Once relegated to decorative parts for years and long acknowledged as the wife of Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman spent the latter half of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium earning much-deserved critical respect. Standing a willowy 5'11" and sporting one of Hollywood's most distinctive heads of frizzy red hair, the Australian actress first entered the American mindset with her role opposite Cruise in Days of Thunder (1990), but it wasn't until she starred as a homicidal weather girl in Gus Van Sant's 1995 To Die For that she achieved recognition as a thespian of considerable range and talent.
Though many assume that the heavily-accented Kidman hails from down under, she was actually born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on June 20, 1967, to Australian parents. Her family, who lived on the island because of a research project that employed Kidman's biochemist father, then moved to Washington, D.C. for the next three years. After her father's project reached completion, Nicole and her family returned to Australia.
Raised in the upper-middle-class Sydney suburb of Longueville for the remainder of the 1970s and well into the eighties, Kidman grew up infused with a love of the arts, particularly dance and theatre. Kidman took refuge in the theater, and landed her first professional role at the age of 14, when she starred in Bush Christmas (1983), a TV movie about a group of kids who band together with an Aborigine to find their stolen horse. Brian Trenchard-Smith's BMX Bandits (1983) -- an adventure film/teen movie -- followed , with Kidman as the lead character, Judy; it opened to solid reviews. Kidman then worked for the gifted John Duigan (The Winter of Our Dreams, Romero) twice, first as one of the two adolescent leads of the Duigan-directed "Room to Move" episode of the Australian TV series Winners (1985) and, more prestigiously, as the star of Duigan's acclaimed miniseries Vietnam (1987)
In 1988, Kidman got another major break when she was tapped to star in Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989). A psychological thriller about a couple (Kidman and Sam Neill) who are terrorized by a young man they rescue from a sinking ship (Billy Zane), the film helped to establish the then-21-year-old Kidman as an actress of considerable mettle. That same year, her starring performance in the made-for-TV Bangkok Hilton further bolstered her reputation.
By now a rising star in Australia, Kidman began to earn recognition across the Pacific. In 1989, Tom Cruise picked her for a starring role in her first American feature, Tony Scott's Days of Thunder (1990). The film, a testosterone-saturated drama about a racecar driver (Cruise), cast Kidman as the neurologist who falls in love with him. A sizable hit, it had the added advantage of introducing Kidman to Cruise, whom she married in December of 1990.
Following a role as Dustin Hoffman's moll in Robert Benton's Billy Bathgate (1991), and a supporting turn as a snotty boarding school senior in the masterful Flirting (1991), which teamed her with Duigan a third time, Kidman collaborated with Cruise on their second film together, Far and Away (1992). Despite their joint star quality, gorgeous cinematography, and adequate direction by Ron Howard, critics panned the lackluster film.
Kidman's subsequent projects, My Life and Malice ( both 1993), were similarly disappointing, despite scattered favorable reviews. Batman Forever (1995), in which she played the hero's love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian, fared somewhat better, but did little in the way of establishing Kidman as a serious actress even as it raked in mile-high returns at the summer box office.
Kidman finally broke out of her window-dressing typecasting when Gus Van Sant enlisted her to portray the ruthless protagonist of To Die For (1995). Directed from a Buck Henry script, this uber-dark comedy casts Kidman as Suzanne Stone, a television broadcaster ready and eager to commit one homicide after another to propel herself to the top. Displaying a gift for impeccable comic timing, she earned Golden Globe and National Broadcast Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress. Further critical praise greeted Kidman's performance as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's 1996 adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. Now regarded as one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood, Kidman starred opposite George Clooney in the big-budget action extravaganza The Peacemaker (1997) and opposite Sandra Bullock in the frothy Practical Magic (1998).
In 1999, Kidman starred in one of her most controversial films to date, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle and cloaked in secrecy from the beginning of its production, the film also stars Cruise as Kidman's physician husband. During the spring and summer of 1999, the media unsurprisingly hyped the couple's onscreen pairing as the two major selling points. However, despite an added measure of intrigue from Kubrick's death only weeks after shooting wrapped, Eyes Wide Shut repeated the performance of prior Kubrick efforts by opening to a radically mixed reaction
As the new millennium arrived, problems began to erupt between Kidman and Tom Cruise; divorce followed soon after, and the tabloids swirled with talk of new relationships for the both of them. She concurrently plunged into a string of daring, eccentric film roles much edgier than what she had done before. The trend began with a role in Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl (2001) as a Russian mail order bride, and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001), which cast her, in the lead, as a courtesan in a 19th century Paris hopped up with late 20th century pop songs. The picture dazzled some and alienated others, but once again, journalists flocked to Kidman's side.
Following this success (the picture gleaned a Best Picture nod but failed to win), Kidman gained even more positive notice for her turn as an icy mother after the key to a dark mystery in Alejandro Amenabar's spooky throwback, The Others. When the 59th Annual Golden Globe Awards finally arrived, Kidman received nominations for her memorable performances in both films.
Though it couldn't have been any further from her flamboyant turn in Moulin Rouge, Kidman's camouflaged role as Virginia Woolf in the following year's The Hours (2002) (she wears little makeup and a prosthetic nose), for which she delivered a mesmerizing and haunting performance, kept the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations steadily flowing in for the acclaimed actress. The fair-haired beauty finally snagged the Best Actress Oscar that had been so elusive the year before.
Post-Oscar, Kidman continued to take on challenging work. She played the lead role in Lars von Trier's Dogville, although she declined to continue in Von Trier's planned trilogy of films about that character. She swung for the Oscar fences again in 2003 as the female lead in Cold Mountain, but it was co-star Renee Zellweger who won the statuette that year. Kidman did solid work for Jonathan Glazer in the Jean-Claude Carriere-penned Birth, as a woman revisited by the incarnation of her dead husband in a small child's body, but stumbled with a pair of empty-headed comedies, Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives and Nora Ephron's Bewitched (both 2005), that her skills could not save. She worked with Sean Penn in the political thriller The Interpreter in 2005.
For the most part, Kidman continued to stretch herself with increasingly demanding and arty roles throughout 2006. In Steven Shainberg's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Kidman plays controversial housewife-cum-photographer Diane Arbus. Meanwhile, Kidman returned to popcorn pictures by playing Mrs. Coulter in Chris Weitz's massive, $150-million fantasy adventure The Golden Compass (2007), adapted from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of books. She also headlined the sci-fi thriller The Invasion, a loose remake of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Also in 2007, Kidman teamed up with Noah Baumbach for a starring role as a supremely dysfunctional mother in Margot at the Wedding (2007). The actress then set out to recapture her Moulin Rouge musical success with a turn in director Rob Marshall's 8 1/2 remake Nine (2009), teamed up with indie cause-célèbre John Cameron Mitchell and Aaron Eckhart for the psychologically-charged domestic drama Rabbit Hole (2010), and starred opposite Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in the Dennis Dugan-helmed comedy Go With It (2011). Kidman would spend the next few years continuing her high level of activity, appearing in movies like Trespass and The Paperboy.