When Leon hit the screens in 1994, there wasn’t nearly the outcry about the 12-year-old Natalie Portman playing a hired killer in training the way the world lost its shit in 1976 when 13-year-old Jodie Foster portrayed a prostitute in Taxi Driver. Of course various arguments can be had about ongoing jadedness of modern popular culture and especially the American public’s acceptance of violence over sex, but I think part of this acceptance came through Portman’s wisdom and maturity above her years. Here was a young performer at the precipice of her adolescence, effortlessly exuding a kind of self-awareness, as well as emotional strength and depth, that many adult actors struggle to pinpoint. From that moment on, it was obvious that Portman was not yet another child actor destined to be forgotten. Twenty-four-years later, Portman is one of the most revered actresses of her generation, and for good reason. In honor of her glamming it up as a Lady Gaga-type pop star in Vox Lux, let’s dig into her top ten performances.
Brady Corbet’s stiflingly pretentious treatise on the no longer existing line between fame, artistry and infamy delivers its blunt messaging with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nuts. But at least this delirious art house pop anthem is carried by two rock-solid performances that perfectly complement one another. Raffey Cassidy plays young Celeste as we witness the evolution of a young pop star put into existence through a horrific tragedy. Cassidy captures her innocence gradually being stripped away via a superficial existence that favors narcissism above all. Portman dominates the second half of the film as the adult Celeste, a megastar worshipped by the world, but an insecure, drug-addicted wreck in private. Of course this trope isn’t anything new, but Portman invests so much into the two extremes of the character’s public and personal existence. Her disillusionment on fame in such a violent contemporary world is so grand that it’s hard not to be fixated on her, even though the film that surrounds the performance is fraught with issues.
It’s a natural tragedy in our development as teenagers that we can’t wait to be taken seriously as adults and leave behind our youthful purity, then spend the rest of our lives begging for a wayback machine to make us teenagers again. The confused and lonely teenager Ann (Portman) in Wayne Wang’s affable dramedy is at an especially tricky moment of her development: Not only does she have to deal with her ever-evolving personality brought on by her adolescence, but she has to be an adult for both herself and her juvenile-minded mother (Susan Sarandon), whose arrested development makes her stuck in a perpetual Hollywood dreamland, still hanging onto wishes of easy stardom as she jumps from one doomed relationship to the other. Portman thrives in portraying people who are forced because of external circumstances to adopt a stiff upper lip and seem in complete control even as an internal struggle gradually turns into an existential crisis. Ann can’t wait to grow up, if only to make sure she doesn’t end up like her mother. But inside she knows she’s deeply connected to her and loves her, and her loneliness a direct result of this conundrum. The way Portman handles both states at the same time is yet another harbinger of her future accomplishments.
After Ned Beatty got his Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his single scene in Network, he advised other actors to always take a part seriously, even if it’s just a day shoot. Portman seems to take that to heart here. She isn’t even above the title billed in this star-studded Oscar-bait flick, but she steals the show as a lonely wife whose husband is away fighting the civil war. Her sub-plot about a brief romance with Jude Law’s runaway soldier is more full of heat and passion than the primary romance between Law and Nicole Kidman’s protagonist. This tender section deftly examines how people during wartime can find solace in others they might not even be interested in during normal circumstances. Portman’s performance fully grasps this reality and communicates the inherent melancholy of her character.
There certainly is an underlying menace to Portman’s energy. Perhaps that’s why her turn as a psychotic rapper in a 2005 SNL digital short was viral enough to warrant an equally hilarious follow-up. Even though she’s not the violent and colorful revolutionary in writers/producers Wachowskis’ at least halfway decent Alan Moore adaptation, she holds her own as a no-nonsense heroine ready to stick it to the system, and more than willing to sacrifice it all for the cause. Her stoic presence countered by the underlying emotional turmoil her character has to suppress for the greater good sets her up as a formidable action hero. It’s too bad that the Thor movies got the exact opposite message and put her up as yet another second banana damsel in distress.
Alex Garland’s nihilistic counter-argument to 2016’s Arrival’s optimistic outlook on extraterrestrial life and humans’ ability to communicate with it created perhaps the trippiest and ballsiest sci-fi film of the year. In the center of a premise about a group of scientists venturing into an alien territory that no one has yet come out of is the thesis that human beings, just like many other organic entities in the universe, are set to eventually self-destruct, not only physically but also psychologically. Do we consciously make bad decisions we know will fuck up our lives, or is our biology predestined to follow that path to annihilation? Portman’s protagonist, one of the women signing up for this suicide mission, is a biologist who struggles to keep her professional poise even as the world literally crumbles around her. The film is light on back-story exposition, for good reason, and Portman manages to give us so much about her character’s psychology through brief but effective glimpses. Her experience as a dancer also comes in handy during the bonkers third act, which pretty much turns the movie into a hypnotic piece of psychedelic sci-fi performance art.
Few films make a big splash in capturing a youthful zeitgeist only to almost immediately become dated and tired to the point of being a pop culture punchline the way writer/director/star Zach Braff’s Garden State has. Along with Elizabethtown, this quirk overload is one of the first titles that come to mind when referencing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a male fantasy trope of youthful, free-spirited, nerdy female character who’s also super hot and sexually charged. Yes, Portman’s character, who represents a magic pill that Braff’s depressed protagonist needs as if descended from the heavens as a gift bestowed on him, fits this cliché to a tee on paper. Yet Portman brings a lot of humanity and insight into the role. Even if we don’t believe such a pitch-perfect specimen can exist in the real world, she still makes us fall in love with her, not because of the obvious manipulations of the script, but because of her non-ironic embrace of the character.
Closer is Mike Nichols’ still underrated counterpart to his masterwork Carnal Knowledge, both films direct and honest examinations of the painful confusion of navigating modern romance. Portman gets the least screen time in this four-way tale of romantic entanglements and the misery that follows them, but her character, a 20-something stripper who becomes a point of obsession for the 40-something male intellectuals (Jude Law and Clive Owen) at the center of the story, is essential in tapping into one of the film’s essential themes—the midlife’s desire to find simple happiness vicariously through youth. Nichols uses Portman’s solemn maturity with impeccable precision, as the Law and Owen characters gradually come to terms with her character’s emotional complexity and range of neuroses. In terms of adult romance, there aren’t any easy answers found here, and Portman’s steadfast and centered approach solidifies it. Nichols ends his film with a luscious slow-motion shot of Portman walking down a street, with men ogling her as she passes. They think of her as a plaything, a trophy to be acquired. Nichols and Portman make sure the audience knows better.
It’s tough to construct a screenplay around a child who contains a distinct character arc and expect the performance of the actor cast in the role to pull that off. Since films are usually shot out of order, it’s a bit much to expect a child actor to be completely in tune with where their character is emotionally in relation to the big picture. That’s why, apart from Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, the only other example that comes to mind where such an arc was pulled off so effectively, is Portman’s breakthrough performance as Mathilda, the hitwoman-in-training in Luc Besson’s action classic/creepy underage romance, Leon. When we meet young Mathilda, she acts tough, cigarette in hand, but Portman still taps into her childhood charm. After her little brother is murdered courtesy of bad cop Gary Oldman’s glorious scene chewery, Mathilda’s soul hardens and a rude awakening into the violent world her previously frail soul inhabits is put on full display. As she learns the tricks of the hitman trade from the introverted Leon (Jean Reno), her arc into becoming a kind of monster no child should have to face is complete. Yet this cynical relationship somehow blossoms into a profound love between Leon and Mathilda. That’s a lot of layers to ask from a child actor, and Portman comes out of the gate swinging.
As it should become clear by now, the best Portman performances come through characters who can or have to hold a cold or stoic front, while a flurry of pain and neurosis bubbles under the surface. Therefore, it’s hard to think of a better fit for Portman’s forte as an actress than a deeply personal exploration of Jackie Kennedy’s mental state days after her husband’s horrific assassination. In director Pablo Larrain’s hands, what could have come across as yet another deifying biopic about a beloved public figure turns into a stunningly empathetic dive into the universal concept of grief. Always poised and proper, Portman captures Jackie’s somewhat overtly stiff yet regal public life while never compromising on the raw suffering she goes through in private.
Darren Aronofksy’s Perfect Blue, sorry, Black Swan, is a tense and sometimes maddening piece of psychological horror that goes so over the top in so many places that the whole thing could have crumbled if it wasn’t held tight by a fearless central performance by Portman. No matter how batshit crazy the surrounding tone becomes, Portman’s protagonist, a socially isolated ballet dancer with aspirations of greatness, keeps us grounded. It’s as if Aranofsky and Portman are operating on two different gears that complement each other, as Portman always manages to bring the emotional anchor of the piece.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.