It’s a good time to be Natalie Portman. She’s been acting in films for more than fifteen years, but she’s finally getting the good roles in good films, and she’s letting her talent shine. And she’s making the transition from America’s Sweetheart to an edgier, sexier Natalie. Things are finally coming together in all kinds of ways for the 29-year old, Israeli born actress. She’s got a commercial and critical success with Black Swan, and is a strong front-runner to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance. She’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. Plus, she’s pregnant and engaged. That’s not great news for single, red-blooded, hetero men, but she seems happy.
Her debut came at age 12 in the 1994 thriller, The Professional. She made a strong impression as a tweener professional-hitgirl-in-training in a cast filled with experienced quality actors like Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and Danny Aiello. A succession of roles in middling films followed. The films ranged from the sappy Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is to the pretentious and overrated indie Garden State. That’s right, you heard me: Garden State was a pretentious, unoriginal dud. She shaved her head for V for Vendetta, and I must say, I found that kind of sexy. OK, very sexy. I remember coming out of the theater after seeing that, and the guy behind me was complaining that the film was “too political.” What was he expecting, a sports film? Perhaps the best-known role of the lot was as Queen Amidala, the teenage royal who would become the mother of Luke Skywalker, in the last (and worst) three Star Wars films. She’s worked hard and regularly gave solid performances, but never really had the right vehicle to showcase her talents.
That all changed with Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s 2009 remake of a Danish film. Brothers is about a military family dealing with the stresses of the war in Afghanistan. Portman plays the role of Grace, the wife of a Marine Corps captain played by Tobey Maguire. When Maguire’s character, Sam, goes MIA in Afghanistan and is believed killed, Grace becomes close to his ne’er-do-well brother, Tommy, played by Jake Glylenhaal, who was recently released from prison. Tommy has always been the family screwup, living in the shadow of his brother, a high school football star. Tommy is trying hard to get it together, and his relationship with Grace and her children helps him find his center for the first time in his life. Their lives become even more complicated when it turns out that Maguire survived, and is returned home to a family that was moving on without him. Maguire’s character is suffering from post-traumatic stress and haunted by his time in captivity, and has difficulty returning to his old life. He senses the closeness between his brother and his wife and suspects infidelity, but he can’t control his anger. Maguire and Gylenhaal turn in good performances, and Portman plays her role with the maturity of an accomplished actress. She’s thoroughly believable as a young widow and mother trying to hold her family and life together.
Portman is the master of small gestures in Brothers. After learning that Sam is KIA, she sits on the couch in the dark and calls her own number repeatedly, just to hear Sam’s voice on the voicemail message. There’s a pivotal scene in front of the fireplace in Brothers that contrasts markedly with a similar yet unoriginal scene in Garden State (in fact, that’s when I got up and walked out on Garden State, it was so lame). Grace smokes a joint with Tommy, and comes out of her shell for the first time in the movie, revealing herself as a person, not just a wife or mother. At one point, Grace looks completely lost and alone. Natalie conveys all this with her facial expressions more than her words, something she’s able to do throughout the film. When she learns that Sam is alive and coming home, there’s a look of astonishment on Natalie’s face that is the kind of non-obvious choice an accomplished actress makes.
Portman’s strong performance in Brothers was followed in 2010 by her role in Black Swan. This is the first time Portman has had the central role in a film, and she nails it. Portman plays Nina, a young ballet dancer in New York who lives with her mother while striving for a lead role in Swan Lake. This is not your light and fluffy ballet movie. Portman does much of her own dancing in the film, which does not sugarcoat the toll that ballet takes on the young ballerinas. The director, Darren Aronofsky, previously directed Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Black Swan has much of the same ethos. Every time a dancer went up on her toes, I cringed. You can hear the bones crack and joints grind under the strain. There’s a scene near the beginning where Nina and her mother are at breakfast. Nina’s breakfast is half a grapefruit, and that’s probably all she will get to eat all day. I counted at least three episodes where Nina is in the bathroom, trying to throw up. Portman apparently lost weight for this role, and even if the camera adds ten pounds, she looked rail thin.
Nina is so driven to succeed, both at home and in the studio, that she goes mad under the strain. She lives with her mother, whose failures as a professional dancer lead her to ramp up the pressure on her daughter. She doesn’t just mother Nina, she smothers her. Nina seems to have no life outside of the dance studio and her apartment. She gets up in the morning, eats a miniscule breakfast, dances all day, visits the bathroom to spit up the nonexistent contents of her stomach, and returns home to spend the evening mutilating her toe shoes and her body. Her mother is a master manipulator. When Nina comes home after winning the star role in Swan Lake, Mommy Dearest has a big cake waiting for her. Nina’s afraid to eat a bite, the pressure to maintain her weight is so intense. Her mother responds by trying to dump the cake in the trash, and lays a first-class guilt trip on Nina. Nina’s lost in some kind of extended childhood, with her room looking more like the room of a ten-year old than the room of a 22-year old. She’s trapped amongst fluffy unicorns and pink bunnies. I’d go mad, too.
She loses touch with reality, and the viewer is left wondering what, if anything, is real. Portman captures Nina’s transition from sheltered insecurity into delusion beautifully. The ballet’s director pushes her to become more sexual, more wanton, so that she can dance the role of the black swan, while playing on her fears of losing the role to her rival, played by Mila Kunis. Portman’s Nina is jealous of the more uninhibited Kunis, fears her, and is sexually attracted to her all at the same time. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say (for the benefit of those hetero males) that Natalie has come a long way from Queen Amidala. A long way.
Portman has several films scheduled for release in 2011, and they all look like lighter fare – light comedies and adventure films. First, there is No Strings Attached, which will be released this month. Natalie plays a young woman who works out a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Ashton Kutcher. The film looks amusing, light romantic comedy at most, but it will show whether Natalie can pull off sexier roles. In May, there will be Thor, in which the Norse god of thunder is punished by being sent to live among humans like Natalie Portman. Lucky Thor, those Norse gods have all the fun. I’m not a huge fan of movies adapted from comic books, but this one looks good. And there is Your Highness, a medieval fantasy romp in which Natalie gets to show a lot of cleavage and kick some ass with swords and longbows. None of these are of the caliber of Black Swan, but if she brings home some awards, in particular an Oscar, look for Natalie Portman to get a lot more high quality roles. There are also rumors that Portman will produce and star in the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I've always said, you can't go wrong with zombies.
If Natalie has any faults, it's that she's a vegan. Probably the healthiest-looking vegan I've ever seen, but still, a vegan. I would be OK with her eschewing meat, but vegan is just a bit too far. I can't imagine a life without butter, or real half-and-half in my coffee. How do you make chocolate mousse without egg whites?
Last but not least, Natalie is pregnant and engaged, apparently in that order. Her fiancé is a ballet dancer who did the choreography for Black Swan and had a small onscreen role. He’s named after a bug. I kid you not, look it up. I just hope she doesn’t come up with stupid Hollywood names for her child. Please, Natalie, don’t name your kid “Apple” or “Hummingbird” or anything like that. And if things don’t work out with the bug guy, feel free to ring me up. Make your parents happy.