions started to get tough. To Die For swept to a well-deserved victory over Paddington, and The Others rightfully trounced Lion. But picking between Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady was a tough call, and while Birth is a masterpiece and features what may be the best performance of Kidman’s entire career, it hurt to pass over the also-deserving Stoker. Tightest of all was the head-to-head battle between The Hours, which won Kidman a Best Actress Oscar, and Rabbit Hole, which got her another nomination for her raw-nerve performance as a grieving mother.* If more people had seen Rabbit Hole, that last one might well have swung the other way.
The quarter-finals were brutal, and the semis promise to be more brutal still. Look how tight the last two rounds are! At the moment, with over 800 votes cast in each, To Die For leads Moulin Rouge! by only a two-point margin, with Birth enjoying a six-point lead over The Others. (Twitter will show you the current standings after you cast your own vote.) As an impartial journalist, I would, of course, never suggest how you should vote, but if you want to listen to the director of the Oscar-winning Moonlight, well, that’s your business.
Some actors, even great ones, are defined by a single performance, but Kidman has been so good in so many different ways that it’s almost impossible to choose. How do you measure the naked simplicity of Birth against the heightened artifice of Dogville, or the satirical stylization of To Die For against the soul-scraping honesty of Eyes Wide Shut? What that final four underlines, among other things, is that Kidman has become a movie star without a star persona. There is no Nicole Kidman type. If she seems aloof or icy, a refrain that, Petersen notes, has followed her throughout her career, perhaps it’s because she’s never reduced herself to one, easily knowable thing. At worst, that leaves some of her performances feeling superficial and technique-bound; she can’t fall back on her usual thing, the way Robert DeNiro or Samuel L. Jackson so often do, because there is no usual thing. But it also means that Kidman always maintains the ability to surprise us, and if the tantalizing images of her turn in Campion’s upcoming second season of Top of the Lake are any indication, she’s about to do it again.
The Kidman World Cup is down to its final rounds, but there is still time to make your voice heard—and to remember that no matter which performance comes out ahead, the Kidmannaissance is always with us.
Update, April 8: The Kidman World Cup final is underway. Vote!
*Correction, April 8, 2017: This post originally misstated that Kidman’s Oscar nomination for Rabbit Hole was as a supporting actress. It was for Best Actress, not supporting actress.