Her Finest Hour

04/03/2003 AT 01:50 PM EST

Only when young Isabella Cruise leaned over her mother's bare shoulder from the second row and whispered, "You're going to win," did terror creep up on Nicole Kidman. Until then Kidman had convinced herself that she would go home Oscarless – over dinner the night before she had reassured her mother and father that she "really wouldn't feel badly" – and had made peace with the outcome. But sitting in her silk Jean Paul Gaultier gown in the front row midway through the March 23 Academy Awards, she started to feel sick. "My mother looked over at me and said, 'Your shoulders are hunched. You look completely terrified. You should just relax a bit,' " recalls Kidman, 35, giggling at the memory over a cup of black coffee at the Manhattan hotel that's subbing for home while her new Greenwich Village apartment undergoes renovations. "I'm like, 'Mum, I can't!' My stomach suddenly went into knots and I got a wave of absolute fear. Ed Harris was sitting next to me and said, 'You don't look good. What's wrong?' I said, 'I'm feeling nauseous. Maybe I ate a bad shrimp.' I looked around and I suddenly realized the impact of being there and thought about if I had to get up onstage. Part of my fear was that I didn't want to disappoint Bella."

Bella, at 10, just old enough to be sporting her first pair of high heels, turned out to have her feet on the ground. When Best Actress presenter Denzel Washington read out Kidman's name, "I just went blank," she says. "Everything I had thought in my head that I might say was gone. Gone. I couldn't think of anyone's names. Nothing. It was terrifying, and my hands started to shake." She still recalls little of her time onstage, when she tearfully spoke of her desire to make her mother and daughter proud. But she remembers her family's private celebration when she and her parents returned to their hotel at 2 a.m. after a whirlwind of parties. Kidman then woke up a sleeping Bella, and "we came back and ate french fries and drank champagne," Kidman says. "Bella was drinking juice. She loved it." Finally, at about 4:30 a.m., "I ripped my dress off because I was so exhausted and fell fast asleep," she says. "I woke up the next morning and right next to my bed, I saw a gold statue, and I realized then that it was really true. It's such an unusual, strange path that my life has had. The line 'How did this happen?' has many different meanings in my life. Virginia Woolf uttered it in her darkest period, and I've certainly uttered it in my darkest periods – and I've had my share – but I also utter it in my most joyful times. You just go, 'How did this happen?' "

Credit a string of strong performances, her family and friends and sheer determination. Just over two years ago, Tom Cruise filed for divorce from Kidman, bringing her 10-year marriage to one of Hollywood's biggest stars to an abrupt end. Her world "falling apart," Kidman adjusted to life as a single mom to Bella and Connor, 8. Meanwhile she threw her head and heart into work, promoting 2001's Moulin Rouge (for which she earned her first Oscar nomination), channeling her pain into her Oscar-winning turn as tortured author Virginia Woolf in The Hours and filming lead roles in the upcoming dramas The Human Stain and Cold Mountain. On the red carpet she evolved from arm candy to fashion icon. As she found her footing, she has also let her fun-loving Aussie roots show. "If ever somebody's time had come, it was hers," says Cold Mountain producer Sydney Pollack, a close friend to both Kidman and Cruise. "She went through a terrible period, there's no question. It's very, very pleasing when you watch someone blossom and flower like that." These days "she knows who she is."

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