A movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.
And so the image of the multitalented grind got ingrained in her biography, too. At Harvard, Portman had the kind of college career more closely associated with a bet-hedging striver than a movie star in the first flush of fame. She worked as a research assistant in a couple of laboratory studies, one on visual imagery and another on frontal-lobe activation in infants. She held a spot in Jorie Graham's application-only poetry workshop, one of Harvard's most coveted and creatively rigorous courses. (Zadie Smith subsequently turned the workshop à clef in On Beauty.) And she got a gig as one of Alan Dershowitz's research assistants after submitting what the professor has described as dazzling, intellectually innovative work in seminar.
Was this a movie star going through the motions of engaged academic life to seal her reputation—or a student of creative and intellectual ambition, shielding her passions behind the glaze of a celebrity career? The answer might have gotten clearer as Portman's mature career took shape. Instead, it has grown more opaque. Over the past few years, she has taken parts in films of varying indie-ness, tried her hand at writing and directing (two shorts, both of which premiered in 2008), and tossed around the idea of trying to publish fiction. Seen in this light, Portman's much publicized head-shaving (for V for Vendetta) and pole-dancing (in Mike Nichols' tour de force Closer) were gestures of devotion to the cinematic product over public image, art over ego. In another light, though, these are merely easy, hammy poses of artistic seriousness, proof of an organization kid's needy drive for cultural credentials and good deeds. After Harvard, Portman took some time to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; she also donates to the Jane Goodall Institute, is a principled vegetarian from childhood (turned vegan), and has gone on speaking circuits advocating microfinance for developing nations—an interest, she's gone out of her way to say, that required lots of extra study. When the academy nominated Portman for her first Oscar, she told people, "I'm still not awesome." That broached a question: Where, exactly, does Natalie Portman's idea of awesomeness lie?
Even when Portman has given hints toward an answer, it's been unclear what manner of striving those hints suggest. Once, in an interview, she described her experience of celebrity in terms of "double consciousness"—W.E.B. Du Bois' term for a black American's experience of seeing himself through white eyes, of identifying both as part of the American whole and as an African descendant in a racist culture. She was pilloried for the apparent suggestion that centuries of persecution shared something with pressure to effect a breezy manner on Letterman. (Portman subsequently apologized and clarified the remark's context.) Beyond her choice of words, though, there was the strange decision to drop a canonical abstraction into an interview with Allure magazine in the first place: a clumsy affectation, maybe, meant to burnish Portman's image as a brainy star—or else a sign that she was genuinely out of sync with the glamour world and, as the Du Bois citation itself strains to suggest, living something of a double inner life.
Confusion about where Portman stands in her ambitions isn't, in fact, just a function of her own path. It's an ambiguity extending through the upper strata of her generation. Portman's peers make up a demographic widely perceived as a legion of overdriven dilettantes, a group of young people alternately pushed to wild multispecialization by some unknown inner fire and stunted by an incapacity to choose among those paths. The demographic archetypes are well-known: bleary students working well past midnight at the college newspaper, then rising before dawn for sports; thirtysomething strivers who have changed careers three times trying to find their gold-paved boulevard and forestalled adult life as a result. The trouble here is not ambition (that's a given) but committing to a goal for that drive: Is the point to hit virtuoso's stride in art, in influence, in public service? If many of us feel a closer affinity to Portman than we do to other movie stars, it's not purely because she seems to drink less deeply of the Hollywood well. She is a public figure whose attempts to be all things while committing her soul to none—to draw millions at the box office, to be a fearless small-film artist, to turn her education toward social good—echoes the conflict in our own ambitious drives, our need to keep every iron burning hot for fear of losing our glow. She's replaced an older form of movie-star restlessness (the kind that zoomed toward nothing but the spotlight and that made a mess of lives) with a new one.
That new model of stardom is what's on the block in her recent activities. Portman will turn 30 this year, and she will become a celebrity mother, and she will probably receive a lifelong mark of vocational stardom in the form of an Oscar statuette. What's at stake in these distinctions isn't so much her career—that seems pretty pat—as her style of aspiration. Black Swan, the story of an intense young person trying to transmute her ambition into art, works partly because it plays off Portman's identity as a hyperconscientious ingénue. Yet the movie's portrait of ambition misses a quality central to her drive. Portman is no single-minded grind; she is a public figure shaped by goals so disparate as to be almost irreconcilable. And although it's fair to suspect she'll emerge from this year's plaudits at the top of her field, that success could have a disconcerting effect—both on her career and on us. In committing to this final, adult level of distinction, Portman may end up leaving her generation, and the freshest thing about her success, in the dust.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.