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Thursday, January 20, 2011

8 Milestones in the Evolution of Natalie Portman


Leader image for 8 Milestones in the Evolution of Natalie Portman

In this weekend’s surprisingly not-near-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been release, No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman plays a doctor who’s too busy for a proper relationship, and instead creates a pact with Ashton Kutcher that develops into a “sex-only” one. How did Portman transform herself from child star to the odds-on favorite to take home Oscar gold (note: not for No Strings Attached) next month? You can always trace a direct line through a handful of important roles to illustrate what led to an actor’s current success, and with Portman, that line has been on a steady uphill climb sine her debut in Léon. So let’s look at eight performances — including something called “World Patrol Kids” — that trace the evolution of one Natalie Hershlag.

World Patrol Kids (1992)

Yes, in one of her first filmed performances, Portman dances around as a member of the World Patrol Kids who — for better or worse — try to educate the masses on the benefits of recycling. She’s doesn’t quite have down the dancing skills that she displayed in Black Swan, but could totally have been an extra in the video for Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth.”

 World Patrol Kids from Eden Riegel on Vimeo.

Léon (The Professional) (1994)

Portman, in her first film role, plays a young girl who comes home to discover that a corrupt DEA agent has murdered her entire family. Seeking solace at a neighbor’s apartment (who also happens to be a hitman), Portman learns how to exact revenge and, in the process, falls in love with the hitman. It should be noted that Portman was 12 when she filmed this role and the hitman, Jean Reno, was 45. From an early age, Portman was never one to avoid controversial roles. Speaking of…

Beautiful Girls (1996)

In Ted Demme’s high school reunion dramedy, Willie (Timothy Hutton) — who is having a hard time figuring out what his relationship means — finds solace in the company of Portman’s character, Marty, who is 13. When filming, Hutton was only 35 — so not near as creepy of a relationship that we saw in Léon? No, still very creepy. This also marks the last time Rosie O’Donnell appeared in a film that could be considered watchable (for those who will say “It’s her only watchable film,” allow me to remind you of A League of Their Own, which I’ll defend until the day that I die.)

Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

The tables, as they say, have turned. Now it’s Portman who finds herself the cradle robber, falling in love with a Jedi Knight five years her junior (in reality, Hayden Christensen is two months older than Portman). Of the three Star Wars prequels, this is probably the worst — which is saying something — but, in Portman’s case, it did give her the most to do. She basically spends the first film sitting around dressed in strange head ornaments until near the end; in the third, it would appear that her instructions were to “sit around and look pregnant.” At least in the second film she gets to see some action from start to finish. Regardless, it’s a testament to Portman that she isn’t identified by her role in Star Wars, a label which pretty much every other actor (including Harrison Ford) has found hard to avoid. If nothing else, Portman holds the distinction of being nominated twice for Worst Screen Couple with two different actors: Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen.

Garden State (2004)

OK, there are a lot of people that hate Garden State. And, yes, most of the people that do hate Garden State do so for their deep-seated (and sometimes understandable) loathing of Zach Braff. But what Garden State did for Portman was make her such an indie darling, that her roles in the Star Wars prequels (including the yet to be released Revenge of the Sith) became an afterthought. After Star Wars, it was almost a cry of, “Hey, this actress can show emotion! We all forgot!” Also, for better or worse, Portman can be held 100 percent accountable for turning The Shins into a mainstream band, causing all Shins fans at the time to declare them “over.”

Closer (2004)

To date — and we have less than a week to say this — Closer is Portman’s only Oscar nomination. Here, she plays a stripper with a somewhat mysterious past involved in a relationship with an obituaries writer played by Jude Law (since this was 2004, it was safe to assume that the co-star in every film was Jude Law). Due to an aversion to nude scenes at the time, Portman never appears nude in this film, even though she portrays a stripper (some nude scenes were cut, perhaps due to her then work in Star Wars?). An aversion that she no longer has considering less clothed scenes in Black Swan and, more notably, the prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, Hotel Chevalier.

Saturday Night Live 2006

Has one SNL Digital Short done more to change the image of an actor? Though filmed in jest during Portman’s promotional tour for V for Vendetta, Portman message was clear: She’s no longer putting up with your sh*t. “All the kids looking up to me can suck my d*ck.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember Mark Hamill having a similar message in 1984 — but, perhaps he should have. As Chris Parnell found out, future interviewers of Portman, don’t ask her stupid questions.

Natalie Portman Uncensored Rap
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Black Swan 2010

At this point, what else can be said about Portman’s role in Black Swan? In a week, Portman will be introduced as “two-time Academy Award nominee,” and in a little over a month she will be an Oscar winner. (Unless something really crazy happens and/or Annette Bening pulls a Tonya Harding.) Also, it should be noted, Ashton Kutcher is in no way associated with Black Swan.