February 2001
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Yes She Can-Can
By Aimee Agresti
Photographed by Ellen Von Unwerth

Nicole Kidman rocks around the clock in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge,’ a seductive musical that blends modern pop songs with the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Leave it to director Baz Luhrmann to find a way to get Nicole Kidman up on a trapeze, Ewan McGregor into the belly of an elephant, and John Leguizamo onto four sets of stubby prosthetic legs—all for one movie. Moulin Rouge, the third of what Luhrmann calls his “red curtain style” films (Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet share a similarly theatrical, stylized sense of reality), is a musical extravaganza set in the fin-de-siècle Paris nightclub made famous by can-can–dancing prostitutes and the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. But the story is as ancient as the Orpheus myth (a naive poet, played by McGregor, ventures into the bohemian underworld and finds star-crossed love with the courtesan Satin, played by Kidman) and as modern as the U2 and Elton John songs the characters croon. In fact, Luhrmann and his production-designer wife, Catherine Martin, considered setting the movie (due this summer) in the Studio 54 era before deciding it needed to take place instead “in an exotic land far, far away, but familiar,” Luhrmann says.

Some 20 sets were constructed on the Fox lot in Sydney, including the nightclub’s opulent red-velvet and gold interior and a 30-foot papier-mâché elephant that sits in the garden of delights out back, where the can-can dancers canoodle with their customers. Martin and her team costumed more than 350 dancers and extras for the big production numbers and faced a different kind of challenge making Leguizamo, who plays Toulouse-Lautrec, fit into the painter’s famously short stature. Since Luhrmann didn’t want to confine the actor to the blue screen and shorten his legs digitally, they fashioned a series of short artificial limbs that attached at Leguizamo’s knees and allowed him to walk, sit, or stand with the other actors.

To pair the extravagant visuals with what Luhrmann calls “the soundtrack of your dreams,” the director incorporated musical sources as diverse as Debussy, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the Beatles. “This is a break-out-into-song musical,” he says. “The major emotional scenes are sung.” Kidman, who “sort of sang in a band” when she was 17 (Blondie songs were her forte), says, “Singing isn’t something where I go, ‘Oh, great, I can’t wait to sing in front of everyone again.’ It’s fine singing in character as Satin; it’s just awful singing as Nicole.” Luhrmann is the kind of director who inspires actors to take such risks, however. “Baz’s mind is weird,” Kidman says fondly.