Natalie Portman: A movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 8 2011 6:53 AM

Natalie Portman

A movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
Is Natalie Portman the actress of our time?

For those who have been checking in on Natalie Portman's career the way they'd watch a TV run of Spartacus —in chunks, in excerpt, mostly during ad breaks on the lower channels—recent weeks have brought some indication that it's time to still the remote for a while and reach for a large bowl of popcorn. Last month, Portman appeared in her first romantic-comedy lead, playing a sex-hungry, socially stunted medical resident opposite Ashton Kutcher. That same week, she took home her second Golden Globe. She's favored for the upcoming best-actress Oscar, meanwhile, having already scooped up a Screen Actors Guild honor; the awards come to Portman (not her real name) not for her recent, tear-jerker release but for Black Swan, a divisive movie heralded as the artistic flash point of her career. Black Swan brought Portman other things as well, most notably a pregnancy and engagement to the dancer Benjamin Millepied (amazingly, his real name), and although there's nothing in these turns to startle a jaded Hollywood observer, they together change the stakes of Portman's career. Since appearing on-screen for the first time in the '90s, Portman has been a quiet enigma in the world of her profession. Now she's coming to resemble something more: a window onto the industry's future.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

Five-foot-three, credentialed at Harvard, and equipped with a smile so startlingly intimate it seems to call for special MPAA mention, Portman cuts a strange path through the field of Hollywood celebrity. It's not because of her biography per se: A lot of movie actors go to fancy schools, and even more wear many hats over the course of their public lives. What sets Portman apart is her puzzling ambitions. Though she's spent nearly 20 years under klieg lights, the career she has been reaching for is a mystery. During a single visit to Cannes a few years back, Portman promoted both Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith and Free Zone, a tiny bilingual Amos Gitai production shot in Israel and Jordan on a shoestring budget. Her public taste and personality flickers between a celebrity's glib superficiality and an artist's sedulousness. (Asked once for some books that influenced her in O: The Oprah Magazine, she directed readers to a midcareer Robert Hass poetry collection.) In an industry that rests in large part on the strength of public image, it remains unclear whether Portman is a daughter of the red carpet, striking a pose of highbrow devotion, or a cerebral small-film artist who got dragged into the blockbuster machine.

In fact, this difficulty in pinning down Portman's goals is the key to understanding her career. Although she's often said to carry the anachronistic charms of Audrey Hepburn, Portman is, almost more than anyone else, a star born of this moment. The zigzags and juxtapositions of her work echo her generation's unsettled aspirations; their resonance across the board is crucial to her image both on-screen and in the mainstream eye. Widely driven but impossible to pin down, Portman has brought a new style of ambition into public stardom.

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From the start, Portman's career has been propelled by two conflicting drives: a push toward creative seriousness and an effort not to get immersed in any one pursuit. Portman was born in Israel and grew up mostly in a Long Island suburb; shortly before middle school, a Revlon model scout "discovered" her inside a pizza parlor. Lots of kids model and end up pleased with the exposure, but Portman (supposedly by her own afflatus) used the open door for leverage into more ambitious work. At 11, after a round of auditioning and a few curious ventures, she got cast in her first, heady feature role: Acting opposite Jean Reno in Luc Besson's 1994 film The Professional, Portman played a 12-year-old nymphet manqué, a moody orphan with a Louise Brooks bob who tries, childishly, to earn the love of a middle-aged assassin. It is an actor's movie, and an offbeat one, and the Portman that it brought to light feels today like a revelation: gawky, anti-glamorous, something of a tomboy, totally dissolved into the role.

That on-screen tenor didn't last. Spurred in part by The Professional's reception as a mildly transgressive film (the American Spectator described it as "at times disturbingly suggestive of kiddie porn"), Portman started casting herself in shades of the closest thing to virtue that the 1990s offered: achievement. On late-night shows, she chatted about her stellar academic performance; in picking parts, she increasingly tended toward serious characters settled in, or reaching for, some sort of inner power circle. In 1999, she got decked out as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace—a potentate so stiff and cold that, in all but a few crucial details, she resembled a large piece of furniture.

By the time Portman appeared in Anywhere but Here (late 1999), a film based on a Mona Simpson novel, this serious, chilly affect had become a steady feature of her image on-screen. Anywhere but Here is a mother-daughter story, but it also manages to trace a generational seam: Susan Sarandon plays a woman trying to recapture the winds of young-boomer caprice in midlife, leaving her Midwestern husband behind and moving out to Beverly Hills with dreams of glamour and freewheeling romance, while Portman is her furrow-browed high-school daughter, a kind of proto- organization-kid who hits the books and extracurriculars and falls into a high-school romance only with a dorky classmate who delivers soulful exegeses of Nietzsche. If you were a young person of a certain cast around the turn of the millennium, there is a good chance that Natalie Portman slipped into your own heart near this time, too—not least of all because, increasingly, she hardly seemed to be donning a role at all. Anywhere but Here ends with her character leaving the ditzy mother in the airport to fly to Brown. The fall the movie appeared, Portman paused her acting and matriculated up to Cambridge, Mass.

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