Born to Jewish parents in Jerusalem in 1981, Natalie Hershlag aka Natalie Portman started her film career at the age of 12. She continued her exceptionally blooming acting career, while earning a psychology degree from Harvard University. Despite a nearly career-destroying role in Star Wars, Portman bounced back with Mike Nichols’ Closer. The role earned her an Oscar nomination followed by more challenging roles. She was, of course, involved in forgettable Marvel movies and did awful comedies. However, she was also committed to stellar projects like Black Swan and Jackie.
As Portman turns 40 today, here’s a look back at her 10 best performances in a career spanning over 25 years:
10. The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Director: Justin Chadwick
Justin Chadwick’s racy 16th century drama might have got lot of historical details wrong, but it’s pretty entertaining. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play Boleyn Sisters, Anne and Mary, who are encouraged to woo and bed Henry VIII to secure their family’s fortune. Consequently, the two sisters are thrust into a battle to win the King’s affection. Portman’s Anne is a scheming, no-nonsense proto-feminist, while Johansson’s Mary is a sultry, doe-eyed girl. Portman’s dynamic performance shows a range and depth that helps overcome some narrative shortcomings.
9. Brothers (2009)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Jim Sheridan’s love triangle is a remake of Susanne Bier’s Danish film. Marine Sam Cahill is presumed dead after his helicopter goes down in Afghanistan. His brother Tommy tries to help Sam’s wife Grace and their two children. Gradually, Grace falls in love in fall with the other brother, which causes domestic mayhem when Sam returns home. Grace is a difficult role to play as she remains the center around which the brothers revolve. However, Natalie Portman conveys her conflicted emotions with nuance and a sense of rootedness.
Grace’s despair for Sam, love for her two children, gratitude for Tommy subtly comes from deep within. In fact, Portman and Gyllenhaal’s presence makes the film’s problematic and over-dramatic second-half bearable.
8. Anywhere But Here (1999)
Director: Wayne Wang
Wayne Wang’s coming-of-age drama released the same year as Natalie Portman’s Star Wars Prequels. While Portman was decried for her Princess Amidala, she quietly excelled in Wang’s movie, playing a sensitive teenager. The narrative, based on Mona Simpson’s novel, revolves around a flamboyant, restless woman named Adele August. She seeks a wide range of opportunities and a more zestful life. For Adele’s 14-year-old daughter Ann, leaving home is painful since she is very happy with her best buddy. But Adele’s cutesy, false optimism lands both mother and daughter in Beverly Hills. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a pleasure watching Portman negotiate a range of sharp emotional keys. She’s so good that she steals the film from seasoned performer Susan Sarandon.
7. Beautiful Girls (1996)
Director: Ted Demme
Ted Demme’s cool ensemble comedy-drama moves around a bunch of close childhood friends, preparing for their school re-union. The narrative follows them as they work their way through identity crisis and other diverse problems. Timothy Hutton plays one of the central characters Willie, an unhappy and struggling 29-year-old pianist. Natalie Portman plays 13-year-old Marty, a precocious and charismatic girl who’s ‘in love’ with Willie. However, this Lolita-tinged plot-line doesn’t have a single discomfiting note. Their friendship/relationship is more spiritual as Marty sees herself as an ‘old soul’. The scene-stealingly delicious performance from Portman also earned criticisms for turning little girls into ‘fancy objects for grown men’. Yet this wise and funny turn from Portman in this purely fictional realm is sweet without being cringe-worthy.
6. V for Vendetta (2005)
Director: James McTeigue
In James McTeigue’s action/thriller Natalie Portman plays Evey Hammond, a passive girl who undergoes a dramatic change in the hands of V, the revolutionary hero. The masked protagonist V is described as an idea rather than a person. His quest for vengeance and political idealism pits him against the futuristic, totalitarian British regime. Portman’s Evey serves as an emotional anchor in the narrative. It’s not a great performance from Portman, since the story doesn’t give her that much room. However, the incredibly pretty actress does well in the limited role of creating a gradually politicized heroine. On the whole, a truly great film with a not very dazzling Natalie Portman performance. V for Vendetta is currently streaming on Netflix.
5. Garden State (2004)
Director: Zach Braff
Zach Braff’s indie romance has Natalie Portman playing her most funny, wacky character on-screen. Braff plays Largeman, a waiter and wanna-be actor who returns home to attend his mother’s funeral. He has been on medication to numb the cacophonies of real world and issues regarding his domineering father. At home, Largeman tries to reconcile with his dad and reunites with school buddy Mark, a gravedigger. Then he meets a crazily sweet girl Sam, whose verve partly soothes his existential angst. Garden State is definitely not American indie cinema at its best.
The narrative is too mushy and underwritten at times. Nevertheless, it almost reached a legendary status as Portman’s performance led to coining the famous pop-culture term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’. Sam’s characterization was criticized, since the whole point of her energetic presence is to help the guy attain his arc. Even Natalie Portman, years later, accepted it as a ‘troubling trope’. Nevertheless, Portman’s enlivening presence is too hard to resist.
4. Closer (2004)
Director: Mike Nichols
In Mike Nichols’ searing study of relationships, 23-year-old Natalie Portman played an emotionally needy girl named Alice. She is utterly self-conscious who wants to put a bad relationship behind her. She sometimes works as a stripper and dallies with the narrative’s two leading male characters, played by Jude Law and Cliver Owen. Portman commands this film with her absolutely fearless performance (Owen, Law and Julia Roberts also give career best performances). Her big, shining eyes and seductive smiles lift the story’s unpredictable turns to another level.
Natalie Portman had also later revealed that this role saved her career after ‘Star Wars Prequel’ trilogy. Despite rising to super-stardom, Star Wars movies made every Hollywood director think she was a horrible actress.
3. Leon: The Professional (1994)
Director: Luc Besson
Besson’s eccentric action-drama kicked off Natalie Portman’s illustrious career. The determined and serious 12-year-old Portman overshadowed more than 2,000 hopeful girls to gain the role of Mathilda. Leon tells the story of 12-year-old Mathilda, whose entire family, including her little brother, gets murdered in a drug-related crime. Subsequently, the preternaturally mature child seeks revenge, seeking the help of next-door man-child, an assassin with a ‘heart-of-gold’. The undercurrent of sexuality thrown upon Mathilda naturally attracted great controversy. It evoked few unsettling interpretations. But Portman provides an amazingly deft performance, elegantly unfurling her characters’ deep-seated emotions. Her haunting yet grounded performance makes the unsavoury interpretations too puritanical or plainly ignorant. With Gary Oldman’s villainous and fascinatingly over-the-top performance to boot, the film turns into a brilliant entertainer.
2. Jackie (2016)
Director: Pablo Larrain
Jackie is set in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, chronicling the widowed First Lady’s intense grief. The movie also highlights how big a role Jackie played in shaping her husband’s legacy. To play the iconic Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Natalie Portman spent months researching Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She even worked with a dialect coach to get the accent right. Portman, who was the same age as Jacqueline at the time of JFK’s assassination, deftly unearthed the icon’s human side. Larrain offers a more piercing portrait than the usual polished biopics. And, Portman strives hard to make the titular character palpably human. She excels especially in the scenes she assertively takes on the questions of the vigilant journalist (played by Billy Crudup).
1. Black Swan (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Aronofsky’s psychological thriller or body-horror is centered on a shy, vulnerable prima ballerina Nina Sayers. She gets a chance to play the role of a lifetime. But to do so, the sexually and mentally naive Nina has to delve into her own dark side. This may not be the most realistic portrayal of challenges in a ballet company. However, Aronofsky’s treatment examines the relationship between passion, emotion and rigorously perfected technique. He fleshes it out with metaphors of female sexuality.
Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Nina intimately recounts the character’s deep psychological dissolution. Portman not only easily passes off as a professional dancer, but also stands out in exhibiting a convincing mix of innocence and malevolence. The actress was not often known for entirely losing herself into the characters she plays. But here she hurls herself into the role with reckless conviction, making Nina both the victim and predator in her obsessed pursuit.
Which films of Natalie Portman are your favourites? Do you agree with our rankings? Tell us your ranking in the comments below.
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