When Natalie Portman made her big-screen acting debut in the offbeat thriller The Professional (1994), critics praised the 13-year-old as a revelation because of the intensity with which she personified a child caught in unimaginable circumstances. Playing a New York City kid who becomes the surrogate daughter of a stoic hit man after her real parents are murdered, Portman seemed heartbreakingly real, so articles naming her the next big thing were ubiquitous. She added to her mystique with an effective performance as a troubled teen in Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat (1995); soon afterward, she cemented her credibility by playing a wise-beyond-her years kid in Beautiful Girls (1996) and by starring in a Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1997. Throughout the mid-’90s, Portman’s gamine appearance and seemingly effortless performances drew comparisons to one of the cinema’s most beloved icons, Audrey Hepburn, and there was tremendous curiosity among cinephiles about whether she could sustain the momentum as she matured.
But then came the first of many 180-degree turns in her curious career. Portman took a break from acting to finish high school, and then enrolled in Harvard University to pursue a degree in psychology. As if tackling an Ivy League education wasn’t enough of a responsibility, she accepted a principal role in George Lucas’ trilogy of Star Wars prequels consecutive with her college studies. Whether by design or luck, jumping aboard the Star Wars train guaranteed that she would not only remain visible while at school, but also increase her fame exponentially. To give a sense of how significant the Star Wars prequels are to Portman’s career, her most successful film to date outside of the Star Wars universe is V for Vendetta (2006), which made $70 million in America; contrast that sum with the fact that each of her Star Wars flicks made over $300 million domestically.
Perhaps owing to her split focus, Portman did halfhearted work in the films she made while a college student. The Star Wars prequels were terrible movies, of course, so even powerhouse actors like Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson struggled to retain their dignity while delivering Lucas’ inane dialogue, but Portman was uniquely bad in all three pictures, letting her good looks and opulent costumes convey the idea of an intergalactic princess while issuing line deliveries more robotic than those spoken by the prequels’ actual robots. The work she did in non-Star Wars pictures around the same period was better, but not by much; Portman is sincere but decidedly underwhelming in Anywhere But Here (1999), Where the Heart Is (2000), and Cold Mountain (2003), none of which did much business.
And yet the industry kept knocking on Portman’s door, as if directors and producers were so infatuated with the promise of the woman this interesting child might become that they wanted to be there when Portman blossomed. It’s hard to think of any juvenile actress other than Jodie Foster who received more consistent support from the industry during her transition from juvenile parts to grown-up roles, but Foster had a solid box-office track record, thanks to several hit Disney comedies and her provocative appearance in Taxi Driver (1976). Portman, on the other hand, had a comparatively spotty filmography by the mid-2000s. Thanks to the twisted logic of Hollywood, however, she qualified as a bankable actress because the grosses of the Star Wars prequels were so huge that they raised her box-office average to a significant level. The fact that Portman wasn’t the reason why most fans bought tickets to the Star Wars movies didn’t matter; the thinking seemed to be that since she appeared in three blockbusters, she was entitled to A-lister status.
For most juvenile performers, the fairy tale ends somewhere around age 20: Childhood promise leads to young-adult awkwardness, and then obscurity. But the charmed nature of Portman’s career held fast after she collected her parchment from Harvard, because when she returned to the screen in 2004 at age 23, she exhibited renewed energy and purpose. In the amiably pretentious youth-angst dramedy Garden State, Portman played a quirky Jersey girl prone to seizures, downplaying her good looks and demonstrating a lightness of touch she hadn’t shown since The Professional and Beautiful Girls. And in the laughably over-praised downer Closer, Portman announced her presence as sexual adult by playing a stripper. It’s a sad truth that in the age of digital screen captures, the easiest way for actresses to increase their notoriety is to appear onscreen in little or no clothing, but the canny Portman did so in the context of a arty drama directed by the legendary Mike Nichols, allowing her to legitimately say she disrobed “because it was right for the character” instead of simply to get attention. Whereas most actresses lose credibility by playing strippers, Portman got an Oscar nomination.
After the last Star Wars prequel made a mint in 2005, Portman finally scored a box-office hit all her own with the comic-book adaptation V for Vendetta. A futuristic thriller produced by the Wachowski brothers at the apex of their Matrix fame, V for Vendetta built on Closer by defining Portman as an actress willing to go to extremes for her art; this time she shaved her head to play a woman who gets caught up in a revolution against a totalitarian regime. Portman gave her most invested performance to date in the picture, especially in tough scenes showing her character getting tortured.
Yet Portman’s career wasn’t done moving in strange directions. In the late 2000s, she appeared in a string of ambitious but unsuccessful features and short films, notching collaborations with such distinctive filmmakers as Wes Anderson, Milos Forman, Mira Nair, Don Roos, Jim Sheridan, Tom Tykwer, and Wong Kar Wai. Rather than pursuing the easy paychecks of romantic comedies and superhero movies, to say nothing of cashing in on her sci-fi cachet, Portman prioritized working with as many interesting directors as possible. One can only wonder if this smart approach was designed by Portman or by members of her team (if not both), but whoever guided Portman’s career in the late 2000s deserves ample praise for building on early promise and visibility in a wholly unpredictable fashion.
It looks as if all of this unusual maneuvering will pay off in the next few months, because Portman is poised to explode as a major star. Black Swan, the freakazoid dance drama that’s currently playing in theaters and winning awards, is a hit almost entirely because of Portman. For while the strange story is unmistakably the work of director Darren Aronofsky, his box-office record is even dodgier than Portman’s. Black Swan has already made twice as much money in the U.S. as Aronofsky’s biggest previous hit, The Wrestler (2008), and the film is almost certain to get a box-office bump by scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
As for Portman, it’s likely she’ll win her first Oscar for the film, with The Kids Are All Right star Annette Bening looking like her biggest competition in the forthcoming Best Actress race. However the inevitable announcement of Portman’s Oscar nomination on January 25 will just be one milestone in what must surely be the most eventful year of the actress’ life: Not only is she engaged to Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied and pregnant with their first child, she’ll have five movies in theaters during 2011, not even counting Black Swan. The Ashton Kutcher-costarring romantic comedy No Strings Attached opens on January 21; the long-delayed drama The Other Woman hits screens on February 4; the medieval stoner comedy Your Highness will be released on April 8; and the Marvel superhero epic Thor hits theaters on May 6. In other words, simultaneous with solidifying her status as major dramatic actress (and starting a family), Portman will dive into the ultra-commercial genres of frat-boy humor, romantic comedy, and superhero adventure. Even if some of her 2011 offerings disappoint commercially and/or critically, Portman has so many shots this year that at least one of them could become a significant hit, creating a perfect storm in which Portman becomes more bankable, more famous, and more respected all in the course of a few short months.
The capper? Just over a month after the Portman-palooza peaks with the release of Thor, the actress born Natalie Hershlag will turn 30. Yep, Portman has an entire career’s worth of triumphs to her credit, and she’s still only in her twenties. Considering everything that she’s accomplished in the 16 years since she first appeared onscreen as a uniquely interesting child, who knows what’s in store when Portman decides what she wants to do when she grows up?