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Nicole at Forty, The Sunday Times CUlture, September 17th 2006

Next year, Nicole Kidman reaches a notoriously difficult age for actresses, says David Thomson, but her career plan maps out some canny choices and perhaps her best roles yet

When I heard of Fur, Nicole Kidman’s new film, it sounded dangerous, experimental — in other words, far more like Birth, which I think is the best thing she has ever done, than the Bewitched remake, one of her “sensible” projects. The editing process seemed to be taking a while. There were also rumours out of the set that Kidman was unusually anxious over her appearance. It was hard to be sure how it would turn out.

On Monday, June 26, this year, the day after Kidman married Keith Urban in Sydney, I watched a preview of Fur in Los Angeles. It turned out to be an astounding new film, a film for Kidman’s fans, about a young woman who needs to end her first marriage if she is to find her freaky talent as a photographer.

Fur is a story of Diane Arbus, the real American photographer. The film, by Steven Shainberg, is also called a tribute to her and “an imaginary portrait”. With reason: the movie contains no pictures by Arbus, a sign that the Arbus Estate has not given its approval to the project. For what emerges is a story of how Diane’s marriage to Allan Arbus ended in 1958 after 17 years. He had been the photographer. She was the daughter of a Manhattan furrier, and she helped arrange the fashion shows that her husband photographed. We see such a show, and we see Diane is a nervous wreck, trying to get the show right but not doing her own work. “I take light readings, and I iron clothes,” she says.

So she is, on the one hand, the frustrated woman, the repressed artist and the ego wrapped up in the family furs. But then she begins to realise someone new has moved in upstairs in their Manhattan building, a mysterious masked man who watches her. To the best of my knowledge, and from reading Patricia Bosworth’s biography (and Ms Bosworth is a producer on the film), there is no hint that this upstairs neighbour ever existed. He is the neighbour in a story, he is a man so covered with hair (not quite fur, the hair of illness, but the growth of artistic vision) that he is an invalid.

He looks like a lion, or Beauty’s Beast. He is named Lionel.

We are in the region here of fairy story. Fur is so invented it may well be attacked or laughed at by some. Yet Robert Downey Jr plays Lionel with exactly the right mix of charm, magic and insouciance. He is a master sent to bring her out. And so, bit by bit, Diane slips away from her set domestic life downstairs, where she wears dresses her mother has bought for her. She discovers the dark world Lionel knows — it is the world of dwarves, Siamese twins, transsexuals, addicts, pimps, whores and freaks Arbus would photograph. Lionel seduces her in so many ways that the marriage with Allan has to end. She is free to begin her work.

I hope you can see that this is a film of great daring. It also has many scenes of beauty, and it makes Kidman a woman who is childlike again, going back to origins to understand her life and her purpose. As in Birth, near the end there is a great scene on a seashore. Fur is not a perfect film.

On one viewing, it seems to me a little overextended, and I think Lionel’s upstairs world should be nastier, more feral, more that of a beast. I do not think the film will do great business, but that does not matter.

It is a film filled with the prospect of beauty, art, identity and change. There will be people who see it over and over again.

Kidman may be a little too pretty in Fur. Not that she could easily resemble the real Diane Arbus. Samantha Morton (the original casting) looks far more like the photographer. Arbus was seldom exactly pretty or conventionally glamorous. There was a fierceness in her, prepared to go too far, and this is a film that believes in going too far. The gathering of freaks in Lionel’s apartment may be a touch too genteel, too like a social club for outsiders. Whereas outsiders are raw, awkward and not clubbable. But the decision to take a known figure and to create a dream world for her shames the drab conditions under which most of our films are made. It is the venture of a great, dark, headstrong actress who has no expectation and not too much need for everything to turn out tidily or happily. This is from her black book, the one with demons on the cover to keep innocent readers away. This comes from a woman who lives with lions and wolves.

Next year Kidman will also open in a project called The Visiting. This is a big suspense film, based on the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (filmed twice already under that title and once as Body Snatchers). She plays a psychiatrist, with a son, who lives in Washington, DC, and takes a leading part in the struggle against alien invasion (note, in all the earlier versions of the story, the aliens or the pod people win). The male leads are Daniel Craig and Jeremy Northam, and the director is Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose last film was Downfall, the atmospheric re-creation of the final days of Hitler, with Bruno Ganz as the dictator in the bunker. I’m not sure how proven a director Hirschbiegel is, but I suspect he was a large attraction in this project for Kidman. (If you were doing that story, would you have Kidman as the valiant heroine or the ultimate alien, with her staring blue eyes and her luminous pale skin?) It’s hard to be sure how these films will turn out. But then there seems to be a run of projects of the kind that remind one of the era of The Hours, in which she played Virgina Woolf. She has been shooting a picture for Noah Baumbach (who wrote and directed The Squid and the Whale) about sisters in upstate New York, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s wife. For anyone who admired The Squid and the Whale as much as I did, this is exactly the kind of low-budget picture, high on material and character, that one would like to see Kidman doing.

She is set for the new Baz Luhrmann project, untitled as yet, about events in Australian history, where she will be cast opposite Hugh Jackman (originally, Russell Crowe was her intended co-star; they were also going to make Eucalpytus a couple of years earlier, but Crowe backed out). The period for Luhrmann’s story is the 1930s. Kidman will be an Englishwoman seeking to sell a house in Australia. Jackman is the drover who helps her. It is a love story in which landscape expresses romance. Meanwhile, war is looming. With a chuckle, Luhrmann speaks of Gone with the Wind.

It is worth noting that Kidman has committed herself to that project without seeing the script. Much the same can be said of The Lady from Shanghai, a Wong Kar-Wai picture on which again there is no screenplay so far. As well as that, she has pledged to do a new picture with Jez Butterworth, the director of Birthday Girl.

Of course, that policy of going with proven directors or auteurs is one that a film critic or historian is bound to recommend. But the real historian knows that no schedule is guaranteed, and it is especially hard these days for an actor or actress to determine that all their pictures are brave, fresh and good. Still, I think Kidman has lined up a team of projects sufficient to carry her through a threshold that one imagines may well have long alarmed her — that of being 40, which she will reach in June next year.

In which case, it may be encouraging to offer a short list of pretty good pictures and performances where an actress was over 40, or playing it: Bette Davis in All About Eve (done at 42); Joan Crawford in Daisy Kenyon (also 42); Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen (44); Meryl Streep in One True Thing (49); Jessica Tandy in The Birds (54); Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (53); and Kidman in The Hours (34, but playing Virginia Woolf at 53).

Yes, you’re right, those parts stand out for rarity as much as interest, and in turn that supports the terrible dread that actresses feel over 40 — that maybe they are about to be denied work just as they become more interesting as people. But, of course, men continue to find very young women very interesting — which can simply mean that men prefer females not too well trained at answering back, arguing and using their brains.

There are other lists: of screen goddesses who never saw 40, like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, Mabel Normand; of those who died in their forties, like Margaret Sullavan, Judy Holliday, Linda Darnell, Judy Garland and Natalie Wood; and of those who did little serious work once they were past 40. That is a very long list, and it starts with Garbo, who retired at 36 and never quite came back.

What did Garbo do then, for nearly 50 years, except dodge still photographers while clinging to her own legends? She “knew” people, they say; she travelled, or she didn’t; and she was close with her family. I can hear the same things being said of Kidman, but I wonder if this absolutely concentrated person wouldn’t go crazy without work. I don’t mean work simply as a means of income, or some- thing to keep an active mind engaged; I mean work in terms of what might seem to be a total and uncomplaining addiction to being someone else — as if that terrible pursuit was really her only chance (as slim as herself) of finding redemption or peace.

In the time I have been studying Nicole Kidman, she has had romantic involvements with a few men — Lenny Kravitz, Stephen Bing, Keith Urban. Perhaps there were others. I hope so, because this trio does not seem especially substantial or rewarding. They may seem like bold-type names to keep her in the celebrity columns. No, I don’t mean that cynically, but the reality is that it is so much more likely in her half-strangulated existence, for ever attended by security people and entourage, to meet only famous or half-famous people.

Urban is Australian, a country singer, a star with his own career, and his base in Nashville. I hope I am mistaken about him, but he would seem to be more a step towards happiness than a career strategy, and I am not sure that Kidman hears the first as clearly as the second. Perhaps she will have children — that prospect alluded to in so many strange ways in her films. I hope she will be happy. Yet in truth I am the kind of caring stranger who would prefer two more great films.

Fur is released on Nov 10

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