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AFI Life Achievement Award Honors Nicole Kidman’s Career: From ‘Expats’ to Those AMC Ads?

Honors Nicole has been an international treasure going on four decades. Whether you’re tracking her many wigs (“The Undoing” is our favorite), admiring her textured and committed performances, or just standing up and saluting before every AMC Theatres showing, you’re probably honoring her in some way.

While five best actress Oscar nominations and one win (for “The Hours”) have been adequate markers of her success and endurance, conversations have been brewing for years about a lack of recognition for her remarkable artistic consistency.

“How many times does Nicole Kidman have to prove herself?” asked author Anne Helen Peterson in a 2017 essay for BuzzFeed, one that examined how esteem is or isn’t doled out to women in Hollywood, using Kidman as a template.

“While male actors coast on the brilliance of a single performance for years, female stars have to reapply for greatness on a yearly basis, fighting the industry-wide impulse for gossip about their personal lives and their appearances to subsume substantial conversation about their ability,” Peterson wrote nearly 10 years ago, on the heels of the runaway hit first season of “Big Little Lies,” starring Kidman.

After a 2023 delay due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the American Film Institute hopes to correct this cultural error by handing Kidman its Life Achievement Award Saturday. Broadcast on TNT, the tribute makes for glorious cinema pageantry, sitting our film idols on a dais and trotting out an army of famous faces to pay tribute to them in between movie clips.

AFI president Bob Gazzale, who wrote the upcoming Kidman show and serves as executive producer, watched roughly 80 films and series from the actor’s archive in an effort to capture her versatility. Only with Kidman do you get “The Stepford Wives” remake next to an adaptation of Phillip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” Or Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” along with Adam Sandler’s “Just Go With It.” Or Jonathan Glazer’s criminally underrated “Birth” alongside the campy “Batman Forever.”

Gazzale caught up with Variety to discuss his grand plans for Kidman, offer a look inside AFI’s selection process and tease some surprises in store.

There are so few formats like the Life Achievement Award on live television now. We’ve moved away from this kind of thing thanks to social media and how video moves now. So why Nicole Kidman, and why now?

In the long and proud tradition of this award, Nicole embodies the glamour and the romance of Hollywood past. But she also has the daring and the bravery of one of this art form’s great character actors. She’s a true screen icon, but she’s also a risk-taker. Each performance is something new and something profound.

I think a life achievement evokes an honoree of a certain age, but Kidman and several of your past recipients don’t quite fit that bill. How flexible is AFI in handing out something like this? Kidman has this incredible body of work, but she’s very viable in the marketplace.

Even at her young age, she’s had a life of achievements and one worthy of celebration. In addition to her work, it’s her impact. She drives culture forward. She’s doing it now with such power, with her commitment to amplifying the voices of female directors and producers. That’s an aspect of the impact that we’re going to be celebrating at the event. Nicole has been very specific about what she wishes for us to think about.

What are the metrics you look at when you consider life achievement?

Obviously, everyone who we’ve celebrated has been a household name, but it starts with a great debate. There are many worthy recipients. These debates get passionate, and the AFI trustees take it very seriously.

I love the idea of people sitting in a conference room filibustering on behalf of movie stars. How does the process work specifically?

There’s a life achievement award committee that typically recommends three possible recipients. Those nominees are then brought to the larger board. In that round, we hear other important names to add to consideration. The event has gone on now over 50 years, and there are many stories I could tell you. The point is the legacy of the event shows a commitment to excellence.

How much of her work did you revisit for the show?

Most, if not all, of the work. And think about things like “Big Little Lies” — which is seven hours long per season. That’s the joy of it. Revisiting all these shows and movies, you always see new things. That’s especially true of Nicole. Not only have you changed as a person between viewings, but her performances are so nuanced.

What was the biggest standout to you? 

“Moulin Rouge.” I was really overcome by the fact that she’s someone who can sing and dance, and play comedy, romance and drama in one quite brilliant performance.

She has an incredible knack for darkness as well. Did you rewatch “Dogville”?

I did. That movie is still haunts me to this day. For me, it was like watching a bruise form; it’s painful and yet it’s beautiful. She has been brave in her choices. Her agent once told me she wanted a director who didn’t speak English. He had to inform her [they didn’t speak English] and she looked at him and said, “Then get an interpreter.” She wants new challenges.

There’s been a lot written about how overdue a moment like this is for her. Would you agree?

What makes this event so special is that it’s not a competition. It’s one of the rare events in this community where there are no losers. And, yes, nobody is more deserving of that than Nicole Kidman.

I think some of her most memorable moments have come from content like advertising, including the viral AMC Theatres ad.

Yes, there’s nothing like that collective smile when that ad comes on. People stand up and salute it.

Will you reference it during her AFI tribute? 

We will, but I’m not giving away any surprises. But the other thing that’s unique about her is that this honor stands for something greater. Nicole is the first Australian to receive the award. We’ve had some recipients with roots in the U.K. — Alfred Hitchcock, Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor was a dual citizen. But this art form is a global unifier at a time when needed most.