Look What You're Missing Now, Tom; since Her Split with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman Has Zoomed Back on to Hollywood's A List

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For Nicole Kidman it is the best of times and the worst of times. The willowy Australian actress is still coming to terms with life as a single woman, finding it difficult to share her children with her ex-husband and tired of fending off questions about her failed marriage.

Yet since Tom Cruise left the picture, her career has rocketed. With two highly-praised movies to promote - she is being tipped as a best actress Oscar contender for both Moulin Rouge and forthcoming chiller The Others - she is suddenly hotter than ever. And the advance word is that she turns in another fine performance as writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which she recently finished filming.

"It's a strange time," she admits. "It's the best time and worst time of my life all at the same time. It's an erratic and unpredictable path that I'm on and I don't know what's around the corner. I'm taking one day at a time. I don't have an overall plan."

It may not be a coincidence that the three films she made with Cruise - Days Of Thunder, Far And Away and Eyes Wide Shut - were all disappointments. But since branching out on her own, she is being acclaimed as a top-class actress.

In a business where image is everything, 33-year-old Nicole has also emerged as the clear winner in her battle with Cruise for public sympathy. Although both she and her ex-husband are represented by the same PR company, PMK, Nicole has shown herself to be an expert at projecting the right image while simultaneously handling a personal trauma.

"She has done everything right," says one PR executive. "People are on her side and see her as a victim. She appears to have won the sympathies of the public and most people are delighted to see her coming through this crisis with her head held high."

The picture of Nicole leaving her lawyer's office on the day her divorce came through said it all. Arms aloft, head raised, a grin on her face, it showed that, whatever her private pain, she's embracing her new-found freedom. She has made some major changes in her life since the split. She has abandoned Scientology, the religion to which she switched at Cruise's urging, and she has been seen out with her girlfriends at nightspots where he would never go.

Last week she turned up at the House Of Blues on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard for a performance by her old pal Russell Crowe and his band, 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts. Although she has been romantically linked with Crowe, both have always denied being anything other than friends.

"It's easy to become cloistered and say, 'I don't want to go out. I'm embarrassed and I don't like being looked at'," says Nicole. "I fight that all the time because I don't want to live my life that way. I love to meet people, I love to talk to people, I love to be around people and I love to be part of the world."

With their divorce settlement and the custody of their children still to be agreed on, Nicole has been careful not to publicly criticise Cruise, although she landed a lighthearted dig at his lack of height on the David Letterman Show, saying, "Now I can wear high heels". They have also been careful to avoid any confrontations. At the premiere of The Others, which Cruise produced, their appearances were carefully timed so that Nicole was already in the cinema by the time Cruise arrived.

Their lawyers have been involved in negotiations since the marriage break-up. A settlement conference has been set for October 4 when the division of their $300million fortune, which includes five houses, two planes and one million dollars worth of jewellery, will be decided. …