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Actress Affinity: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman has long been a respected actress, but coming off a Golden Globe win and on the brink of a second career Oscar nomination, the 29-year-old has finally hit her stride and could quite possibly become one of the more in-demand actresses of the next decade. 

When her latest film debuts on Friday, the R-rated romantic comedy No Strings Attached, Portman’s career could reach a boiling point. All her praise and publicity for Black Swan and the headlines upon getting engaged and becoming pregnant to her “Swan” choreographer could culminate in a surprisingly strong gross for “No Strings.”  And when you hit it big at the box office doing a romantic comedy, everyone in Hollywood’s kissing your feet — just ask Reese Witherspoon.

So, what better excuse did I need to write about my favorite actress working today? Film geek crush aside, however, no time seems more relevant to put Natalie in the spotlight, (I normally use only last names in articles, but in my head I’m on a first-name basis with Natty.) as she’s certainly found a way to shine in it lately.

Growing up in my shoes, it doesn’t take long to fall for Natalie Portman’s charms. Whether I like it or not, one of the seminal films of my adolescence was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A then-18-year-old Portman, known exclusively to that point as a child star, made her first film appearance as awoman. If you can recall the geek excitement over the return of the “Star Wars” universe, imagine what making Portman the exclusive feminine presence at the center of what was already a nerd-gasm of incomparable proportions did to both boys and men at the time.

In retrospect, given the critical lashing the prequels have received, it’s amazing Natalie even survived. She had to deliver enough of George Lucas’ wooden dialogue that she could’ve built a small cabin, but where other actresses might’ve failed, she has always had the ability to make melodrama feel sincere. Actresses with that talent will get you every time and that’s why I’ve been hooked on Natalie Portman for 10-plus years.

Portman was born in Israel to an Israeli father and American mother (both of whom were present at Sunday’s Golden Globes) and then moved to the United States around age three. She grew up in New York mostly and was discovered randomly by an agent at a pizza parlor. Choosing to pursue a career in acting rather than modeling, she was ultimately cast in Leon: The Professional, a celebrated film that could’ve been the high point of her career but was far from it. As such, she was cast in Michael Mann’s Heat starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Beautiful Girls and cult favorite Mars Attacks!

Even when she hit the big time in “Episode I,” Portman still made it her duty to finish up her degree at Harvard. Yeah, Harvard. At the time she was often quoted as saying that acting was only a phase of her life and she had no intention of making a lifelong career out of it. We’ll see if she still sticks to that thought …

Public awareness of Portman’s talent as an adult was not fully realized until her Oscar-nominated role as a troubled stripper in Closer for director Mike Nichols. The same year she also continued to win over younger fans playing a free-spirited hipster opposite Scrubs star Zach Braff in Garden State.

Portman had a relatively quiet few years after the final “Star Wars” film. She dipped once more back into the geek community that revered her in the graphic novel adaptation V for Vendetta, a role for which she shaved her entire head, in 2006. Her most notable role prior to last winter’s drama Brothers was Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a luke-warmly received family film.

There were some reasonable doubts about Portman’s career long term during that stretch. Starring in mediocre period dramas Goya’s Ghosts and The Other Boleyn Girl did her reputation no favors. It was not until her casting for Black Swan and this summer’s Thor that her stock began to rise. “Swan,” as it turns out, has been a career-defining role.

Portraying Nina Sayers, a perfectionist ballerina with an overprotective mother attempting to control her every move as well as some schizophrenic tendencies was pitch perfect for getting Natalie back toward the top. She had long ago discussed the role with director Darren Aronofsky and so it seems their pairing was meant to be. Portman started dancing at an early age, so the challenges of the role were within her reach. And as a former child star, she could probably relate to Nina’s situation with her mother, this straddling of childhood comfort and adulthood pressure.

Several have compared Portman to the great Audrey Hepburn, which in terms of looks certainly holds true. However, I don’t think we’ve quite seen the commanding presence from Portman to this point. She’s typically been cast in leading roles that the audience sympathizes with, playing characters with more internal struggles rather than more brazen, outwardly conflicted or troubling characters. The day we see her play any kind of antagonist, for example, will be something special. “V for Vendetta” was about as close as she’s come to “daring” and arguably her alternate persona in “Swan.”

But Natalie has superstar capability and here’s why: how many people’s careers have gone from “Star Wars” babe to (possibly) successful romantic comedy? Certainly not Carrie Fisher’s. Natalie’s not only won a place of high esteem in the geek/fanboy community, but she’s now winning fans of all walks of life with Black Swan. Couple that with grabbing up the chick flicks-only demographic and you’re talking about a star that appeals to several core demographics. That’s what we call a hot commodity.

After “No Strings,” look for Natalie in the indie drama The Other Woman, also due out this winter, as well as Thor, as I mentioned, which opens up the summer. She’s also attached to Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell, a multiple separate-but-connected story lines film.


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