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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Nicole Kidman: Movie star or box-office loser?

December 3, 2008 |  5:42 pm

KidmanWhen I wrote about "Australia" the other day, I said, somewhat flippantly, that the movie "once again proves that Nicole Kidman is many things, but not a movie star." 20th Century Fox, in fact, is selling the film largely as a Baz Luhrmann extravaganza, not as a Kidman-Hugh Jackman picture. I've been getting a lot of flak from readers, especially loyal Australians, who been posting comments defending Kidman's movie stardom and, well, basically saying I'm an idiot.

Fair enough. But who's right? Is she a star or isn't she? First, let's define our terms. In the movie business, being a star isn't about being a recognizable celebrity. If that were true, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan would be getting $15 million a picture. Being a star is not about being a great actress, either, or Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett would be getting $15 million a picture. (For the record, Kidman has given many fine performances, going all the way back to "To Die For." She can be a formidable presence on screen.) Being a movie star is about a very simple equation: Do people pay money on opening weekend to see you in a movie? Movie marketers want actors whose presence in a picture makes rank and file moviegoers say: Oh, my God, I want to see that movie.

By that standard, Kidman doesn't fit the bill. In fact, there are shockingly few female stars of any stature that fulfill that equation. I called a couple of movie marketers to ask if I was being unfair to Kidman. Their answer: No. As one marketer cannily noted, "If someone moves a Will Smith film onto one of your [release] dates, you panic. If someone moves a Nicole Kidman movie onto your date, you shrug. She's just not a real commercial force." Or as another marketer put it: "She's an actress, not a movie star. There's a big difference."

You can see for yourself by checking out her track record at the-numbers.com, one of the more reliable box-office websites. It reveals that Kidman has had several distinct chapters in her career, only one relatively brief one where you could say she was a genuine star.

Period One: The Tom-Cruise Era. In the early-mid 1990s, she was an intriguing new screen luminary, but her only big hits--"Days of Thunder" and "Batman Forever"--were summer action movies carried by Cruise or "Batman's" Kilmer and Co.

Period Two: 2001-05. This is the era that established Kidman as a recognizable commodity. She appeared in a series of international hits, notably "Moulin Rouge," "The Others," "Cold Mountain," "Bewitched" and "The Interpreter." But marketing experts say none of these movies was solely propelled by her star wattage. "The Others," for example, was a genre thriller sold on its concept, not its star. "The Interpreter" had Sean Penn, who could've carried the film with almost any actress. Ditto for "Bewitched," which was as much Will Ferrell's movie as Kidman's film.

Period Three: 2006-08. As far as Kidman is concerned, it's the Ice Age, with flops like "Fur" and "The Invasion." Kidman was a supporting presence in "The Golden Compass," but marketers say that movie did well overseas because of its concept, not its costars. At best, Kidman has helped elevate genre material (as she did in "The Others") or delivered a strong performance (as she did in "Cold Mountain" and "The Hours"), But it's hard to say she drove fans to the theaters, as Will Smith does--or Julia Roberts did in her heyday.

What's really depressing is that when you ask marketing execs to name the actresses that do earn their keep, you're usually met with silence. There are always caveats: Meryl Streep in the right role, as with "Mamma Mia!" Angelina Jolie, who can put some extra oomph in a genre film like "Wanted." Reese Witherspoon or Sandra Bullock in the right kind of comedy. In today's Hollywood, it's a lot easier to build a career as a respected actress than as a box-office icon. Whether you're Nicole Kidman or anyone else, it's a man's, man's, man's world.

Photo of Nicole Kidman in "Australia" by James Fisher / 20th Century Fox

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