We find it fascinating when a star transforms themselves for a role. Rebecca Romijn enduring hours of prosthetics for her role as Mystique… Jared Leto losing 30 lbs for Dallas Buyer’s Club… Christian Bale losing an even more extreme 60 lbs for The Machinist… Charlize Theron gaining 30 lbs and donning latex make-up to add sag and texture to her skin for Monster…
Such alterations of an actor’s physical appearance frequently dominates press for the film, particularly when an actor considered beautiful sabotages their physical perfection.
In Karyn Kusama’s 2018 action/cop thriller, Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays a washed-up, middle-aged detective out for revenge. This is a trope we’re familiar with, though we’re used to seeing the out-of-control detective played by a male-gendered body. As Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review of the film points out, writing this genre with a woman in the lead adds an interesting layer to the story and gives Kidman room to explore complexities of alienation, obsession, and regret that we’ve previously seen from Clint Eastwood as Detective Harry Callahan or Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs.
Press leading up to Destroyer’s release and subsequent reviews revel in Kidman’s physically altered appearance. During shooting, Daily Mail ran several headlines remarking on the contrast between Kidman’s Golden Globe glamour and her costume for Destroyer:
“Big little wigs! Nicole Kidman dresses down in grey hairpiece as she films new movie after glamming it up for her best actress Golden Globe win.” — January 11, 2018
“Packing heat! Nicole Kidman dons modest threads and skulks around with a pistol on set of Destroyer.” — January 13, 2018
Likewise, director Kusama talks with Vanity Fair about Kidman’s styling for the role, saying, “We always knew that what we wanted her to look like was a real middle-aged woman with a past that she wears on her face.”
Except, of course, Nicole Kidman is a real middle-aged woman. Kusama’s remarks reveal our expectation that actors — especially women actors — must embody perpetual youth. What would it mean to cast a woman who didn’t require transformation to appear rugged? This is not unheard of for middle-aged men (for example, the previously-mentioned Clint Eastwood), and yet it’s difficult to come up with similar examples for women actors. Moreover, the phrase “a real middle-aged woman” belies the fact that middle-aged women look all sorts of ways.
As if to underline the need to transform Nicole Kidman for her role as Detective Erin Bell, the film flashes back to about 16 or 17 years earlier, when Detective Bell would have been in her early-to-mid 30s. The contrast is striking.
The young Bell is the more familiar version of Nicole Kidman, with freckles and apparently little make-up. Did the filmmakers do anything to make Kidman appear younger than her 50-year-old self for these flashback scenes? This is not remarked on in press or reviews. Instead, this 15-20 years younger face is taken for granted as Kidman’s natural appearance.
Kidman’s performance is admittedly remarkable in Destroyer. She walks with wide strides, sometimes blustering forward when her character is drunk. She stares down informants with a steady gaze. And like the long line of movie cops before her, she deftly performs the anguish of Bell forcing her body forward through beatings and exhaustion as an act of stubborn will.
On Friday, September 25 at 7 pm, director Karyn Kusama will be present for a conversation and interactive Q&A with fellow filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe in IU Cinema’s Virtual Screening Room, where they will discuss Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). This special event is part of the Cinema’s Filmmaker to Filmmaker series.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.