Bold and Daring, Portman Proves Herself Worthy Again and Again.
I have to hand it to ZekeFilm co-founder Jim Tudor. He knew the surefire way to get me to break my writing sabbatical would be to ask me to contribute an introduction and a review for a Film Admissions column centering on Natalie Portman. In his pitch to me, he said my introduction should express “why she’s worthy of this attention.” I DON’T KNOW MAN, HAVE YOU SEEN ANYWHERE BUT HERE, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, GARDEN STATE, BROTHERS, OR CLOSER?
Nominated for three Academy Awards (winning Best Actress for Black Swan), Portman has had starring roles in the Star Wars and Marvel’s Thor franchises, yet continues to push herself into uncharted territory with challenging performances in fare such as Planetarium and Vox Lux.
In the reviews below, you’ll find analysis of extraordinary movies that feature some of her most iconic performances, including Leon: The Professional, Annihilation, V for Vendetta and Jackie. All come highly recommended from me, but let’s find out what the other writers think, shall we?
⁃ Max Foizey
2010/Fox Searchlights Pictures/dir. Darren Aronofsky
by Erik Yates
Since 1994’s Leon: The Professional, Natalie Portman has been a force to be reckoned with. Unlike other child stars, she has not been the lost wild child trying to act out in order to convince audiences she was nearly grown up. Instead, she chose strong projects to display her talents. As she entered adulthood, she resisted the pull to become a sex symbol, choosing instead to pursue education, earning a degree from Harvard. She can bounce effortlessly between giant box office tent poles like the Star Wars prequels or slip effortlessly into an independent film. No matter the role, the budget, or supporting cast, Natalie Portman always elevates the project with full commitment.
When she was chosen as this month’s actress to lead our film admission, I jumped for the one film that has created a glaring hole in her filmography for me, her Oscar winning role as Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This is a film that follows a dedicated ballerina who is technically a brilliantly proficient dancer, but who has yet to exude the sort of passion that a true lead dancer needs to move an audience. When lead dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) begins to lose her position at the top of the pecking order, dance company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) looks for a new face to head his revamped version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Nina has been longing for the role of the White Swan her whole life, but Thomas now wants whoever plays the White Swan to also play the Black Swan, a seductive and passionate counterpart to the White Swan. He has even brought in a dancer from San Francisco named Lily (Mila Kunis) to give the production an edge. Aronofsky uses the competitive nature of performance art to lead Nina into an increasingly treacherous descent into madness, born from the pressure of trying to win this dual role.
Portman is brilliant as she handles not only the dual roles in this production of Swan Lake, but the duality of Nina herself. One side of her is a timid, high-strung dancer who focuses so much on being perfect, that she has lost the ability to enjoy what she does. The other is a ghostly doppelgänger who begins appearing to Nina as she begins losing the ability to know what is real and what is happening just within her mind. The film weaves in and out of this reality, culminating, and finding its fulfillment in the performance of Swan Lake. Portman’s performance as her own passionate doppelgänger is jarring as she presents a dangerous boldness that haunts and sets out to consume the meek Nina, destroying everything that Nina once cared about.
Portman is brilliant in this very layered performance, but makes it all feel effortless and natural. This is why you completely buy in to all of it. I’m glad I finally let myself experience one of Natalie Portman’s finest performances.
Léon: The Professional
1994/Gaumont/dir. Luc Besson
by Taylor Blake
Hey guess what, guys? Natalie Portman is a knockout actress. Oh wait, everyone else in this feature is writing the same thing? Then let me take another angle: As far as I can tell, Natalie Portman has always been a knockout actress.
Despite its epitome of a ‘90s trailer trying to suggest to you otherwise, Léon: The Professional and Portman’s feature film debut still hold up a quarter of a century later. Here she plays 12-year-old Mathilda, who loses her whole family and life during a run to the corner market and whose best chance for survival is her hitman neighbor, Léon. More fractured than any Odd Couple pairing, both make the other vulnerable to attack. But as she learns his trade and he to look beyond it, we find they may be even more vulnerable apart.
Mathilda is nothing like I was when I was 12—both my self-confidence and fashion sense were far inferior—but she never feels false in a premise I suspect (hope) was far from Portman’s childhood. Mathilda’s grief and fury steams out of her small body in controlled vents of emotion—there’s no sloppiness here, which is why we can also believe her performance when she switches to childish silliness or becomes manipulative. I wouldn’t believe just any pre-teen and assassin could bond over an affection for Gene Kelly, but she and Jean Reno sell it.
Opposite her tenacity and his meekness comes a twitchy, bizarre performance from Gary Oldman. We can all agree he’s a knockout actor as well, but if there’s any weak link in this film, he’s it. He’s an appropriately scary villain, but whatever bombastic interpretation of this tan-suited murderer is, well, it’s beyond me. At least his bulldozing greed contrasts with Léon’s finesse and Mathilda’s street smarts—it only reinforces their natural connection.
Just five years later, Portman would break out in a major way as Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which is when I first saw her. Her voice would be deeper and her hair would be longer (and, uh, more ornately fashioned), but it’s a shame the schlock of this Star Wars period wouldn’t let her show the range her younger self proves she had in her. At 12, I was enamored with her and Anakin’s star-crossed love story (another inferior quality of middle school I thankfully grew out of), but I didn’t really come to appreciate her talent until a few years ago with Jackie. I’m glad to know she’s had this depth within her from the start and that Léon was a reliable indicator of the work we’ve come to know her for.
2016/Fox Searchlight Pictures/dir. Pablo Larraín
by Jeffrey Knight
For an actor, a biopic can be a tricky thing. This is especially true if the subject’s voice and mannerisms are iconic and well-known to the public. It’s a massive challenge for the actor to disappear into the role and make the subject a living, breathing character, rather than a pale imitation, and a cheap nightclub act. In taking on the role of Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Natalie Portman sets herself up for this challenge.
In telling the story of the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath from Jackie’s point of view, Jackie takes place over three separate time periods. The earliest is Jackie’s famous tour of the White House, where she presents the renovations she oversaw to the American people. Next is the assassination and its immediate aftermath, as Jackie comes to grips with how her life has changed in one violent moment, and how she plans the funeral as a testament to the great loss the nation has suffered. Finally, the movie depicts an interview Jackie gives to a reporter (played by Billy Crudup) a week afterward, as she begins to plant the seeds of how her husband will be remembered by history. Jackie doesn’t present these segments chronologically. It jumps around between them, becoming unstuck in time so that one moment can comment on another.
Throughout all of this, Portman pitches her acting perfectly for each period. While leading the television crew around the White House for their tour, Jackie is kittenish and girly. Portman pitches her voice higher, softer, breathier. She feigns cluelessness when asked a question about foreign policy (“It’s all so complicated!” she laughs). Jackie is beautiful and gracious and demure, and non-threatening. The presenter isn’t afraid to cut her off mid-sentence. After the shooting, she is shell shocked and numb. When she breaks down in private, she can’t contain her grief – the world isn’t big enough to contain her grief. To the rest of the world, however, she wears a mask of comportment and quiet stoicism. She seems like she’s holding it together. A private moment, where she listens to a recording of Camelot, tries on and discards various dresses, and consumes a lot of vodka tells us otherwise.
When dealing with Crudup’s reporter, she’s much more in command of herself. Literally, as Jackie informs him that she will “of course” be editing their conversation herself. She is cool and reserved, wearing simple white and black. She has one instance where, as she recalls the moment of her husband’s death, she lets the mask slip and lets some of the fear and anger out. She quickly regains control. “You know I won’t let you print any of that,” she coolly tells Crudup.
Portman’s work in Jackie was widely praised (it is the best thing about the movie), and she was nominated for numerous major awards for it. It’s not what one would call naturalistic (is she ever, though?), and there’s little spontaneity within it. Her performance is mannered and almost old-fashioned, in a way that one could see a classic Hollywood actress (maybe Audrey Hepburn?) in the part. But couldn’t that assessment just as easily be said about the way Jackie played her public persona? She invited the American people into her home warmly, but she herself remained closed off to outsiders. Jackie wants to let us see behind that curtain, and with Portman’s portrayal we get a glimpse of the inner life of a figure who was consumed by grief, but knew she had to stay strong for the nation.
2018/ Neon/ dir. Brady Corbet
by Krystal Lyon
Vox Lux was on my short list last year. It had everything I look for in a film, dark brooding drama, pop music, strong female leads and Jude Law. Win, Win, Win, Win! But I live in a farming community in the Midwest and for some reason, those thematic elements just didn’t connect and Vox Lux was gone from the theaters in one week. (This is a problem!) So I was thrilled when Natalie Portman was our latest Film Admission, I knew it was time to catch up on pop diva drama! And while Vox Lux is new and not a Portman classic like Black Swan, Léon: The Professional or Annihilation it a great story for our favorite tiny terror to flex her acting muscles and show us the dark side of the pop world that we so readily gobble up. Let’s dive in.
Vox Lux, written and directed by Brady Corbet, is the story of Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, an all-American girl who loves her family, has a strong moral compass and loves to sing. She’s a “Good Girl” to quote Tom Petty. But in Act 1: Genesis, Celeste’s life completely changes after she survives a horrific school shooting. She and her sister write a song for the memorial service and that song becomes the anthem for the country. She is quickly picked up by “the manager” Jude Law, who takes her to Europe introduces her to big production, fame, late nights, men, substance abuse and she is no longer the “Good Girl”. All her innocence and wide-eye wonder is consumed by people with dollar signs as their bottom line.
In Act 2: Regenesis, we meet up with Celeste in her 30’s and this is when we first see Portman as Celeste. She has broken relationships with her family, which includes a teenage daughter, she’s dealing with fame and the press in an aggressive manner and she’s an addict. The pop-culture machine has traumatized her just as much as the school shooting. She’s hard, cold and self-absorbed but she’s a pop icon that can thrill, inspire and entertain the masses. And in the Finale that’s exactly what Corbet gives you, a long look at a Celeste performing flawlessly. Ten minutes of concert footage to end a film might feel indulgent, this whole film gives off that vibe, but it’s glittering and sensational and you will be dazzled by Celeste!
The whole cast is spot on in this “Twenty-First Century Portrait”, you want to protect Raffey Cassidy, punch Jude Law, and you’ll be scratching your heading trying to place the voice of the narrator. (It’s the remarkable Willem Dafoe) But all eyes are on our girl Natalie Portman. This is a big, aggressive performance. Her walk, talk and facial expressions are hardened and you believe that Portman has experienced this dark path. I wonder? I wonder what a young Portman faced after her performance in Léon: The Professional? Maybe imagining this life and character wasn’t too much of a stretch for her because she has faced some of the same demons growing up in the entertainment world? Whatever gave her the inspiration was perfection and Portman is a force of nature, a literal tornado, in Vox Lux. You can’t take your eyes off her as she destroys and transforms all in her path.
2018/Paramount Pictures/dir. Alex Garland
by Jim Tudor
It was the loudest thunderclap I’ve ever felt. The kids, the dog, everyone, was left on edge as the ensuing storm cut loose. That’s how I was awakened the morning that I would finally catch up with the widely acclaimed if cagily discussed film, Annihilation. A grey, drippy morning of no one in house but me greatly suited the experience of director Alex Garland’s highly scientific and psychological sci-fi/horror film of 2018.
Like Garland’s previous film, 2015’s Ex Machina, Annihilation is a precisely realized thing with an uneasy and unpredictable story in service of a straightforward plot. In this case, a small team of five special operatives head into the expanding physical territory of an unexplainable phenomenon. The place is known as “The Shimmer”, per the eerie refractive properties of its outer barrier, not unlike a that of a soap bubble. Strange, perhaps horrible, things are afoot within The Shimmer. Natalie Portman’s character Lena, the lead of the film but not the team (that would be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character), is onboard due to her scientific expertise in the field of cell reproduction. In actuality, it’s because her military husband (Oscar Isaac) was part of an earlier team that went into The Shimmer, never to return.
That is, except for her husband, who appears back at home one night, twelve months later. Clearly he’s far from normal, and unable to remember anything about his mission, where he’s been, or what happened to the rest of his team. Any answers that the film offers, while helpful, are oblique at best. Oblique in the most compelling of ways.
There’s a popular notion that movies can no longer compete with “peak TV” when it comes to complex characters. While this is true in some cases, I can’t imagine how, if Annihilation were drawn out over the course of thirteen episodes, Portman’s character could be any more complex, nor her performance any more resonant. She is outstanding in Annihilation. Though it is a writer/director’s showcase through and through, Garland is wise to once again stay out of the way of his actors. Annihilation is a deeply foreboding and visceral film that dares to offer an entropy-laden counter-thought to pervasive notions of traditional evolution. The perfect follow-up to an epic thunderclap.
Where the Heart Is
2000/Twentieth Century Fox/dir. Matt Williams
by Max Foizey
“I don’t like fives.” No matter what your feelings are in regard to particular numbers, you’ll understand why Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) would say such a silly thing once you’re familiar with her life story, as it plays out in Where the Heart Is. Seventeen year old Novalee, who has “never lived anywhere that didn’t have wheels under it,” is pregnant. Her doofus boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) seems freaked out by this responsibility and is ill-equipped to deal with it. At least that’s what I gathered after the couple sets out to California from Tennessee and he abandons her at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma.
Out of options, Novalee decides to stow away overnights in the Wal-Mart, Chopping Mall style. Although there are no killer robots, so maybe it’s not exactly like Chopping Mall. As the days and weeks pass, Novalee gets to know the employees of the Wal-Mart, such as kindly photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) and the patrons of said superstore, such as the eccentric Thelma “Sister” Husband (Stockard Channing). Nobody realizes she’s sleeping in the store after hours. I suppose they all just figure she’s a giant fan of hanging out in discount chains. But rest assured Novalee isn’t a freeloader. She’s keeping an “I Owe Wal-Mart” list, fully intending to pay the Waltons back once she lands on her feet.
Though she can’t read very well, Novalee heads to the local library to research the care of a tree she’s been put in charge of (long story). There she meets Handsome Librarian Forney Hull (James Frain) who stalks, I mean follows Novalee one night, discovering her secret shelter. This is fortuitous, as he is able to dramatically jump through a Wal-Mart window (in slow motion!) to assist her as she goes into labor in an empty aisle. Novalee barely remembers any of this happenstance, as it is recounted to her in the town hospital by Nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), when she awakens to discover she has become locally famous for giving birth in a Wal-Mart. You’ve probably noticed that everyone in this story has an odd name. Just wait until you find out what Novalee names her daughter.
Based on a book by Billie Letts, adapted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Where the Heart Is notably sports a strong cast, including a fierce Joan Cusack and an unrecognizable Sally Field. Dylan Bruno starts out looking like Dee Bradley Baker’s character from Office Space, before transforming into a Johnny Cash clone on his way to country music almost-stardom. Bruno is fine in the role and it’s curious why he didn’t land bigger parts in the ensuing years. Ashley Judd’s role isn’t as big as the movie’s poster would lead you to believe and is probably the least engaging of the story threads, especially when it descends into melodrama toward the conclusion.
The film belongs to Natalie Portman, who is in almost every scene. The second movie in which she carries a literal plant for metaphorical reasons (the first being Leon: The Professional), this is as different a role for Portman as anything she’s done, outside of her affinity for adopting an accent (in this case an admirable southern drawl). It’s neat to see an actor of her caliber in what amounts to a Hallmark movie and it’s a credit to her skills that Novalee doesn’t come across as annoying, given her plucky aw-shucks ability to make lemonade out of life’s lemons.
Where the Heart Is isn’t an insightful portrait of small town life nor a searing dissection of white trash America (things that Billie Letts’ son Tracy would delve into with his works August: Osage County and Killer Joe), but its goals are not so lofty. It’s a film where the emphasis is on cute and quirky, in which most everyone is an endearing space cadet. Is it a feel-good movie? I suppose. Does everything work out in the end? Yes. While I applaud the cast for giving it their all, this is a strange, overly saccharin Southern story that isn’t quite my cup of sweet tea.