Only in Hollywood

[Only IN Hollywood] Stories of American dream, recovery, and skinny-dipping as AFI honors Nicole Kidman, Matthew Libatique

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Stories of American dream, recovery, and skinny-dipping as AFI honors Nicole Kidman, Matthew Libatique
Nicole and Matthew became the first Australian and Filipino American, respectively, to earn AFI’s honors

LOS ANGELES, USA – On an evening when the American Film Institute (AFI) honored both Nicole Kidman and Matthew Libatique, she cited that the “path to this astonishing world tonight began in Australia” where she and her sister were raised by parents who challenged them.

Matthew, on the other hand, thanked his parents “who came to this country…from the Philippines in search of the American dream” and found it through him and his brother.

Presenters, led by Meryl Streep, who amusingly quipped about “being incessantly called ‘The Greatest Actress,’ ” further livened up the recent AFI Life Achievement Award gala feting Nicole at the Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars, in Hollywood.

Three-time Academy cinematography nominee Matthew received the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal as an alumnus of the AFI Conservatory. The AFI, a nonprofit organization that fosters film education and arts programs, including the annual AFI film festival, is based in Los Angeles where it has a campus.

Fil-Am cinematographer Matthew Libatique accepts AFI award. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales.

A member of the Conservatory’s class of 1992, Matthew joined the list of distinguished alumni who have previously received the award – Darren Aronofsky (a batchmate who became his frequent collaborator), David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Patty Jenkins, Janusz Kaminski, and many more. AFI began giving the alumni award in 1991.

Nicole and Matthew became the first Australian and Filipino American, respectively, to earn AFI’s honors. 

The seats in the orchestra section of the Dolby Theatre were removed to transform the venue into a ballroom with elegantly set dinner tables where stars, filmmakers, families, and friends of Nicole and Matthew sat.

People, Person, Adult
Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars, transformed into a ballroom for the AFI Life Achievement Award gala. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales.

Guests arrived on Hollywood Boulevard and walked on the long red carpet, lined with fans and spectators, that led to the grand staircase and the theater itself.

The star-studded event, marked by heartfelt, inspiring, and candid remarks and speeches, was taped to be shown as a special to premiere on TNT on June 17.

Bob Gazzale, AFI president and CEO, in presenting the award to Matthew, said, “His earliest work was a special elaboration with Darren Aronofsky, also a recipient of this medal.”

“Darren told me that he met our honoree on the third day at AFI, and this was his quote, ‘He was from Queens, I was from Brooklyn, worlds apart, but we spoke the same language.’ ”

“Their work together began with a thesis film they had written and continued on to PiRequiem for a DreamBlack SwanThe Whale, and many more. Our honoree has captured indelible images in Iron ManStraight Outta Compton, and he has worked with Nicole Kidman in The Prom.”

“Most recently, his collaborations have been with Bradley Cooper on A Star Is Born and the much-celebrated Maestro. Well, tonight, he is AFI’s Maestro. Please welcome Matthew Libatique.”

Clothing, Formal Wear, Suit
Matthew Libatique on the red carpet. Photo by Sthanlee B Mirador

Matthew began his acceptance speech by saying, “Last week, I arrived to set and I was greeted by a lock-up PA at the security gate. I offered to stand there pleasantly and say, ‘Good morning, how do you feel today?’”

“And he said to me, ‘Matty, the only attitude is gratitude.’ And that’s how I feel today. That’s how I feel right now. I’m going to let this moment sink in.”

“I’m profoundly honored to accept the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal from the American Film Institute. This recognition is nothing short of a warm embrace and a testament to the collective efforts of the many who have supported and inspired me along this cinematic journey.”

“My thanks to Bob Gazzale, Christine Calandra (Farrell), and the AFI as a whole for adding me to this prestigious list of recipients. I’d like to take a moment to pay respects to my instructors and mentors during my time at the Conservatory.”

“Louis Obioha had a photographic memory and could remember every frame with laser focus and attention to detail. The late, great John Alonzo taught me the power of ambient light. Give it up for John.”

“John graced us with an in-person audio commentary of Chinatown, and brought in a hall-of-fame master of cinematographers weekly. Connie Hall regaled us with the stories of shooting on location, and the concept of per diem, and taught us not to forget about the dark spaces in between the light. Owen Roizman was a maverick who displayed a blatant disregard for the basic concept of light and lens. He taught us to be brave. There was no shortage of inspiration.”

“One day in class, John Alonzo told me that I reminded him of a young Jimmy Wong. Wow. Is it because I’m short? Or Asian? Or short and Asian? I’ve been living off that gas for a long time. I don’t reflect upon this journey often but in preparing for this evening, I feel a tremendous amount of good fortune for the people I’ve been able to work with and learn from.”

“A multitude of thanks to the directors John Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Spike Lee, and the late Joel Schumacher, all of whom I’ve been able to make multiple films with.”

“And then there’s Darren Aronofsky. Talk about the right time, right place. I sat next to Darren on day three of AFI. And we started as spores in this incubator called AFI Conservatory. And we’ve gone on to have this amazing collaboration throughout our career. Literally going from boys to men. And wherever you are, man, I just want to give you a big hug. I love you.”

“Finally, and most importantly, I want to give love and thanks to my family who’s here. My mother Dina is here tonight. My mother and my late father Johnny came to this country in the late ’60s from the Philippines in search of the American dream. And I’m here to tell you that through myself and my brother (David) who’s also here, they found it. I love you guys. And I owe you everything.”

Libatique family. Honoree Matthew Libatique (left), his mother Dina and brother David. Photo by Ruben Nepales.

“My kid Ezekiel is here tonight as well, and my daughter Audrey is in New York, I love you guys with all my heart. It’s not easy having a DP dad. It really isn’t. And I miss so much, way too much. I’m proud of you guys. And you guys make everything worthwhile for me.”

“And finally, to my very beautiful wife, Mary Ellen, thank you so much for all the sacrifices. You follow me around this crazy world and this crazy business. You are my best friend and my muse. I love you.”

“And I love you guys. What’s up? What’s up? Thank you very much!”

When I congratulated Matthew at his table, I met for the first time his mom, Dina, whose family hails from Lucena, Quezon, and his brother David.

Crowd, Person, Clothing
Matthew Libatique. Courtesy of Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery

The Fil-Am director of photography is currently collaborating again with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington on High and Low, described as an adaptation of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 crime thriller.

Several stars paid tribute to Nicole before she received her award. The actress’ husband, singer-songwriter-guitarist Keith Urban, opened up and delivered a candid ode to the awardee.

He recounted how he first met Nicole in 2005 and got her phone number on a piece of paper. He wanted to call her but it took a week for him to finally muster the courage to give her a ring.

A year later, the couple got married. Keith shared that several months later, the marriage was put to the test because of his substance abuse.

Keith recounted, as Nicole became teary-eyed in her seat, “I do want to take an opportunity to talk about Nic’s heart and her spirit. We got married in June 2006 and barely four months into our marriage, my addictions that I’d done really nothing about, blew our marriage to smithereens.”

“And I went into the Betty Ford Center for three months. Four months into marriage, I’m in rehab for three months. I had no idea what was going to happen to us.”

Fashion, Premiere, Adult
Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban Red Carpet. Courtesy of AFI and Jay L. Clendenin

The country music star said one of the night’s best compliments to the honoree: “If you want to see what love in action really looks like, give that a whirl. Nic pushed through every negative voice. I’m sure even some of her own.”

“And she chose love. And here we are tonight, 18 years later.”

Nicole’s fellow Aussie, Naomi Watts, made the awardee laugh and giggle as the latter recalled how they first met when they were 15 and their friendship in those early years.

Zac Efron, bemoustached for his role in A Family Affair, his film with Nicole, said that he must have watched her Moulin Rouge “a hundred times.”

Other stars who paid homage to Nicole, either in person on stage or by taped messages, were Zoe Saldaña, Miles Teller (who was in college when Nicole personally cast him in his first movie role, Rabbit Hole), Aaron Sorkin, Reese Witherspoon (who said Nicole is “literally mesmerizing”), Morgan Freeman, Hugh Jackman, Jane Campion, Jimmy Fallon, Cate Blanchett, George Miller, Baz Luhrmann, and Russell Crowe.

Other bold-faced names in the ballroom included Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, Cynthia Erivo, Barry Jenkins, Michelle Pfeiffer David E. Kelley, Joey King, Mimi Leder, Mike Myers, Edward James Olmos, Jane Seymour, Expats creator Lulu Wang and Nicole’s costars Ji-young, Brian Tee, and Sarayu Blue.

Fashion, Person, Photobombing
Miles Teller, Reese Witherspoon, Lee Daniels, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Zac Efron. Courtesy of American Film Institute.

Meryl Streep, as delightful a speaker in person as she is on the screen, presented the award to Nicole who costars, by coincidence, with Filipino actors in recent projects – Ruby Ruiz in Expats and Dolly de Leon and Manny Jacinto in Nine Perfect Strangers.

With the honor, the Aussie actress is in great company. The talents who have been honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award, handed out since 1973, include Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Barbra Streisand, George Lucas, Julie Andrews, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Meryl herself.

For starters, Meryl mirthfully brought up the prosthetic nose that the costume designer asked Nicole to wear in The Hours, where both actresses starred: “Did anyone notice that Ann Roth also gave her my nose? You’re welcome.”

Speaking with that radiant smile, Meryl revealed, “Reese (Witherspoon) told me the very first night we were up in Monterey before we started shooting (Big Little Lies). She said, ‘You know what she does?’ I said, ‘No, Nicole?’ She goes, ‘She goes out at five before dawn. And she goes skinny dipping behind the hotel.’ ”

“I looked at Nicole and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? The Pacific is like 48 degrees in March.’ She said, ‘Yeah. Listen, I love it.’ Right? Oh my God.”

“Stanley Kubrick told Nicole that he thought of her as a thoroughbred. I think that only an Englishman would think that such a vaguely eugenic, blue-blooded term would be a compliment to an Aussie Sheila.”

“Because to me, darling, you have a wild, Mongol talent. You’re like a Mustang or workhorse, and a champion racer all in one. But one whose spirit they will never break, never. The range, the range of your work is stunning. Your list of credits and roles and good deeds in the world will take a normal person three lifetimes to achieve.”

“Your life and your résumé challenge everything we know about how many hours there are in a day and how many places a woman can be at one time. So yeah, it’s hard not to envy Nicole. But it’s also impossible not to be in awe of her.”

Electronics, Screen, People
Meryl Streep applauds Nicole Kidman whom she praised as ‘really, really great.’ Photo by Ruben V. Nepales.

“For me, the hardest part of being incessantly called ‘The Greatest Actress’ (laughter and applause as she turned sideways, with a theatrical flourish, and displayed her silhouette for dramatic and humorous effect). What is the hardest part?”

“Oh, the hardest part is when you come up against acting with another person who is also really, really, really great. That’s difficult.”

“It’s like somebody who you work all day with and you go home and think that was a great day. And you go, how did she do that? And you’re like, I can’t do that.”

“And I know this is like the American Film Institute but really, they don’t like to talk about Big Little Lies (applause). That’s the time when I came within breathing distance of the formidable gifts Nicole has.”

“Her process and her seismic bank of emotions she’s got locked up inside her. And her stamina. And her drive to be an artist. And her discipline.”

“Our very first day of shooting, the very first scene, 8 am. Now, she’s the boss of this thing. She’s the producer. She could have scheduled anything for the first day. But she picked this scene to be the first day. Usually, you get in and out of a car so everyone can get to know each other. She picks a scene where, on action, she wakes up from dead sleep into a screaming, weeping, terrifying nightmare.”

“And I rushed in, her estranged mother-in-law, brought in to wreck the second season (laughter). I could hold her, soothe her, calm her down. I could feel her little heart climbing through this t-shirt.”

“And we were both traumatized by the encounter because she was going to have to do it over and over again in multiple sizes. And even when we turned around, she never lost the ferocity of that kind of, oh God, it was this thumping fever.”

“I hadn’t recovered from that for a step. I have never seen anything like that in my life. And if anything, it just deepened as the day wore on. So, for me, it’s traumatizing how was she able to sustain never letting up, never letting down, just letting go. I was floored. And we all were on set.”

“People call it bravery when an actress bares all and leaps off into the unknown. She dives deep into the darker parts of what it is to be a human being. But I don’t think it’s bravery.”

“I think it’s love. I think she just loves it. And I think that’s the greatest attribute an actor can have, that blend of appetite and curiosity and recklessness. You have that, baby (applause).”

“I love it. And we love you, Nic. Ladies and gentlemen, the recipient of the 2024 AFI Life Achievement Award, Nicole Kidman.”

“I just love you!” Nicole exclaimed after receiving the trophy from Meryl who then stood on the side. “I’ve always loved you. I don’t know what it is but you’re a beacon of excellence, warmth, and generosity.”

“You’ve been my guiding light. So, to receive this from you, you have no idea. My husband will attest, my parents will attest, it’s always been you, and no one can touch you (applause). You got up here and you spoke so beautifully.”

The actress, in a gold Balenciaga gown, then said, “And now I have to…you don’t really want to hear me speak, do you (laughter)?”

Fashion, Premiere, Red Carpet
Nicole Kidman on red carpet. Courtesy of AFI and Jay Clendenin

“There’s been too much said. I think you’ve (turning to Mery) said it when you spoke and I said, ‘God, I wish I could know that person because it’s not me (laughter).’ But I’ve written down a few pages. I want to first of all say thank you to the American Film Institute and the people that put this together tonight.”

“I’m going to do this because you work tirelessly to keep film alive. And I celebrate you and thank you. And thank you because it’s important and it’s necessary and it’s indelible. The path to this astonishing world tonight began in Australia with my sister (Antonia) who’s here and we were raised by parents who let us be who we were.”

“From the minute we were born, we were allowed to just be who we were, which is so important because we were challenged, we were listened to, and we were allowed to just be. And for me, that was being allowed to act in local plays and to do theater.”

“And my family also allowed me to read books, to read any books I wanted. And that was very important. A lot of those books were payment for the plays that I was in because I was too young to be paid money.”

“And I would read them (books) voraciously and I would read Chekhov and I would read Gibson. That was the most beautiful payment. I’m still happy to be paid in books.  Maybe (laughter). I’ll take a paycheck and buy books. But my family also allowed me to dream and exist in my imagination.”

“And they’re family that had no idea that I would be what we call in Australia wag (to be absent without permission) in school but basically that would be absent. I would sneak out and I would go and watch films.”

“And I would then forge their (parents’) signatures. Please don’t do this, that’s not okay. And literally, that was how I saw A Clockwork Orange and so many films that I would never have been allowed to see.”

“And that was my classroom. I started work at 14 so I didn’t have the wayward teenage years. And it doesn’t hurt because I met a woman who was also in her formative years, Jane Campion. Jane was doing student films and she came to the local theater that I was performing in. I think I was doing Sweet Bird of Youth at the time. And she said, ‘I want you to be in my short film.’ ”

“And I read it (script) and I went, ‘I don’t like it (laughter).’  I’ve learned to be careful who you say no to because Jane was so good. Because she still said, ‘But I want to be your friend.’ And we became friends for life. I’ve subsequently learned you don’t turn down a Jane Campion. Never.”

“I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, which gave me my American citizenship but I am an Australian woman and I have wanted to explore the world. I dreamt of doing that and acting is perfect for that.”

“But it is a nomad’s life. You actually go where the work is and you go where you can earn a living, and where there is opportunity. And so, you try and you try and get a role that someone’s gonna cast you in their film.”

“I was lucky. I was incredibly lucky. I came to America and even though I had some work, I still was auditioning. I was auditioning for films. I was relying on the kindness of friends, as well as strangers.”

“And a lot of those friends I would sometimes sleep on their floors, on their sofas. I would sometimes have them give me a lift to an audition because when we were growing up, it was really expensive to get a cab.”

“And if you got a cab to an audition and didn’t get it, then that meant you couldn’t have dinner that night. That kind of thing.”

“I was trying to also pay for hotel rooms to stay and then have to go back to Australia and get more money and try to come back. So, I just want to say thank you to all those people who are in the room tonight who did that for me.”

Adult, Female, Person
Nicole Kidman receiving AFI Life Achievement Award. Photo by Getty Images, Warner Bros. Discovery

“And there’s a lot of you. I know exactly who you are. And the other thing that would happen is, as Australians, we would support each other. Because when one of you gets a job, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, you got a job!’ ”

“And they would all celebrate you. It was just pure magic. And then of course what happens is, you meet your director, you meet the writer, you meet the producers and all the other people, and then you meet the actors.”

“My God, I just love actors. You see how they work. You learn. And you see how other people work. And you share. And you go, oh my God, who are all these talented people? And some of them you may never meet again and some of them you do meet again.”

“Some of them you have incredible laughter and jokes with and you cry with. Some of them you fall in love with, some of them you marry.  You have new adventures. You have wondrous things happen.”

“And some of the people, when you get to know them, become your best friends, or they become your allies, or they become your supporters, or they become your biggest champions, or all of those.”

“And even though you may not see them again for years, maybe never again, or sometimes you’ll see them down the road in another film. That’s being a nomad. That’s the nomadic life of what we do as actors.”

“So, I have been part of so many families. I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with some of the greatest actors and some of the greatest directors who have not only raised the bar but they have also had the ability to raise it so high that we all always learn from them.”

“And I love them in the room tonight. They take you in, they teach you, they take you under their wing, and then they blow your mind.”

“I have so many directors who were so good to me and I would like to thank them all. Phillip Noyce, you’re in the room tonight. You took a bet on me. Thank you. And I slept on your sofa as well.”

“Robert Benton, Ron Howard. Gus Van Sant, you were amazing because you gave me that role and I could show him absolutely no skill that would make you believe that I could do that. Stephen Daldry, you were by my side during the most vulnerable, difficult time of my life. You held my hand, you got me through it, and you won me an Oscar. Thank you.”

“Lars von Trier, Alejandro Amenabar, Jonathan Glazer, Noah Baumbach, Mimi Leder, John Cameron Mitchell, Rob Marshall, Lee Daniels, Jonathan Levine, Philip Kaufman, Director Park (Chan-wook). Thrilling, wild, amazing, can you believe this list?”

“But it goes on – Paul King, Werner Herzog, Garth Davis, Susanne Bier. I mean, come on, Yorgos Lanthimos, Sofia Coppola, Jay Roach, Billy Ray, Harry Becker, Ryan Murphy, Karyn Kusama, and Aaron Sorkin, thank you! Thank you!”

“And then there are the new kids on the block who I’ve also worked with – Robert Eggers, Lulu Wang, Mimi Chang… If you get the chance to work with them, take it. They’re amazing. They’re going to take over the world. Thank you.”

“It’s hard to close it up. Especially when it comes to the masterful George Miller, thank you. My darling friend Jane Campion and the incomparable, dazzling, divine Baz Luhrmann. My family, all of them.”

“And there are a few who have left us and they need to be mentioned too because one day you look around, they’re there and then they’re not there. Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher, Sydney Pollack, Nora Ephron, and Anthony Minghella.”

“May they live on in beauty and spirit and in all of our imaginations forever. It is a privilege to make films and glorious to have made the films on television with the storytellers who allowed me to just run wild, be free, and play all of these unconventional women.”

“Thank you for making me better at my craft and giving me a place, however temporary, in this world. Thank you for inviting me into your movie families and thank you for my childhood dream that became a reality.”

“And to the audiences who have stuck by me through everything, I just want to say thank you because there are so many little weird films I’ve done and I know there are people out there that go and find them and watch them.”

“You stood by me and stuck up for my weird choices and I was so afraid of coming back. There’s an enormous amount of luck in my life but there’s also the most important thing, love. Big, big love.”

“And then right there is the love of my life (looking at the table where Keith Urban, beaming and nodding, and her family are sitting) and the loves of my family. My daughters (Sunday and Faith Urban) have never been anywhere publicly with me on a red carpet. Tonight was their first night.”

Fashion, Adult, Male
Nicole Kidman and Family. Courtesy of American Film Institute

“My mom couldn’t be here but they said there is a live stream available for her and she’s watching it. So, I’m hopeful and that’s what I love about technology. And my papa who isn’t here but I feel him every day. And then there are all my nieces and nephews, my sister and her husband who is our family now. This is all because of you and I love you so much.”

“So, there’s no place for me home. As they say, click, click you’re my home. And thank you for flying halfway across the world. I’m going to shut up in a minute.”

“I like to think that I’m getting started but it’s not true because really, let’s just hope I’m in the middle. I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

“There are so many more exciting young directors, writers, and voices that are completely original and need to be heard and they have a lot to say. We need to give them the chance to say it and to hear them. And I am here, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves. As you see, Meryl and I are always ready to roll up our sleeves.”

“To give whatever you’ve got, whatever power we have to help you so that we can get there. I am here always to support those voices. So if we get a chance to do something together, that would be great.”

“I think it was Andy Warhol who said, ‘Make art, let others decide whether it’s good or bad, and while they’re deciding, just make some more.’ That’s what I do. So, I believe art can hurt but it can heal. And love does win, and so must forever. And I’m so, so grateful to all of you for coming tonight. Thank you.”

This evening that celebrated Nicole and Matthew raised over $2 million to support AFI’s arts and educational programs. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.