November 26, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Next month Nicole Kidman stars in Rabbit Hole, the sad drama about a couple quietly falling apart after the accidental death of their 4-year-old son. She plays a grieving wife and mother opposite Aaron Eckhart as her husband; Dianne Wiest is her mother. The movie’s opening is some weeks away (it’s in limited release Dec. 17), but I can already anticipate two consequences in the national chatter: First, there will be prognostication about Nicole Kidman’s chances for an Oscar nomination. Second, there will be talk about Nicole Kidman’s face.

A constant awareness of Kidman’s visage — how parts have appeared tighter or plumper in recent years, how parts don’t move or remain unfurrowed even in the act of expressing intense emotion — has, after all, become an unavoidable topic of conversation when it comes to the willowy Oscar-winning Australian star. At the age of 43, Kidman has been a professional actor for more than 25 years. She chooses ambitious projects with some of the world’s most interesting directors, and she brings an intriguing self-possession to her roles, enhanced by her slender 5’11” frame, her milky bone-china complexion, and her honeyed hair. Yet the cosmetic alterations Kidman seems to have chosen — achieved by means only she has the authority to confirm — have for years become uncomfortably entwined with the assessment of her talents.

That obsession is true not only for gossip-page scribes but for serious film critics, too. ”What has she done to her face?” asked worried critic Stephanie Zacharek on Salon.com in her 2007 review of Margot at the Wedding. Zacharek concluded that ”Kidman’s skin…has turned into her greatest limitation, a boundary beyond which she can’t stretch.” In his 2008 New York magazine evaluation of Australia, David Edelstein made a joke at the expense of Kidman’s ”big immovable forehead.” Working backward toward a compliment in a New York Times review of The Golden Compass in 2007, Manohla Dargis accepted the star’s ”masklike countenance,” concluding that ”for once, the smooth planes of her face, untroubled by visible lines, serve the character.”

Which brings us back to Rabbit Hole, and the discussion bound to ensue about Kidman’s latest presentation of self. Because I’m not a licensed prognosticator, I’ll leave the Oscar part of the proceedings to others. (FYI, EW’s resident awards expert Dave Karger assures me that Kidman is firmly in the running.) But I’ve been as absorbed in the messages conveyed by the lady’s ageless face as the next critic and, indeed, admirer. So I’d like to redirect the agenda.

For what it’s worth, Kidman’s famous features do move — a little more — in Rabbit Hole. By whatever methods she has employed, the actor currently looks somewhat softer and a little more natural, playing a woman nearly catatonic with grief. And insofar as increased facial pliability will expand her work options, refocus critical attention on her considerable acting skills, and get Internet snark off her case and back where it belongs on the cases of talentless celebutards with plastic-surgery addictions, I say, Great! Show us your flaws, Nic! So you at your ”worst” are better than we are on our very best days! (It’s no accident, I don’t think, that female journalists are more prone to dish on Kidman than men are: She may be a beautiful movie star and we may not be, but any woman knows what it feels like to work with or against her own aging process in a culture addicted to exaggerated characteristics of youthful female sexuality.)

Anyhow, enough, okay? Let’s talk about something else. Let’s first acknowledge that movie stars Have Had Work Done since the dawn of hair dye and nose jobs. For that matter, let’s assume that everyone we see on a screen today has probably had work done too — and that includes men as well as women, and even those famously ”naturally” aging beauties who don’t look as if they’ve done anything extra at all. Let’s even admit that some stars make physical changes from time to time that don’t always work out — boobs out of proportion, lips overinflated, foreheads freakishly smooth. The fact is, physical enhancement is as much a professional requirement for an actor aspiring to Hollywood fame as strength training is for an athlete aiming for the NFL. With the pressures put on movie stars (particularly female), first by an industry (particularly male) that pays lip service to ”reality” while obsessively promoting what’s young and hot, and in turn by us, the audience, it’s a wonder more actors, both male and female, don’t lose sight of what’s right and natural about their own bodies. These days — let’s face it — Nicole Kidman has become a mirror for our own ambivalence.

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