So now Natalie Portman has an Oscar, and people have been calling Black Swan her breakthrough role. In truth, though, Natalie Portman has had at least three breakthrough roles and, although her she has a reputation for being sweet & level-headed, all three roles are pretty dark, intense and risky.
Her first breakthrough was her fairly sensational debut at age 12 in Luc Besson’s best film, Leon. She plays Mathilda, a young orphan who begs a lonely hitman to take her in and teach her his trade so that she can off the drug dealer that killed her beloved little brother. That and she kind of falls in love with the hitman while she’s at it. Fortunately he’s a really, really nice guy (go figure) who’s just interested in protecting her, so it never goes where you really hope it won’t. There tenderness of their bond is the emotional core of the film, and Portman is a live wire. In all Mathilda’s antics, you can see her hurt and alienation. The legend is that she was actually too young for the part, but that Luc Besson couldn’t bare not to cast her. Check out the clip from her casting video below:
But the breakthrough would not have been complete without her follow up role as smart & witty ‘old soul’ Marty, sweetly falling in love with another older man in Beautiful Girls. Again, no inappropriate lines are crossed, and Portman gives a standout performance in a large Gen X cast that had some critics comparing her to a young Audrey Hepburn (no small feat). Despite her seeming reputation for playing precocious young girls, Portman smartly turned down the chance to play the real Lolita in Adrian Lyne's slightly seedy 1997 Adaptation of the classic novel.
She continued making a name for herself, coasting through a trio of small roles for big directors (Heat for Michael Mann, Mars Attacks! For Tim Burton & Everyone Says I Love You for Woody Allen) before turning in two solid adolescent performances, first as the longsuffering teenage daughter of Susan Sarandon’s reckless, mutton-as-lamb mother in 1999’s Anywhere But Here, and then as a small town teenage mother abandoned & coming-of-age in small town America in 2000’s Where the Heart is. She is good in both, but her restrained, spot-on performance in Anywhere But Here is the standout; quietly outshining co-star Sarandon.
She then gracefully exited Hollywood with George Lucas’ first misjudged Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, to major in psychology at Harvard, and bowed back with the not much better Revenge of the Sith, a powerful cameo in Cold Mountain, and a spot on Sesame Street.
Her second breakthrough came post-Harvard as foul-mouthed free-spirit, Alice, engaging in emotional havoc & infidelity with Clive Owen, Jude Law & Julia Roberts in Mike Nichols’ harsh relationship drama Closer. She dug deep, exploring the unexpected layers of her enigmatic character and taking on her older co-stars with weighty, acidic dialogue, and earning herself her first Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actress (which she lost to Cate Blanchett’s brilliant interpretation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator).
The same year, she cemented her comeback playing another charming small town eccentric helping big city emotional zombie Zach Braff’s come back to life in indie comedy/drama Garden State. Garden State gave her a chance to practice her comedy chops and revel in Marty’s tough / vulnerable sweetness, while piling on the 20-something angst.
My theory is that there is a cool kind of repetition in her first and second breakthroughs.
Let me explain – for years, there had been rumours about a Leon sequel, revolving around Mathilda, now grown up and understandably damaged. Wisely, Luc Besson avoided ever making that sequel but, in a way, Closer allows Portman a kind of character sequel, where we can imagine that Alice is very much the kind of girl that Mathilda could have grown up to be – dangerously beautiful, world-weary, deeply bruised & ruthlessly guarding her own emotions at the expense of others’. The final revelation, that she is never quite who she says she is, or even knows, lends a powerful punch to this theory.
Likewise, in Beautiful Girls, Marty calls herself an ‘old soul’ & asks Willie to wait for her to grow up & half expects that he might. In Garden State, Portman shows us very much what a grown up Marty could be like – quirky, pretty, too smart for her small town and just a bit of a pathological liar.
After bruising performances in some hit-and-miss dramas – from V for Vendetta, in which she shaved off all her hair, to The Other Boleyn Girl, in which she lost her head – she again extended her reputation in a string of sensational supporting roles for directors with some serious street cred – in Ghoya’s Ghosts for Milos Forman, My Blueberry Nights for Kar Wai Wong & The Darjeeling Limited (or Hotel Chevalier to be exact) for Wes Anderson.
And now, of course, her third (& one presumes final) breakthrough, in Darren Aronofsky’s daring & original Black Swan, has now forever cemented her in the Academy of Motion Pictures’ annuls. Despite some hectic content, the film and the performance have proved to be quite popular, and Portman still managed to walk off with her sweet reputation in place, although you can’t help feeling that our ‘sweet girl' truly is gone!
Elsewhere, Portman doesn't seem in any rush to win more Oscars, thank goodness; she turned down Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, possibly due to her pregnancy, & will be showing up instead in Ashton Kutcher romcom No Strings Attached, action comedy Your Highness, and Kenneth Branagh's take on comic books (similar, after all, to Shakespearean themes), Thor.
She's also launched a behind-the-scenes film site, http://www.makingof.com/, that gives a peak into the work behind current movies, and directed her own 5 minute short film for ensemble effort, New York, I Love You. We may see less of her for a while as she focuses on motherhood for a while, but clearly she's good at making big comebacks.
Clip from 'Leon':
How great is Eric Serra's score?
Clip from 'Closer': (language alert)
Clip from 'Beautiful Girls':
Clip from 'Garden State':