Few actresses can say they started as child performers working with some of the very best talent and grew up to earn an Oscar and a Harvard degree while starring in the two most successful and influential franchises in film history. Then again, not every actress is Natalie Portman. Widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s brightest actresses, Portman became a household name in her teens, successfully transitioning into adulthood and college life without falling into some of the pitfalls and traps of the business.
There’s something about Portman that makes her unique among her peers, an unexpected yet somehow unsurprising maturity mixed with palpable and unabashed vulnerability, which became obvious from her first on-screen appearance in Luc Besson’s action drama Léon: The Professional. Portman never chose the expected roles, actively pursuing projects that reflected her unique feminist stance, even as a young performer. The perfect combination between indie dramas and major blockbusters became the trademark of her early years, leading the way for the second stage of her career, which finds her front and center in every project, taking her place as one of Hollywood’s most respected and bankable actresses.
Wise beyond her years
The childhood portion of Portman’s career is best represented by two roles that proved her versatility and intensity as an actress. First, Léon: The Professional showcases the maturity that has always distinguished her performances. As Mathilda, Portman conveys genuine tragedy without seeming completely despondent. She is precocious, spirited, and lively, overwhelming the film with a sense of innocence and drive that becomes the perfect antidote to Jean Reno’s straightforwardness and Gary Oldman’s unhinged antics.
The second is Michael Mann’s crime drama Heat, which sees Portman play a small but pivotal supporting role as Al Pacino’s suicidal stepdaughter. Per Mann’s own words, Portman was ” a prodigy” capable of portraying someone who was “seriously dysfunctional without any overt hysteria.” Mann hits the nail on the head with this description, capturing the very essence of a Portman performance. Since childhood, Portman has been delivering genuinely gripping and moving work without succumbing to the theatrics that could so easily go hand in hand with some of her roles. She is naturally skilled at conveying raw emotion, whether with one deep, piercing look or a wordy, convoluted monologue.
Take Portman’s Oscar-nominated turn in Mike Nichols’ sexual drama, Closer, arguably her first truly “adult” role. As the elusive and mystifying Alice Ayres, Portman is a male fantasy come to life — a stripper with substance. Alice is overtly sexual, cynical, and volatile. A straightforwardness of mind and heart makes Alice as alluring as she is troubling, and Portman is a master at communicating this sense of wonder and fascination that makes it easy to believe Jude Law would find her impossible to resist. Closer earned Portman her first Golden Globe and first Oscar nomination; in another year, she might’ve even won.
In many ways, Closer was the culmination of this first stage of her career. Portman took everything she’d learned from years of playing wise-beyond-their-age characters in films like Beautiful Girls, Anywhere But Here, and Where the Heart Is and delivered her most ambitious and layered performance up to that point. Closer effectively changed audiences’ perceptions of Portman; no longer was she Hollywood’s ultimate precocious overachiever, but a determined young woman in control of her own path.
Because Portman wasn’t always in control, especially as a child. The actress famously turned down Adrian Lyne’s remake of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, publicly stating that “there’s enough exploitation out there that it’s not necessary to do more of that.” But Portman herself, against her wishes, was Lolita-ed by the industry and audiences who grew accustomed to seeing her as an “old soul,” an adult-child hybrid who seemed more comfortable around adults than people her age. Portman recently opened up about the effects this problematic perception had on her young psyche, telling Dax Shepard it forced her to act “conservative” and “serious” at a time when she didn’t necessarily feel safe around older men.
In a galaxy far, far way
It’s the million-dollar question every fan asks themselves: Are the Star Wars prequels actually good? The answer is far more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” There’s genuine artistic value in them, but is it enough to overpower their many flaws? Portman plays a crucial role in the first two entries, acting as the emotional catalyst that drives the plot. In many ways, she is the beating heart of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Portman, at the height of her woman-child persona, was the logical choice to play a young queen thrown into a war for which she is vastly underprepared. The Phantom Menace portrays her as a girl and her bond with young Anakin (Hayden Christensen) is that of distant cousins reuniting and struggling to find common ground.
Then came Attack of the Clones, which Portman filmed during one of her summer breaks at Harvard. While the first film went through the effort to infantilize her, the sequel goes out of its way to portray her as a young woman, dressing her in more provocative outfits and forcing a love story with the now fully grown Anakin. Portman does her best with the material; in her defense and Christensen’s, there’s not much on the page to sell their doomed romance. However, their chemistry isn’t nearly as terrible as critics at the time claimed, and while they’re not Harry and Sally, they’re far from Gigli and Ricki.
In all fairness, Padmé and Anakin are as good as any other Star Wars couple. The galaxy far, far away has never been particularly famous for its complex romances. From Han and Leia to Kylo and Rey, love isn’t the franchise’s strong suit. Still, there’s something genuine and, dare we say, meaningful about their bond, perhaps because it plays a more crucial role in the story than any of Star Wars’ other affairs. Portman returned for the last chapter in the trilogy, returning briefly for her character to die.
Star Wars came at a pivotal time in Portman’s career and played an important role in its evolution. The noughties saw the rise of the modern blockbuster thanks to Sam Raimi’s game-changing Spider-Man trilogy, Michael Bay’s Transformers series, and Christopher Nolan’s new take on the Dark Knight. Star Wars was part of this revolution, showcasing the spectacle and can’t-miss- factor that would become modern franchises’ bread-and-butter. And Portman was at the center of it, proving she could open a film at the box office as easily as she could win awards for it.
The swan queen
If Closer marked the ending of Portman’s early career, Black Swan was the beginning of a new chapter. Directed by the master of meaningful bluntness, Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan sees Portman take on the role of the demure and perfectionist Nina Sayers. The actress delivers a tour-de-force performance, embodying all of Nina’s childlike insecurities and fears without overdoing it. In a way, Nina is an antithesis of Portman’s career and persona, an overprotected and infantilized figure, stunted since childhood and forced to live someone else’s dream. For her performance, Portman won the 2010 Oscar for Best Actress, one of the new millennium’s worthiest and most celebrated victories.
Portman continued this new phase in her thriving career, experimenting with other roles and genres. Some — the first Thor movie and her feature directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness — worked, while others — No Strings Attached, the second Thor movie — didn’t. Yet, critics and audiences didn’t give up on Portman, especially not when she was actively trying to branch out. The actress brought a sense of dignity to each of her projects, elevating even the most basic and crude films — looking at you, Your Highness.
Jackie was a triumphant return to form for Portman, especially after years of slumming it in forgettable flicks. Putting on Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink Chanel suit, Portman delivered another career-best performance, bringing to life the most challenging moment in Kennedy’s life with distinguished vulnerability. Beyond the accent and mannerisms, Portman becomes Jackie in her darkest hours. Like all her best roles, the actress finds meaning and power in the character’s quiet moments, letting audiences know there’s as much happening within Jackie, a raging sense of chaos that rivals that on the outside.
Portman continued her daring exploration of her limits, starring in Alex Garland’s ambitious sci-fi masterpiece Annihilation and Brady Corbet’s musical drama Vox Lux. In his review of Vox Lux, Robbie Collin of The Telegraph compared her performance to her work in Black Swan and Jackie, stating it has a “similar audacity and extravagance that few actresses would dare attempt, let alone be allowed to get away with.” Indeed, Portman is part of a select group of performers — the Isabelle Hupperts, Nicole Kidmans, Julianne Moores, and Amy Adamses of the world, those actresses willing to risk and leave everything on the line with each performance. They go big, never at the expense of the character, and always in service of the story.
After a nearly 10-year absence — save for a brief cameo in Avengers: Endgame — Portman returns to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Taika Waititi’s colorful and unrestrained Thor: Love and Thunder. The film’s appeal becomes instantly clear as Portman’s previously sidelined Jane Foster takes center stage by becoming Mighty Thor. An expert at embodying the right mix between strength and vulnerability, Portman shines in the role, committing to it by bulking up considerably and fitting seamlessly with Taika Waititi’s gonzo storytelling approach. Portman’s Mighty Thor is every bit the hero Cap or Iron Man are, taking the place she should’ve always had opposite Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder.
For nearly 30 years, Natalie Portman has delighted audiences with her soulful and layered performances, creating one unforgettable character after another. Hollywood has never been afraid of allowing her enough room to experiment — a privilege that not every actress gets in a town so sexist and narrow-minded — and she’s made the best out of it. Portman never stays in her comfort zone, going from sci-fi leading lady to dystopian rebel with as much ease as she goes from troubled stripper to elegant first lady.
Portman currently has two miniseries in the works and will star opposite Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ drama May December. There’s no word on whether she’ll return for a potential fifth film in the ongoing Thor saga, but one thing is certain: the MCU needs her more than she needs it.
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