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Her Finest Hour

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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.”

That would be actress, mom – and champion speed-dialer. Minutes after winning her Oscar, Kidman phoned her sister Antonia, 32, a journalist in Sydney, and her longtime best buddy, actress Naomi Watts. Still, while she treasures her friends and family, Kidman – who calls herself “very single” – says her life is missing a “big part” of what it takes to be complete. “It’s lonely when you know you don’t have someone in your life to protect you,” she says. “I want someone who says, ‘I will stand by you and be there for you, and your life is just as important to me as mine.” So far no one fits the bill – and while she does her share of flirting, “I’m not looking,” she says. “I don’t ask men out, and I can’t be set up with anyone because I can’t bear the idea of letting anyone down. No, I don’t ‘go out’ really. I’m not someone who just says, ‘Oh yeah, this is silly and light and fun.’ I like to be in love. Nothing casual. I’m not interested in casual.”

But there are men in her life. On Oscar night, on her cell phone, she also shared her victory with her ex-husband and her son on the set of Cruise’s The Last Samurai in New Zealand. “It was so important for me to talk to Connor and, yes, to Tom,” she says. “We have very different lives now, but as I’ve said to Tom, I will be there for him for the rest of his life, always there. There’s a beautiful moment in The Hours when (Woolf says), ‘Always the years together, always the hours,’ and Tom and I had 11 years together. Your heart has to stay loving. For the kids, it has to be.” Cruise, 40, offered congratulations; Connor, who’d been practicing push-ups during the awards, “was happy for me but slightly disinterested,” Kidman says with a laugh. “But he knows that if Mommy or Daddy ever gets nominated again, then he gets to go.”

Better start the bow-tie lessons soon. By 7 a.m. on the Wednesday after the Oscars, Kidman was back on the Queens set of Birth, a supernatural thriller and her fifth movie shoot in two years. “I love to be in character more than anything,” she says. “It’s when I’m most alive. I don’t know if it’s because I love to escape. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t know who I am. I don’t know if it’s because I have always been so enthralled with the idea of exploring the psyche of different people, but I love the stories and I love being around the people who want to tell the stories.” It was work, in fact, that provided an emotional outlet after her split from Cruise. When The Hours author Michael Cunningham first met Kidman on the set in the summer of 2001, “She had an air of fragility,” he says. “When we shook hands, her hand felt so tiny in mine, I thought, ‘Take this back, I’ll crush it.’ She was clearly in pain. She told me that the difficulty she was going through then really helped her play Virginia Woolf.” Kidman found more solace taking long forest walks in subfreezing temperatures while filming Dogville in Sweden for the Danish director Lars von Trier in January 2002. “I love seeing huge, mammoth trees, because they’ve been around a long time with their really thick trunks,” she says. “People would look at me like I’m mad.” That includes costar Paul Bettany. “I would see her wandering off, wrapped up to the nines in scarves and great big winter coats and massive woolly hats,” he says, laughing. “She talks endlessly about how much she likes trees.”

She’s no daydreamer when it comes to picking parts. “She’s made astoundingly good choices,” says director Anthony Minghella, whose Cold Mountain stars Kidman as the sweetheart of a Civil War soldier (Jude Law) who must learn self-reliance in his absence. “In many ways, the Oscar was a vote for an actress as much as a performance,” he adds, citing the “range and virtuosity” she demonstrated with Moulin Rouge, 2001’s The Others and The Hours. Says Pollack: “People have gotten past the beauty, they’ve gotten past the fact that she was married to Tom Cruise, and they now appreciate how truly versatile and substantive her talent is.”

Meanwhile her Cruise-era image as chilly and distant has thawed. Though Kidman can be shy at times, her girlish giggle “is like this tinkling of a stream in the background, ready to pop out at all times,” says Moulin Rouge costar Richard Roxburgh. Her tight circle of longtime friends knows her as a vicious charades competitor and a chatterer who relishes girls’ nights out. Declares Cunningham: “She’s wildly alive and great fun and hugely loving and wants to go to the party and dance all night. I don’t know how we ever believed she was some kind of an ice queen.”

“Dorky” is how Kidman describes herself as a kid growing up in Sydney with “wild and curly” hair, “pale, pale” skin and “long, long legs that would flail around.” (And still do: The 5’10” actress and her equally tall sister “fall over sometimes,” Kidman says. “When we play tennis, we’re very funny because we go over on our ankles a lot, like strange horses.”) The two children of Antony, a psychologist, and Janelle, a nurse educator, were inseparable. “I probably was a bit of a thorn in her side, but she’s always had quite a protective instinct over me,” says Antonia, now mom to Lucia, 4, and Hamish, 2.

Never a serious troublemaker, Kidman nonetheless had a rebellious streak. While attending the elite academic North Sydney Girls’ High School, she liked to tool around on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. “I would always have to hide, because Mother was terrified of boys and motorbikes,” she recalls. Local theater gigs helped her land a role at 16 in a 1983 teen crime-caper movie, BMX Bandits. But a year later Kidman’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Terrified, Kidman stayed by Janelle’s side until she got well. “From the minute I was born, my mom and I had this incredibly deep connection,” Kidman says. Onstage accepting her Oscar, “I could see my mom weeping, and that’s when it hit me that this was for her.” Says Janelle of her daughter’s moving thank-you: “I’m very proud of her, but I’ve always been proud of her. Australia is proud of her!”

The hit 1989 Aussie thriller Dead Calm got the 21-year-old Kidman noticed in the U.S. – and soon by Cruise, who handpicked her to costar with him in 1990’s Days of Thunder. She fell hard. So did he. They wed in December 1990. “It was just mad love, passionate love,” says Kidman. “When I love, I love so much, it’s dangerous.”

The adjustment to being Mrs. Tom Cruise “never seemed to be too daunting to her,” recalls actress Deborra-Lee Furness, who boarded Kidman when her pal first came to the U.S. But Kidman’s “competitive spirit” made her strive to prove herself as a serious actress in her own right. Her Golden Globe for the 1995 black comedy To Die For gave a glimpse of things to come. “No one wants to be Mrs. Appendage,” says Furness.

And then, on Feb. 5, 2001, suddenly she wasn’t anymore. Unsure whether her career would survive – “I thought everything was over,” she says – she turned to her family and friends for comfort as Cruise moved on to a romance with actress Penelope Cruz, 28, that July. (Four months later Kidman hammered out an undisclosed settlement with Cruise, divvying up $350 million in property and cash.) “My mum’s been quite tough on me in a good way,” Kidman says. “She fed me her strength and her wisdom. She said, ‘You’re a role model for your two children and how you conduct yourself now will be how they view you.’ ” Pal Naomi Watts moved into Kidman’s Pacific Palisades home for a brief period. “In a strange way I felt safe in the most exposed time of my life,” Kidman says. “You go, ‘Good, I know when I’m 80, I’m still going to have these same friendships.’ ”

And her love for her children. She and Cruise share custody of Connor (“a daddy’s boy,” says Furness) and Bella (“like a mini Nicole in personality”). The trio have a “breakfast ritual,” says Furness. “They sit down and talk about what they’re going to do for the day. It’s a really special time for them.” Even more special when it’s on a beach in Fiji, where Kidman, her parents, sister and children vacationed during the holidays this year. “There were certain times when I was just sitting in Fiji over Christmas with my whole family where I was the happiest I think I’ve ever been,” Kidman says. “It was the ocean, the warm breeze, the light, hearing my children, knowing they were close.”

For Kidman, the prospect of romance “isn’t like dating guys when you’re single,” Furness says. “It affects the kids’ lives, so she doesn’t take it lightly.” But her absence thus far from the dating scene is also just the way Kidman’s heart ticks. “I much prefer that worlds will collide,” she says. “When they do, you know it. You feel it in your bones. I’ll wait and see. I’m waiting for someone to come rock my world.”

In the meantime, she has Oscar.

– SAMANTHA MILLER – ELIZABETH LEONARD in New York City

PEOPLE.com Photo Gallery: Nicole’s Top 10 Fashions