As a bright way to start the New Year, and at the risk of sounding like something of a fanboy, I must confess openly and unashamedly that I love Natalie Portman. So does Mark. We love her ability and what she represents as an actor. Getting the opportunity to direct her one-day would be a dream come true for us (it’s not outside the realm of possibility). This article is supposed to be a ‘profile’ of Ms. Portman, but really, if you want to know her biography, or a list of the films she has appeared in you can go to Wikipedia and IMDB. No, this article is more of an exploration of the actress as a bona fide star, and an attempt to discover what her allure is actually all about. Why does the mention of Portman provoke an awe filled silence between Mark and myself? Why is it that we implicitly understand how wonderful she is, yet between us can only manage to articulate a (poor) few words in her praise?
As a writer and a filmmaker I feel that I should be able to do better than that. So here goes…
A revisitation of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994) quickly establishes the notion that Portman (I want to call her ‘Natalie’… actually, I want to just call her ‘Nat’) was destined to be a great acting talent. I will never forget the scene in which Mathilda comes home to find her family killed, and pleads with Leon to open his door, all the while struggling not to give herself away with her emotions. It was an arresting performance on Portman’s behalf, one of those film moments that stop your heart and drive home the true power of cinema.
I still cannot fathom the maturity required of the then twelve-year-old actor to play the role of Mathilda with such a high level of understanding. Given the nature of Matilda and Leon’s (Jean Reno) relationship in the film, this could not have been easy for either star. A number of critics took exception to Portman’s earlier roles, particularly Leon and the Ted Demme reunion film Beautiful Girls (1996), claiming (somewhat ridiculously) that she was responsible for a Hollywood trend toward condoning on-screen pedophilia. Even disregarding the safe presumption that the teenage Portman had very little say over the final presentation of these films, don’t we expect a little bravery from our films and their actors? Don’t we expect them to explore territory that is uncomfortable? I don’t agree for a minute that Leon was condoning pedophilia. First of all, Leon’s responses to Mathilda’s advances range from being obviously uncomfortable to completely admonishing her point of view. Leon’s final promise to Mathilda is only made in the knowledge that he will never have to fulfil it. He tells her what he has to in order to save her life, but he does so knowing he will not leave the building alive. In this way Besson presents Mathilda’s love for Leon as the fantasy or delusion of an immature mind, a thing given that can never be sincerely reciprocated, even unto death. Not only this, but Besson takes great pains to remind us that despite her precocious front, Mathilda is still a little girl. For an example, she picks up a plush toy rabbit in the apartment of her dead brother and hugs it. She watches cartoons in Leon’s apartment while he is out, only changing back to the more ‘grown up’ news station when she hears him coming home. Mathilda’s desperation to be an adult, including her desire to lose her virginity to Leon, become necessarily unfulfilled. In the end Mathilda is forced by everyone, even Leon’s mob-boss mentor Tony, to accept her childhood.
Getting her break with such a mature and challenging role was helpful to Portman’s career, something that she has admitted herself. Portman says she never had to make the (often very difficult) transition from child to adult roles that child stars are required to make. The list of child stars that have successfully leapt that gulf without falling into it is quite short. Drew Barrymore survived it, also surviving the usual substance abuse issues that seem to plague our child stars. Macaulay Culkin springs to mind as a child actor who never successfully reached adulthood on the silver screen. Both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, the powerhouse child-star duo of the ’80s never realised their potential as adult actors due to the child star curse. The stories of these latter three are typically sad. They are tales filled with greedy exploitative adults, substance abuse, and end with the wasting of potential talent.
Portman is an exception in this respect. Part of the child star curse, I suspect, is due to the irresponsible culture of putting these kids on such incredibly high pedestals that the only way is down. Portman has somehow avoided getting an inflated ego (by all accounts she had wise parents), taking a distinctly down to earth approach to the business of stardom. The New York Post quoted her as saying she would ‘rather be smart than a movie star’. Portman is a Harvard graduate with a degree in psychology. She is the published co-author of two scientific papers. Portman understood, unlike many actors who began their careers as children, that Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all. She has other fish to fry.
It seems to me that regarding her role choices Portman does what she likes, and this makes for an interesting and often surprising filmography. For an actor who came to mainstream public attention via a role in the granddaddy of all blockbuster franchises (an atrocious misuse of her talent, Mr. Lucas), Portman has never let herself be typecast, nor restricted herself to big budget, multiplex affairs. There is something refreshingly unpretentious about an actor who is willing to flex her formidable acting muscles in a challenging film such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and immediately afterwards appear in a ridiculous stoner comedy like David Gordon Green’s Your Highness (2011).
Indeed, there is a something adamantly independent about Portman’s career choices. There is a slightly weird logic that makes it hard to predict where she will turn up next. She has taken cameo roles in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and its companion short Hotel Chevalier, supporting roles such as that of Jane Foster in the Kenneth Branagh directed Marvel comic book film Thor (2011), ensemble work (Paris, je t’aime, 2006), as well as taking centre stage in Black Swan. Whatever the scale or nature of the role, Portman has seemingly become more conscious, and therefore more careful about the way she portrays women on screen. Even in the popcorn fare that is Thor Portman’s Jane Foster is an educated, plucky, astrophysicist, and not simply some kind of empty trophy for the hero to kiss as the credits roll. Portman often plays women who are empowered in some way, or who become empowered throughout the course of the film, whether it is in a sexual (Closer 2004), intellectual (Thor), or physical (V for Vendetta 2006) sense. In a crass way Portman’s role in Your Highness can be understood a distillation of her on screen persona. From the moment Isabel appears in the film she trumps all of the male characters on all three of the aforementioned counts. She is a skilled warrior, has the medieval equivalent of street smarts (outwitting the male heroes a number of times), and holds sexual sway over McBride’s character right until the end.
Importantly though, Portman has managed to conduct herself with unwavering grace and modesty off-screen. I think this is what we love about her above everything else. Of course she’s talented. There’s no question about that. And sure, she’s beautiful too. But for someone like myself, who has grown up watching her films (both good and bad), Portman represents something more meaningful and heartening: a defiance of odds. Regardless of her beauty and talent, she seems to have avoided the kind of self-absorption and blinkered conceit that many Hollywood stars succumb to. She has never engaged in childish mud slinging, nor does she go out of her way to draw attention with ‘controversial’ publicity gimmicks. Instead, her star persona is representative of modesty, of intelligence, of an ordinary accessible goodness (okay, so I am a fanboy after all). Sure it’s wonderful to be talented and good looking. But it’s better to be nice. There are many actors in and out of Hollywood whose skill I admire very much, but few that I’d be happy to have sit at my dinner table. Nat, you’re welcome around to talk film anytime.