Nicole Kidman, Catlike

In praise of the best physical actress we have

Australian actress Nicole Kidman arrives for the premiere of "Being The Ricardos" at the Academy Mus...
Rafaela Bassili

Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin's latest writing-directing effort put out by Amazon Studios last month, is not funny. This isn’t surprising, given that Sorkin can kill a joke faster than his characters walk down a hallway. It doesn’t help that Nicole Kidman is not necessarily the first person you might think of to portray Lucille Ball, arguably the twentieth-century’s funniest woman. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kidman admitted comedies aren't easy for her, that she doesn't "get cast in them," perhaps "because of [her] personality." Perhaps, but I think it has just as much to do with her body: the solemnity implied by the strange, particular way she has of moving around.

Certainly Nicole Kidman doesn’t need to be a comedy superstar, and she is by no means an underrated actress. She's won many awards: Oscars, Emmys, a firm place in the cultural imagination. But the thing is, I think she’s wrong about her ability to do comedy well. Kidman is, at times, excellent as Ball, particularly in the way she shares with the late comic a talent for uncanniness. When Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball have their first romantic moment together, he tells her, "There's something about your physicality… You're kinetically gifted." It's maybe the truest line in the film, as much of Ball as of Kidman. They're two ends of a spectrum: Here was Ball, who could make an audience burst into laughter by raising an eyebrow; here's Kidman, who can make you feel a prickling on the back of your neck by standing very still and darting her eyes around the room.

She channels Ball most vigorously in the parts of Being the Ricardos when we actually get to see scenes from I Love Lucy, which are few and far in between — her voice, in particular, pitched to the high timbre of Lucy's own. She stomps on grapes in an extraordinary effort to mimic the show's famous episode, but watching the two clips side by side, and as aptly as Kidman is able to nail Ball's facial expressions, those right angles betray the identity of their artist. Ball's elbows curve, Kidman's take sharp turns. She's too tall, her limbs too long, her body too much hers to be anyone else's. She's an auteur, and this is her signature: She transcends her characters, forcing the viewer to come face to face with the undeniability of her work.

Kidman's physicality is her trademark, the thing that simultaneously elevates the watching experience and undermines the viewer's usual suspension of disbelief: the way she moves is itself a reminder of the unfolding artistry in front of us. It's true that while watching Being the Ricardos, I was thinking less Lucille Ball and more Nicole Kidman in the fifties, but to Sorkin's (slight) credit, I'm always thinking this, during every Nicole Kidman movie, good and bad. I sit there, hypnotized, wondering how she does it.

Nicole Kidman's characters, whether they're channeling a real-life figure or a fictional one, flow organically out of her feline, sharp-angled, horror-movie-perfect body, never losing the eeriness that trademarks her work. Like a cat, she's sleek, and like a cat she seems to be in touch with some profound mystery of the universe. There's no one quite like her to play a character whose reactions to her surroundings are belied by darker forces. In Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell's 2010 film adaptation of the play by David Lindsay-Abaire, her usual cadence gives body to grief-stricken anger as a bereaved mother, an oscillation between whispering tones and shouting complemented by a particular way she has of throwing her arms up and away, gesturing, it seems, to everything they and we are failing to see. (For what it's worth, Rabbit Hole, a film so profoundly sad I had the urge to stare at the ceiling for hours after I saw it, is much funnier than Sorkin's rendition of Lucille Ball, maybe because JCM has artistic integrity.)

This gear-shifting is part of her artistry, and it's what Sorkin failed to see and Kubrick banked on: In Eyes Wide Shut, which is often hilarious, she drags her emotions to the tip of her tongue and rolls them there, like a teenager tying a cherry stem, before exploding in anger, spitting the stem at us. She speaks and moves so slowly in that film; it occurred to me that in the hands of a lesser actor, the effect would read as forceful, like an unsexy person's idea of what sex appeal is. During the famous monologue in which her character recounts her sexual fantasies to her husband, she paces her gestures to her cadence, taking forever to move a hand from her head to her knee — and then collapsing on the ground in a loud fit of laughter, breaking the ellipsis of her speech.

Like a cat, she's sleek, and like a cat she seems to be in touch with some profound mystery of the universe.

Watching Kidman perform is almost frightful, like looking directly at the sublime. About halfway through Jonathan Glazer's 2004 film Birth, there is a center-piece moment: A two-minute close-up on Kidman’s protagonist Anna, a widow who is visited by her late husband reincarnated in a ten-year-old’s body, as she sits in an orchestra. Anna has just willed herself into believing that the boy's warning she should not marry her fiancé is coming from higher places. The film is an exploration of grief and eternity, and in that moment, as the orchestra swells around her, Kidman's face becomes an emblem of eternity in itself, the emotions roiling under her welled-up, focused eyes passing like clouds on a stormy sky. Looking at her sitting like that, holding my breath, I almost felt like I was turning to stone.

It's been a long time since Kidman has gone from actress to movie star, and as such, her particular place in the cultural consciousness has taken many shapes. But even with a narrow escape from Scientology and a public divorce with Tom Cruise to talk about, we seem to get stuck in the long trajectories of her body: The way she clapped her hands, like the Grinch or a beautiful alien, at the 2017 Oscars; her post-divorce jubilance, the freedom in the way she arched her arms back, her neck extended upwards; the recent AMC commercial, memed to exhaustion in certain corners of film Twitter, in which she delivers a sentimental speech about movie magic. Kidman is not very often the target of scrutinized scandal, but every now and again she'll pop up on the Internet as a meme, signaling a particular variety of strangeness. The essential reactions in those situations are unremarkable — clapping, feeling relieved, looking up at a screen — but Kidman's embodiment of them gives them new force; an electrifying, otherworldly appeal. Walking in the rainy AMC parking lot, stabbing the floor with her heels and entering the dark movie theater, she makes the commercial look like a horror movie trailer, in all the best possible ways. Shed of her acting veil, we're left with the presence of a woman whose sex appeal is so fierce, and whose strangeness is so pointed — though so undefinable — that it transforms her body into a kind of mystery, always suggesting something.

At the beginning of her career, it often suggested that a sexy young woman might leverage that power to her advantage. This dynamic is part of what Gus Van Sant satirized in his 1995 film To Die For, in which Kidman plays a sociopath with aspirations of fame (once again, she proves she can do comedy). Clad in pastel suits, her long legs dangling under mini skirts to lure a young Joaquin Phoenix into being an accessory to her murderous instinct, Kidman embodied a campy small-town girl who would love to be Nicole Kidman — which is to say, a beautiful and famous person. As Kidman grew older and more renowned, her focus shifted to the kind of chameleon performance that so often garners awards: She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), famously donning a made-up nose to disguise her own perky one. Now, at fifty-four, Kidman's mysterious sex appeal has made a comeback in the world of middle-brow prestige television, playing variations of sophisticated, rich women in turbulent situations with complicated dermatological routines. A friend once remarked that the most interesting part of The Undoing was the way she put moisturizer on her face, drawing circles with the middle instead of the tips of her fingers.

These shows don't have much in the way of artistic or even narratorial ingenuity going for them, but I keep watching, unable to resist the pull of Nicole Kidman playing a wellness guru tripping on shrooms, or a rich woman walking up and down Central Park. The intensity with which she plays these women — taut, every movement perfectly controlled — suggests that there is something more under the surface of the contrived narratives set out for them; a more sinister intrigue that gets lost in the generic buzz of "female centered narratives." As a group, they are women whose control over their bodies — whether through microdosing, or getting out of an abusive situation — might be what will finally save them; or at least arm them against the villain of every beautiful woman’s story: time.

Whatever Nicole Kidman’s body has suggested over the years, that mystery remains. It's a quality some actresses work for and others simply have; which is to say, you'll know it when you see it. And it runs so deeply within Nicole Kidman that even in an artless film, or a commercial show, there's that feline face, those long fingers, those searching eyes. She brings beauty and art into everything she does, and I would watch her play someone in a coma. Lying there, I think, her angles alone could create meaning.

Rafaela Bassili is a critic living in New York.