Nicole Kidman’s Big Night As She Receives 49th AFI Life Achievement Award

“I think it was Andy Warhol who said, “Make art and let others decide whether it is good or bad. But while they are deciding, make some more”.

That was the line with which Nicole Kidman ended her 15-minute acceptance speech after Meryl Streep had presented her with the 49th AFI Life Achievement Award.

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That is something that seems entirely appropriate for Kidman, who doesn’t seem to stop “making art,” taking risks at every turn, telling stories through her power not just as an actor, but also a producer dedicated to bringing those stories to screens big and small. At 56, she is on the younger side of the previous 48 recipients of this very high honor, the first Australian to receive it. And someone very much in the middle of creating those life achievements that led to last night’s honor at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where a large turnout out the industry’s elite came by to celebrate her.

Deadline reported last night on the red carpet and included a gallery of many attending. The list included on-stage participants like Morgan Freeman, who offered the inevitable parody on Kidman’s AMC Theatres spot; Naomi Watts, who told of the early days as each made their way into the business from their home in Australia; Reese Witherspoon, who talked not only about Kidman’s acting prowess, but also her dead-on producing abilities; Mike Myers, Zac Efron, Miles Teller, each telling of their connections and admiration to the night’s honoree.

Her husband Keith Urban perhaps gave the night’s most emotional tribute, not just to her talents the world could see, but to their private lives as well, including a heart- wrenching story of how his wife, shortly after their marriage, helped to pull him out of a downward spiral of addiction.

The Dolby ballroom, the same area where the Oscars take place, only with seats removed and jam-packed with dinner tables, was also decked out with some stunning portraits of Kidman adorning the walls and demonstrating not just her incredible range as an actress, but also effectively showing her as a worthy successor to some other actors who have shared this same honor since it was created nearly a half-century ago (92 year old AFI founder George Stevens Jr. was among those who were in the audience).

Bette Davis. Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Streisand, Streep, Freeman, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Denzel Washington and on an on. Julie Andrews got the 48th after a ceremony that was delayed by over a year by the pandemic. Kidman’s big night also was delayed several months by the writers and actors strikes last year.

At this point, I would call myself a veteran of these evenings, and I always look forward to them. The first one I actually got to attend was in the ’80s, when I was working with Entertainment Tonight. It was for Stanwyck, who shortly before the evening had thrown out her back, but was determined to attend, even though she couldn’t sit in the ballroom for most of it.

She did make it on to that stage to collect her award, and it is a vivid memory. Because I was by myself one of the organizers asked if I could fill in and sit at a table, a prime one, where there was a no-show. I found myself sitting next to the Oscar-winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), a big supporter of AFI. He died a couple of years after that, and his widow, Jean, in 1991 would establish the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal, given to an alum of the AFI Conservatory or AFI DWW+. The first winner was David Lynch. By coincidence, this year I happened to be sitting right behind the 2024 recipient, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who made a heartfelt speech accepting his medal early in the evening.

Since that Stanwyck AFI evening, I have managed to attend nearly all that came after, not quite, but close. There is always something special about them, but this one to Kidman seemed particularly warm, a real family affair that included her two daughters with Urban, and according to their mom, were making their red carpet debuts no less.

I briefly caught up with Kidman just before her tribute began. She was still reeling from the entrance AFI always holds for their honoree. Kidman, in a stunning Balenciaga gold gown, simply appears on stage after her name is announced and then walks through all the tables to the dais. A woman next to me had her mouth open, saying, “She looks like a living Oscar.” This was Hollywood glamour at its best, but Kidman lets the work speak for itself, recently telling the Los Angeles Times she doesn’t look back, even shredding each of her scripts once the work is done, packing her suitcase, and moving on to the next adventure in filmmaking.

In the 40 years since her debut, the list tells you everything. Dead Calm, To Die For, The Portrait Of A Lady, Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Hours, Dogville, The Human Stain, Cold Mountain, Birth, Australia, Rabbit Hole, The Family Fang, Lion, Destroyer, Boy Erased, Bombshell, Being The Ricardos, Big Little Lies, The Undoing, Nine Perfect Strangers, Expats, and those film and television achievements are just a few.

Kidman made a point of tributing what seemed like every director she has worked with: Kubrick, Luhrman, Daldry, Campion, Van Sant, Von Trier, Glazer, Schumacher, Scott, Howard, Noyce, Miller, Daniels, Lanthimos, Kaufman, Bier, director Park Chan-Wook, Sofia Coppola, Ephron, Marshall, Sorkin, all the way to Lulu Wang, who most recently directed her in the riveting limited series, Expats.

As AFI President & CEO Bob Gazzale, who also serves as Executive Producer of the AFI Life Achievement Gala Tribute looks forward to next year’s 50th, I don’t think they could have possibly picked a more deserving recipient for their 49th.

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