I started reading Pam Cook’s study of Nicole Kidman at the same time that I started listening to the new David Bowie album. The song, “The Stars (Are out Tonight)”, with its arch and scathing portrait of remote and manipulative stars parading through a glittering night made an ironic counterpoint to the subject of the book – the manufactured image and persona of a commodity star. Both the book and the song create an image of the star as image, pure powerful, shiny surface, both fascinating and repelling. Nicole Kidman seems like the very embodiment of the manufactured ‘star’, the person behind the image is an unknown because what we are presented with is a package with a carefully constructed form – actress, celebrity, fashion icon, humanitarian etc, particularly with reference to her changing appearance and wildly fluctuating acting styles. This slim, but extremely readable study explores not the woman, who remains unknown, but the public image, the star.
The book is divided into three chapters/sections – Stardom, Performance and Persona. Stardom draws on theories of stardom and star studies to create a portrait of the creation of a star, it includes a potted biography that charts the creation and rise of the Nicole Kidman brand and the evolution of her image and career directions from the beginning in Australian cinema to Hollywood superstar. It also explores the rise and fall and rise again of her star. Kidman is positioned as a survivor, someone with a drive to succeed and despite setbacks to succeed again.
Performance is based on a close textual analysis of Kidman’s acting in pivotal films for her career – Dead Calm (Noyce, 1989), Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999), To Die For (van Sant, 1994), The Hours (Daldry, 2002) and Australia (Luhrmann, 2008) – noting the changes in style and technique deployed in these performances and how they relate to the progress of Kidman’s career and evolving image. From the relative ‘natural-ness’ of her image and understated performance in Dead Calm to the hysterical pastiche performance in Australia, it is fascinating to read Cook’s analysis of how those elements contributed to the evolution of the Nicole Kidman image.
The final chapter ‘Persona’ explores the performance of celebrity, the ways that the image of the star is constructed and how this image is built and maintained within a series of public spaces (eg: privacy laws, television talk shows, magazine fashion shoots, tabloid gossip, fan websites, commercials, philanthropy). Cook’s argument moves on to look at persona and identity, including the role of Australian-ness and beauty in the construction of this image. Identity is perhaps the least revealing subject explored because Kidman’s identity is a construct, as much a part of her image as her white skin and her film performances.
The star is a fiction, a performance and Cook engages with the processes of this performance. It is tempting to see Nicole Kidman as a mannequin, a beautiful but unreal individual. She is what Cook terms a ‘commodity star’ in that her image is maintained across a wide range of media. The study does nothing to reverse the image of Kidman as a remote and unknowable individual, but it does reveal the amazing range of the commodity star. This study is not about the ‘real’ Nicole Kidman, it is about the Nicole Kidman that the world is allowed to see, and it is tempting to view her simply as an image. Cook reveals a certain respect for the way Kidman’s image or brand has been able to evolve and mutate allowing her image and performances to remain in the public eye as a powerful star figure.
I must confess that I am not particularly fascinated by ‘stars’. I don’t consume magazine articles, or biographies, or watch television interviews or any of those associated activities. But reading this book I have been forced to re-evaluate my perception of Kidman as a ‘creation’, someone who is always acting, constantly creating and re-creating herself, which is in itself an impressive feat. The study also gives context to Kidman’s performances and to a certain extent explains them and provides a rationalisation for some of her stranger film choices.
Cook’s writing is lucid and direct and the study (despite its academic nature) is a very entertaining and easy to read. It would perhaps be interesting to contrast the manufactured Kidman with the real Kidman, but Cook notes that Nicole Kidman did not respond to her requests for contact. Although considering the complex nature and the intricate web of elements that go into creating the star persona, there is certainly no shortage of material to explore. Cook’s study though does in a slightly disturbing way contribute to the construction of the superficial image as it creates a narrative of the star image and I wonder if there couldn’t be a little de-bunking as a counterpoint to the projected narrative that this study reveals, but also perpetuates, by focusing as it does on the image.
While I appreciate Cook’s approach to the subject as ‘star analysis’ an entry into the field of star studies, on reflection I found myself asking questions that fall outside the remit of the study, but once raised became a nagging presence as I read. The artificiality of the construct is provocative and raises questions about the real, is there a real? The focus on the creation and dissection of ‘image’ reminded me of the premise of one of Kidman’s less successful films The Invasion, which is based on with its story about replacement people with no emotions or individuality. Is there a person behind the star? Or is the star everything? If Kidman’s image is a performance does she ever stop acting?
Pam Cook, Nicole Kidman (London: BFI, 2012).