Nicole Kidman is not afraid to fall on her face, no matter how far the fall might take her, or how irreplaceable a tool of her trade her face is. When she was playing the dying prostitute Satine in Moulin Rouge, she had to be talked out of trying a several-story plunge on the film’s Australian set. ”I was absolutely convinced I could do the fall off the trapeze,” she recalls, laughing. ”I’m very grateful that I had to be restrained.”

A stuntwoman eventually stepped in to do the shot, which may have marked the only moment of the year in which Nicole Kidman did not take a risk. In 2001, Kidman let go of countless trapezes — and, instead of falling to earth, found herself miraculously airborne. For her stamina, her resilience, and her talent, her ability to bewitch and surprise us with every new performance, and her constant fight to exceed all expectations — including her own — she is our Entertainer of the Year.

”Entertainer!” she says. ”I really like that. It sounds better than ‘Actor.”’ Not so fast. In case anyone missed it — and given her string of provocative, nuanced performances in movies like To Die For, Portrait of a Lady, and Eyes Wide Shut, we should have been more alert — Kidman has become one of the more interesting actors working in movies. This year, she gave a pair of performances so fearless and assured that even if she had not owned a half share in the year’s most headline-making celebrity split, the ”Mrs. Tom Cruise” label would have been banished permanently. Following her yearlong stint on Moulin Rouge, and still limping from a serious knee injury, she threw herself into 12 weeks of work on the elegant ghost story The Others. ”Coming after movies like American Pie 2, we weren’t going to get much attention,” she says. ”I remember Harvey Weinstein saying ‘We probably chose the wrong release date. Don’t have any high expectations.”’ Surprise: The Miramax/Dimension movie became last summer’s most unexpected smash, and Kidman’s hushed, regal performance drew comparisons to Grace Kelly and buzz about which of her two films was more likely to yield a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She’ll be getting one vote from the aforementioned ex, who exec-produced The Others: ”It’s an incredible performance,” says Cruise, ”and I hope she gets acknowledged for it.”)

On June 20, Nicole Kidman turned 34, an oddly pivotal age for actresses. At 34, Jane Fonda starred in Klute and Elizabeth Taylor made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At 34, Susan Sarandon got her first Oscar nomination, Katharine Hepburn made her first film with Spencer Tracy, and Ingrid Bergman fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, told Hollywood’s image makers to screw off, and ended her marriage amid a tempest of gossip. It is an age at which actresses suddenly seem to become whoever they are destined to be, and more fascinating than you ever knew they were. ”Was it a good year?” Kidman wonders. ”It was an interesting year. A strange year. A cathartic year. Creatively, it was very fulfilling, but there were some pretty dark times. If everything had fallen apart — if Moulin Rouge and The Others had tanked — that would have been too many blows. But somebody was looking out for me.” More than that — we were looking right at her. And in 2001, we couldn’t get enough.