Walking Tall

updated 04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 01:00AM

BEST ACTRESS NICOLE KIDMAN

WINNER

First things first: The nose is old news. Yes, Nicole Kidman donned a prosthetic proboscis to play early-20th-century writer Virginia Woolf, and yes, the transformation was so astonishing that visitors to the set of The Hours didn't give the dowdily dressed actress a second glance. But it was much more than latex that earned Kidman, 35, her first Academy Award; rather it was the way she managed to illuminate a woman who wrestled with darkness, a woman who once noted that "the beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder."

Kidman, of course, knows both edges well. A shy, gawky girl whose moonlit skin always seemed out of place in her sand-and-tan hometown of Sydney, Kidman went from being Tom Cruise's onscreen girlfriend (in 1990's Days of Thunder) to Tom Cruise's real-life wife to Tom Cruise's ex, after their painful, high-profile split in February 2001. But even as she spent a decade as one half of the one-breath duo "Tomand-Nicole," it seemed evident that the flame-haired beauty with the impossibly long legs—and, yes, perfectly pert nose—was just waiting to ignite. After paying her dues as the Love Interest (1991's Billy Bathgate; 1995's Batman Forever), Kidman showed 'em what she could really do with her indelibly brash performance in the 1995 black comedy To Die For, her heartbreaking work in 200l's The Others and her Oscar-nominated all-that-jazz pizzazz (even before Renée) in 2001 's Moulin Rouge! Along the way, she also became one of Hollywood's most sophisticated style arbiters and a mom to Isabella, 10, and Connor, 8. But winning the Oscar had the stunned Kidman recalling her own childhood dreams. "It's one of those things, when you sit in your living room in your pajamas and you watch television and you think, 'Wow, that would be amazing to be a part of that,' " she says. "But you never think that that's a reality." Still, she doesn't plan to rest on her laurels. With every new film, "I still go back thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to get fired,' " she says. "I think you have to operate from the sense of everything is new and you're starting again."

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