29 July 2001
view article

First Tango In Paris

Suddenly single Nicole Kidman shows her gams--and takes a big gamble--with the sexy MOULIN ROUGE by Jeff Jensen

You were expecting a woman destroyed. Some tears, a hitch in the throat, maybe a crumpled tissue or two. Possibly even a slap to the face when you dared to use "Tom Cruise" and "miscarriage" in the same sentence. But you get none of this from Nicole Kidman as she sits in an airy hotel suite on a drab May day in Los Angeles. Instead, you get laughter and snappy banter. You get a black sleeveless top with a plunging neckline and an alarmingly mini miniskirt, risking peril with each cross of her long legs. In fact, the only question that gives Kidman pause is a request to explain that outfit. "What do you mean?" she blushes, wrapping her fine china arms around her legs. "It's my ode to being a little French coquette."

Appropriate attire, given that she's here, technically, to talk about Moulin Rouge, a risky, $50-million reinvention of the movie musical, set in 1899 at the titular Parisian nightclub/dancehall/bordello. The movie, costarring Ewan McGregor, is the third feature from Australian director Baz Luhrmann, whose last film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, melded MTV aesthetics and iambic pentameter. Originally slated for last Christmas, Moulin Rouge was pushed to May 18 in order to give Luhrmann more time to fine-tune his densely textured soundscape (see sidebar on page 39). Fortuitously, the delay allowed Moulin Rouge to open--and compete in--the 2001 Cannes film festival, where it received standing ovations (and love/hate reviews). But it also lands in the middle of the media frenzy ignited by the Kidman/Cruise marital meltdown, and the subsequent disclosure of the actress' miscarriage. And now, as she begins to stump for Moulin Rouge, she's painfully aware of what her interviewers really want to talk about. "The best and worst times of my life have met at the same time," says Kidman, 33, who looks tired and a tad thin. "Would I prefer to be with my family in Australia, taking care of my kids? Absolutely. But this film means so much to me."

"I shouldn't jump in," says Luhrmann, a lean, silver-haired live wire who sits close to his star, "but I think something great has happened: There's a lot of talk about the work. People are really interested in your work, Nicole. They really are."

"Yeah," she says flatly, not sounding convinced. She pauses. "It's just a really weird time."

Upon completion of a major project, Baz Luhrmann goes on a backpacking trip around the world to recharge his creative batteries. After Romeo + Juliet, he trekked to Marrakech, Cairo, Alexandria, and Paris, and came back with the inspiration for Moulin Rouge: the myth of Orpheus, the Greek lyre player who went into the underworld to save his lady love but failed. "The myth is about the moment you realize there are things you cannot control," Luhrmann says later in his cramped office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. His twin trademarks are on full display: his art-school formal uniform--black pants, black jacket, and a blue dress shirt--and almost manic energy. "You will be scarred by the experience, but hopefully, you will grow from it, not be destroyed. That's the story of the film--and also true of the making of the film."

His Moulin Rouge (not at all based on the five movies with the same name) tells the story of Christian (McGregor), an idealistic young writer seeking bohemian revolution. He finds it, impossibly, at the Moulin Rouge, a Dionysian theme park operated by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) whose attractions include a crimson windmill and an adjoining elephant-shaped gentlemen's club. But the star of the Moulin Rouge is Satine (Kidman), the diamond-studded, cancan dancing courtesan. Christian instantly falls in love and, with the help of a theater troupe led by diminutive artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), writes a musical for Satine. When asked by Zidler to finance the production, a menacing moneybags known as the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) agrees--provided that Satine sleeps with him. A love triangle ensues, jealousy erupts into violence, and along the way, everyone sings songs that weren't exactly on the charts in 1899.

Luhrmann, 38, has been keen on doing a movie musical since his film debut, 1993's quirky dance spectacle, Strictly Ballroom. At the time, he was better known as the enfant terrible of the Australian theater scene, thanks to his avant-garde early '90s staging of the opera La Boheme. He didn't earn this rep alone: He belongs to a circle of collaborators (including his wife, production designer Catherine Martin) devoted to a bohemian lifestyle, which in the early days meant "doing art, taking a lot of drugs, just completely f---ing out of control."


He'd come a long way from Heron's Creek, the remote town where his parents ran a farm, a gas station, and--formative influence alert--a local cinema. In fact, Luhrmann grew into a pop-culture junkie, and it all suggested worlds beyond Heron's Creek. "All my life, I was watching people coming from fabulous places, going to fabulous places," he recalls. "Through TV, cinema, and music, I knew life out there. I wanted to find it." After his parents divorced in his late teens, Luhrmann had a falling out with his father (he declines to elaborate), and ran away to Sydney.

Luhrmann was visiting India in 1994 to research an opera based on A Midsummer Night's Dream when he took in a Bollywood movie. "Corny comedy, incredible drama, and then suddenly, a musical number. Everyone was riveted," marvels Luhrmann. "I remember thinking, Could you make this work with an audience in the West?" After Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann told his troupe (now known as Bazmark) it was time to try.

Moulin Rouge is yet another Luhrmann film made in his "Red Curtain" style: a story based on myth (Orpheus); a setting familiar yet reinterpreted (the Moulin Rouge); a theatrical storytelling device (sung dialogue); and self-conscious pop-culture referencing (19th-century novels, musicals, and established songs, though Moulin Rouge would break that rule with the original "Come What May"). From there, Bazmark spent most of 1998 researching and developing a story.

But before there was a finished script, there was casting, since part of the Bazmark process is an extensive workshopping period with actors. Heath Ledger was an early candidate for Christian. But when Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce opted to make the character older, the director tapped McGregor, who had auditioned impressively for Romeo + Juliet and had singing and dancing credentials (the 1993 U.K. miniseries Lipstick on Your Collar, 1998's Velvet Goldmine).

As for Satine, Luhrmann was thinking larger than life. "The courtesan was like our supermodel, like royalty. A symbol of a woman at the height of her sexual powers," says Luhrmann back at the hotel. "And I do remember thinking, God! Where am I going to find that?"

Nicole Kidman rolls her eyes. she does a lot of these incredulous eye-crobatics when Luhrmann goes on like this. Asked if she feels at the height of her sexual powers, she explodes with "Oh, God, yes! Be careful: I might jump on you." Luhrmann feigns looking hurt. "Fine," he pouts. "I won't say another word."

Kidman and Luhrmann are old friends, going back 10 years to a brief stint guest-editing the Australian edition of Vogue, and they talk like it. Take this exchange about whether Kidman was "difficult" while making Moulin Rouge.

BL: You berated me about many things.

NK: Don't you appreciate--you must!--an actor who's obsessed! Who's willing to go seven days, 24 hours a day?

BL: [Deadpans] I hate that. It's exhausting.

NK: It's the only way I know how to work!

She's not kidding: Obsessing has become her acting method. While making 1996's Portrait of a Lady, director Jane Campion pushed Kidman to become more collaborative, less timid, a skill that changed the way the actress approaches her career. "Now I only work with directors who want that," says Kidman, who toiled post-Portrait for Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) and Sam Mendes (Broadway's The Blue Room). "Some directors prefer 'Show up, do it, go home.' I'm not your girl."

With his lead girl and boy picked by early 1999, Luhrmann conducted a series of workshops from July to November of that year at Bazmark's Sydney headquarters, a renovated asylum. The days were a grueling mix of music and dance lessons, script readings, and improv. But the evenings? Party time. One infamous night Luhrmann served absinthe, the hallucinogenic green spirit favored by belle epoque bohemians--infamous, because no one can now remember it. "All I know," says McGregor, laughing, "is I had a strange vibration in my vision the next day."


By November 1999, Bazmark was ready to roll: Choreographer John O'Connell had the cast and scores of dancers drilled in a variety of styles: tango, cancan, Busby Berkeley, even Indian (that culture was the rage among Parisian hipsters of the time); Martin had her decadent re-creations of the Moulin Rouge, its elephant annex, and even the surrounding Montmartre neighborhoods filling five soundstages at Fox's Sydney studios; and Luhrmann had a script and $50 million from Fox, where Bazmark has a worldwide deal. Yet, even before he yelled "Action!" Luhrmann had fallen behind. As he was preparing the very first shot on the very first day, he was told that his father, Leonard, had died of skin cancer. The start of production was delayed one week.

"I was not in it for the first couple weeks," says Luhrmann, who dedicated the movie to his dad. "But as the film went on, I became more and more alive, especially as the film became more intense. That brought me back to life."

As Luhrmann grappled with emotional pain, Kidman was hurting physically. Twice she broke a rib, which put the film six weeks behind schedule. Toward the end, while filming a number that had her singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and dancing in three-inch heels, Kidman tripped and fell down a flight of stairs, badly injuring her knee. No delays this time: Painkillers got her through to the end, and she shot her last close-ups on crutches.

After 188 days of shooting, Luhrmann left the Sydney studios--but he wasn't finished. He had to make way for McGregor's next movie--Star Wars: Episode II. "It was depressing to go on that quickly: I was yearning for more," says McGregor. "[Moulin Rouge] was so emotionally charged to make. I've never been happier to do anything in my life." Which explains why McGregor sounds angry recalling the wrecking balls that demolished the Moulin Rouge set. "That was awful. I resent [Star Wars] for that," he says. "[The set] could have been put up somewhere else and used as a club or something. It was that fabulous."

Luhrmann eventually picked up his remaining shots in Madrid, where Kidman was filming the supernatural thriller The Others, executive produced by Cruise. "Madrid didn't feel quite right," says McGregor. "Some experiences are so extraordinary, it's best just to leave them."

Like the rest of us, Luhrmann first learned about the Kidman/Cruise separation in February while he was supervising Moulin Rouge's complex postproduction. Unlike us, of course, he got the news from Kidman personally. "I can speak absolutely honestly: This was a total surprise," says Luhrmann. "It was not something we were aware of."

Kidman claims she wasn't aware of it either. In her court papers, Kidman states Cruise left her without explanation, and that despite speculation to the contrary, she was indeed carrying his child when she miscarried earlier this year. She's seeking joint legal custody of their two children, Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6. Significantly, she's hired tenacious L.A. lawyer Stanton L. Stein to represent her. Stein is best known for handling profit participation lawsuits (including David Duchovny's 1999 action against Fox over The X-Files), not divorce cases. Her unusual choice of attorney suggests the legal proceedings will look more like corporate warfare than a marital breakup.

There's also been talk of romance between Kidman and McGregor (who's also married) during filming, which both actors adamantly deny. "People ask if anything happened between them," says Luhrmann, raising the issue himself. "I say only in terms of the natural romance that comes from doing the scenes. And it was very romantic to do those scenes."

"We just got on," says McGregor simply. "We were singing to each other from the moment we met. There's something beautiful about that."


Asked to comment on rumors surrounding the breakup, Kidman declines. "One day. Probably. But now's not the time," she says. "Part of me is like, 'I want to!' But I have to sit here and take the high road." Still, she says it's okay to ask: "I understand there's interest. If I was on the outside of this, even I'd go, What the hell happened here? I'm good at seeing both sides of the fence."

Good thing, because Fox could use all the help it can get. So far, the studio has been wary of positioning the film as a musical and at press time had yet to air TV ads showing the actors singing. (Fox says that will soon change.) There's also been some bad buzz; one report had Luhrmann hiring Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue to narrate because test audiences couldn't follow the plot. (Minogue appears only fleetingly as a fairy during an absinthe-induced hallucination.)

But if it doesn't play here, Moulin Rouge may pay off anyway. Fox sees Luhrmann as an international draw because of Romeo + Juliet, which grossed $46 million domestically but a reported $90 million-plus abroad. "There's a greater acceptance of originality around the world," says Fox cochairman Jim Gianopoulos. "I think it's going to be huge here, but certainly internationally."

"I'm ready to bring it out and move on," says Luhrmann. Next year, he is expected to stage his La Boheme on Broadway. He also plans to abandon the "Red Curtain" approach to cinema and try something new. Perhaps he'll find it during his next backpacking excursion this summer, destination unknown. "After four years of leading my people down into a fiery furnace," he says, "what I really do is release myself of my name, my title, and my responsibilities and I disappear. It's my most favorite thing. To just be...anonymous."

If only Kidman could join him. "I look forward to the day when there's less interest in my personal life," says the actress with a bewildered shake of the head. "I know that day will come soon." That may be wishful thinking, since Kidman plans to also heavily promote The Others, which opens in August. Undoubtedly, the media will dwell on the Kidman/Cruise connection, but its studio, Dimension Films, won't. "That would be trading on something unseemly," says chief Bob Weinstein, who's plotting a 2,000-screen rollout for the otherwise star-free spooky drama. "It's a great bookend for her: She opens the summer, and she's going to close it."

In the meantime, Kidman will be working on The Hours for Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry, as well as a more personal project: getting her life together. "I'm finding my own strength, in terms of taking care of myself, and who I am as an individual, not just as part of my couple," she says. "One day, I will look back on this, and just think, It was so surreal."