The opening shot of Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” is a close-up of Nicole Kidman’s face. Forget her prosthetic nose in “The Hours”: “Ravaged” is the word that comes up again and again in descriptions and reviews because there’s no other way to describe her, and because the camera won’t let you forget it for a second. Here is a woman who is broken, the movie announces, someone who has broken herself and everyone around her, and her face and body are the evidence.
Kidman’s portrayal of Erin Bell, an alcoholic cop, is brutal and remorseless, and almost no one escapes unscathed — not her teenage daughter, her ex-husband, her partner, the people from her past and, least of all, herself.
As women of a certain age can tell you, we only get more invisible as time passes; if we dare to break those godforsaken rules about aging tastefully, we’re pathetic. I’m not talking about the very real repercussions of ageism — being overlooked for jobs or promotions and all of the other increasing indignities of aging — but the weird everyday feeling of just… disappearing to other people even as you don’t feel much different. This discovery (because even if you know something intellectually, you don’t really know it until you’ve experienced it) is enraging, bittersweet and, for some, a relief.
Bell, in her deliberate ugliness, is someone to be disgusted by, to be pitied, or to be overlooked entirely, and that is a sort of superpower. It’s also got to be a huge relief for someone like Kidman — like taking a deep breath after hours in a corset. There must be something awfully freeing to embody an agent of chaos and violence who doesn’t worry what she looks like.
For Kidman and her ilk, the scrutiny they’ve been under throughout their careers just increases as they age, and they’re damned if they do have nips, tucks, and peels, and they’re damned if they don’t. Nicole Kidman’s face and body have been scrutinized from every angle. If you Google “Nicole Kidman” and “wigs,” you’ll get an endless array of articles dedicated to her coifs, from rankings of them to the time she nixed an audience Q&A question at the Toronto Film Festival about how her “Destroyer” wig stacks up. From all accounts, the query was meant with love, but it’s still a cringe-worthy question that would never be lobbed at Christian Bale, whose endless shape-shifting is his awards season calling card.
The makeup and prosthetics don’t do all of the work in “Destroyer,” of course; Kidman is one of the most talented living actors working today. Usually, her icy, perfectly-curated beauty is part of her characters, for better or worse and, although it would be pretty wild to inhabit her reality, the expensive, time-consuming upkeep sounds downright exhausting.
When an actor like Kidman plays “ugly,” it’s only ugly for her. In fact, I’d wager that if you or I passed Kidman made up to look like her character on the street, we wouldn’t look twice because she is no monster among mortals outside of the fantasy realms of Hollywood. One of the many things I’ve learned from interviewing actors is that even the women who are most derided by so-called journalists for their supposed lack of desirability are beautiful in person (and usually much thinner). Like, startlingly so: It messes with your head even if you know better, so I can’t imagine how much it must mess with them to be so beautiful and be thought so unattractive.
Kidman’s transformation calls to mind Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance in “Monster” as serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The resemblance was startling, perhaps especially because Theron is drop-dead gorgeous. Like “Destroyer,” the “Monster” refers to our protagonist, but it could also refer to the people around her — though there’s no excuse for her murders, Wuornos was surrounded by horrible people who abused her at every turn.
Theron read some of the late killer’s letters as preparation. ''In describing something that happened, she'd write, 'I know I was 14 because that was the same year I gave the baby up for adoption.' It broke your heart. She was raped, she was a homeless kid. At 14 she's living in forts and has frostbite. But it's all brought up not in a melodramatic way. That was her reality,” Theron told the “Times.”
The way Wuornos looked reflected the reality of a life that society finds pitiable and disgusting. Her visage was not a reflection of her as a murderer, although perhaps we’d like to think so; it was really a product of access (or lack thereof) to doctors and dentists.
As it turns out, Theron’s transformative turn in “Tully,” which came out in May, is also one of the best of the year. In this case, Theron shocked the masses by putting on weight to play Marlo, a mother to three children (including a young baby). “A lot of people are making a big deal because I gained all this weight for the film and how brave that is and I'm like, 'Do you know that moms do this every day and nobody calls them brave?'” she said on Good Morning America.
Looking at paparazzi shots of Theron on set just drives home how Hollywood has warped us; what’s supposed to be “post-partum” when shown on an actress is still a seemingly impossible goal for most women. It’s also a lot less physically demanding than, say, playing Furiosa in “Mad Max” … or getting ready for the Oscars.
There are so few women who look like Kidman and Theron, and so many who look like Erin, Marlo and Aileen — and they’re not all bad mothers or destructive partners or self-sabotaging alcoholics. It’s tempting to pretend that what we think of as “beauty” or “ugliness” translates to our inner lives, but it’s just not true. Being judged or entirely overlooked by society for not fitting into mainstream definitions of beauty isn’t necessarily liberating or brave — but maybe it should be.
Jenni Miller is a freelancer writer who covers movies, TV, sex, love, death, video games, and assorted weirdness for a variety of publications online and in print.