Greatish Performances #51

#51 — Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

Across his storied career, Stanley Kubrick left many actors feeling broken. Nicole Kidman wasn’t one of them.

“You always think, ‘Ah, I could have done better,'” Kidman said, reflecting on her time working with Kubrick on his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. “I think every filmmaker will tell you it has to be ripped out of their hands. I’ve never heard the word ‘perfect’ from anybody that’s very talented. It’s why I could have stayed with Stanley for five years. Never come back.”

Kidman acknowledged Kubrick’s propensity for putting actors through dozens of takes, always in search of whatever elusive realization of the moment he saw in his mind’s eye. His process on Eyes Wide Shut proved more arduous than usual. The actors expected a three-month shoot. It wound up lasting a year and a half. Harvey Keitel, original cast as a wealthy acquaintance of main characters, was so exasperated with the process that he blew up at Kubrick, leading to his dismissal (Keitel was replaced by Sydney Pollack). The accuracy of Kidman’s proclamation that she could have stayed in that swirl of creativity and craft at least three times as long is borne out by her performance. She was a fine actress before Eyes Wide Shut, but her time with Kubrick was clearly instrumental in making her a great actress.

As Alice Harford, the spouse of Tom Cruise’s square physician protagonist, Kidman offers a masterpiece of internalized emotions that seep to the surface. For portions of the film, she is the dutiful spouse, on his arm at a gala affair or waiting patiently at home as he gallivants about. In these moments, Kidman plays that deceptively placid surface with exquisite care. Alice observes coolly, surely. There is a constant sense that she is biding her time, keeping her very being in reserve for when it is needed, for the instances when the dam breaks and she has to choose between repairing the rift of standing back, arms crossed, and watching the deluge.

In Kidman’s most memorable scene — and the film’s clear peak —Alice responds to her husband’s laughably naive speculation that women are monogamous and resolutely committed to fidelity by nature. With expert intensity, measured and cutting, Kidman delivers a monologue about temptation that becomes a universal statement of the forced disguises that women wear, largely because their male partners are willfully blind to their inner beings, or really the very concept that they might have concerns apart from their duly sworn romantic connections. It’s an emotional roundhouse, made all the more powerful because of the keen focus of Kidman. With precise slices of truth-telling, she hamstrings the man before her, making it seem a moral obligation to do so.

Kubrick long envisioned Eyes Wide Shut as a project that would feature married actors playing the married couple at its core, evidently hoping for some voyeuristic friction. For some, there is undoubtedly an appeal in scanning Eyes Wide Shut for clues about the looming dissolution of the Cruise-Kidman coupling, which was announced less than two years after the film’s release. It’s integral enough to the enduring legacy of the film that Kidman still feels obligated to bat away rumor-mongering some twenty years later. It’s also immaterial. Real life doesn’t need to intrude to make Kidman’s performance revelatory.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City
#50 — Lee Grant in The Landlord

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