The 2003 Oscar race gathered steam last Thursday evening when a couple hundred select New Yorkers were treated to a special advance screening of The Hours, Paramount's highly-touted big-screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. The majority of the post-show buzz focused on Kidman, whose stunning transformation into homely British writer Virginia Woolf left the standing room only crowd utterly speechless — save for the words, "And the Oscar should go to... "

Believe it or not, Kidman — who netted her first Academy Award nod for last year's movie musical Moulin Rouge — nearly backed out at the 11th hour. "I was very, very frightened, because [I thought], 'If this doesn't work, I'm really going to have egg on my face,'" the 35-year-old actress tells TV Guide Online. "But [director] Stephen Daldry just said, 'Be bold.' And he basically took my hand and guided me."

Actually, Daldry — who helmed 2000's beloved ballet drama Billy Elliot — did more than that: He summoned make-up artists to fit Kidman with a long false nose. And from that point on, all signs of the former Mrs. Tom Cruise vanished. "The minute the nose went on, you saw a completely different actor," marvels screenwriter David Hare, who adapted Cunningham's novel for the screen. "By putting on the nose, Nicole ceases to be pretty. And by losing pretty, she gains everything."

Cunningham downplays the physical side of Kidman's metamorphosis. "It is helped by a wig and a plastic nose, but that's only one percent of it. It's all about what she was able to do," he maintains. "I think Nicole, if anything, exceeded my vision of what Virginia Woolf might have been like. I can't believe how good she is."

Gossip queen Liz Smith — one of the media power mongers invited to Thursday's Hours preview — singled out Kidman in her syndicated newspaper column Monday. "It is rare for a hugely sexy, young and adorable superstar to transcend fame and publicity and disappear into a character, but Nicole has done it," she raved. "Her physical impersonation alone demands recognition, because you forget all about Nicole Kidman while watching [the film]."

Kudos of a more official nature will likely be showered on the Aussie superstar come February, when Oscar nominations are announced. Like a kid awaiting the arrival of St. Nick, Kidman admits a second consecutive nod would be a fantasy come true. "As a kid, I watched the Oscars," she says. "I sat in the living room in my dressing gown and would watch it from Sydney. I think what's so beautiful about the Oscars is they let you dream. If I got nominated, I'd be thrilled."