If it seems as if Nicole Kidman has amped up her acting challenges in the past few years, it's no accident. "For 10 years my marriage defined me far more strongly than my work," she says of her union with Tom Cruise. "I wasn't choosing movies for any other reason than dabbling here and there because I thought, Oh, well, I want to keep my hand in." Rarely did a woman depart the dilettante lounge with as much resolve as she. Kidman's postmarital roles have included a clinically depressed writer (Virginia Woolf in The Hours for which she won an Oscar), an abused cleaning lady recovering from the death of her children (The Human Stain), a woman barely getting by during the Civil War (Cold Mountain) and a fugitive victimized by nasty townspeople in the West (Dogville). Sometimes unhappiness is its own reward.
These days Kidman has so many awards and accolades, it's getting boring. But she isn't. She has the ability, like a glass bullet, to carry fragility and force, to be beautiful and a little unnerving. While her work reeks of an almost clinical precision, Kidman's approach is fallible and inexact. "I just feel my way through," she says. "If I had to give an acting class, I wouldn't know what to do."
Though her post-Oscar movies have not been big hits, her new willingness to experiment is being noticed. She gets labeled an ice queen but is more daring than any of her contemporaries of similar box-office clout. Can you see Julia Roberts making a movie as limited in its appeal as Dogville? Kidman is not the first star to play down her beauty for a role, but her bold choices have set a new bar for Hollywood actresses. And now as a producer (In the Cut), she's creating juicy roles for more of them.
She has helped redeem a country too. Sometimes, in a world shared with Rupert Murdoch, the Crocodile Hunter and the Wiggles, it's hard to be Australianas if the country is full of curios and barbarians. Kidman is Australia's best evidence of passion and sophistication, though she doesn't see it. "Really?" she says. "Oh, I'd like to think I have a sliver of vulgarity."