A movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.
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.
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.
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.
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.