The 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards are next Sunday, and the category on everyone’s minds is undoubtedly the tightest race: Outstanding Lead Actress in Limited Series or Movie.
This is perhaps the most star studded category at the Emmy’s in recent memory. To give some context on just how stacked this category is, not even Oprah could get in for her acclaimed performance in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (even though the film itself was recognized with a nomination). Instead, Emmy voters decided to recognize both of the leads from Feud: Bette and Joan and Big Little Lies, along with Carrie Coon from Fargo (a sort of makeup for not finding room for her over in the Drama Actress category where she really belonged?) and mainstay Felicity Huffman from American Crime. But once you get past the star power, there is only one true winner here, and that is Kidman.
In a perfect world, Emmy voters would announce a tie so that we wouldn’t have to choose. I am a die hard member of #TeamNicole, but will not discount Witherspoon’s work. In fact, I believe there is a level of difficulty to the work she’s doing that many aren’t giving her enough credit for. It’s true she gets some of the best lines and working with a larger than life character who has a lot of broad strokes, but Madeline is no caricature; Witherspoon imbues her with plenty of complexities and contradictions. In fact, it was Witherspoon who was the one to suggest adding in the affair Madeline engages in, something that doesn’t happen in the book and gives her a fascinating trajectory over the course of the seven episodes. Just as she did in Wild (also directed by Jean-Marc Valée), Witherspoon has given a career best performance, the likes of which stands tall as one of the best of the year.
But as invested as we are in the stories of Madeline, Jane (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and Renata (Laura Dern), it’s Celeste that emerges as the heart and soul of Big Little Lies. When we first meet her, Celeste seems to have it all: a marriage to a sexy, younger and wealthy husband (Alexander Skarsgård), two young boys, a gorgeous house and a successful career as a lawyer behind her. Where the other women have clearer issues bubbling beneath the surface, Celeste’s existence seems perfect, like that of a porcelain doll. That is, until we begin looking closer and see all the tiny fractures we missed before, and that’s where Big Little Lies truly becomes the great show it’s been heralded as all year long.
The moment that sticks out the most in my mind is the scene between Madeline and Celeste in the car after Celeste has won some legal ground in the battle between Renata and Madeline. Prior to this scene, Celeste has been someone who has stood in the background, quiet where her best friend is loud. But in the legal scene, Celeste emerges as a completely different person. She’s forthright and powerful in a way she hasn’t been with any of the other characters, shutting down Renata and her lawyers as if it’s child’s play. Her job as a lawyer was behind her, at least it was supposed to be. But in the car, it’s clear the floodgates have been opened, and a wave of emotions have consumed Celeste. Madeline encourages her to take advantage of this newfound joy and desire, but Celeste knows doing so will inexplicably cause tension within her life, specifically her marriage; she’s too afraid to confront any of these emotions if only because it means she will have to admit that her picture perfect existence is a facade. But at the same time, it’s clear these feelings can’t be subdued; what will she do now that she been awakened?
Watching these two actresses play off of each other is amazing in and of itself, but Kidman is doing so much here in her mannerisms which speaks to the greatness of the performance as a whole. This is especially true in the therapy scenes (shared with the brilliant Molly Hagan) in which a part of Celeste seeks reassurance that everything is fine, while the other part of her wants a way out. Dr. Moriaty recognizes this immediately, poking holes in the lies Celeste is crafting to protect herself from the truth about her toxic and dangerous marriage. She is a woman that has been pushed to the edge, and whether she’s staring off into the ocean, or quickly adjusting her sleeve so she doesn’t reveal a bruise we feel the immense weight she’s carrying. It’s a very physical performance in way that shows rather than tells without feeling heavy-handed. In the blink of an eye, a deep sigh before speaking and through the inflection of her voice, Kidman conveys years worth of backstory without explicating it through dialogue. These little choices by Kidman, sprinkled masterfully throughout each episode go a long way in crafting a character who is constantly in fear of revealing the truth to anyone and everyone, including herself. In each scene, she’s constantly reaching for a hold on a state of equilibrium within her marriage to Perry that just doesn’t exist. Big Little Lies is full of these moments, in which the women at the center of the story are constantly at war with the picture perfect fantasies they’re using to distract from and/or escape their realities, but none of them come close to hitting the emotional highs that Kidman hits with her performance.
It is for these reasons that I hope Emmy voters got a head start on engraving Kidman’s name into that trophy after the finale aired. As wonderful as Carrie Coon is in everything she does (justice for her performance in Gone Girl by the way), she should have been nominated, and rewarded, for The Leftovers. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange have moments of greatness in the otherwise tonally hackneyed Feud, and while there is much to be said about how great Felicity Huffman has been on all three seasons of American Crime, I can’t (and refuse to) imagine a world where Nicole Kidman loses this award. If not because she is the best of the category by a country mile, then because she has pushed herself to top her already revelatory body of work this year with this and several film projects. This is Nicole Kidman’s year, and we’re all just lucky enough to be living through it.