N for Natalie
There's no shortage of hype about what a prescient, provocative, politically charged movie is V for Vendetta.
And it's true that Alan Moore and David Lloyd's 1989 comic was ahead of its time. But when producer Joel Silver, comic book artist David Lloyd and actress Natalie Portman put in an appearance at San Diego's Comic Con last year - along with the first showing of the trailer for V for Vendetta - the fans showed their true colours. The comic guy got two questions. Silver grabbed two. And fourteen questions went straight to Natalie Portman. In other words, art, politics and controversy are all very well, but if you really want to capture the public imagination, get a beautiful movie star to shave her head.
Then again, Natalie Portman isn't just any movie star. I don't know how much money she makes, and excepting the Star Wars movies she hasn't looked like blockbuster material, but Portman seems to inspire something more than the usual admiration from her generation. Devotion is probably more like it.
There's even an indie movie, the delightfully titled Sex, Drugs and Natalie Portman in which two cultists seek a pill that will simulate the experience of having sex with her. Sample dialogue:
Interrogator: Where does this fascination with Natalie Portman come in? Didn't you say you wanted to have real sex with her?
Ashley: [pause] Doesn't everybody?'
She placed third in LOVEFiLM's inaugural Girl Power list last summer, behind Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst, but I'd wager if we polled young men and women in her age group (say, 18-28) it's Portman who would be elected class president.
Of course she's got those gamine looks going for her: slender as a doe, with cheekbones like the young Audrey Hepburn. If there was an unpleasant whiff of nymphet about her debut in Luc Besson's Leon at the age of 12, Portman (and her mother, who doubled as her agent) made sure that unsavoury potential was never realised, turning down roles that were too sexual until she appeared in Closer at the age of 23. (A year her senior, Christina Ricci once remarked that she always seemed to get Portman's cast-offs: Ice Storm being a case in point.)
But it's the combination of brains and beauty that sets her apart. In fact in those early films, Leon and Beautiful Girls especially, it's her maturity which makes her attractive. ('I'm thirteen - but I have an old soul' she observes in the latter.) From an early age, given the opportunity to purse a modeling career, she preferred to focus on acting. She reportedly missed the world premiere of Star Wars: Episode I because she had to study for her high school finals. Then she turned her back on cinema, going to Harvard to study psychology for four years. 'I'd rather be smart than a movie star,' she said.
A vegan, she has co-authored two scientific research papers, speaks Hebrew fluently (she is the descendent of Holocaust survivors and obviously takes her Jewish identity seriously), and also speaks French, German, Japanese, some Spanish. Next up she is learning Arabic.
But can she act? She was sensational in those first few films. You could believe she was Pacino's daughter in Heat, as if she'd inherited his genes somehow. The trail went a bit cold with the sappy Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is, and she was so wooden as Padmé Amidala it was as if all her instincts had seized up. Hard not to think of Tatum O'Neal, Linda Blair, Shirley Temple… all those natural talents who out-grew their gift. Maybe she's too smart to be a movie star?
Well, since returning to the screen full time two years ago, Portman has barely put a foot wrong. She reestablished her acting cred with a small but pivotal role in Cold Mountain, then took the lead as the kooky Sam in Garden State - precisely the cult indie movie her fan-base could relate to.
Closer signaled a new willingness to grow up and take risks with her image. Later this year she has a double role in Milos Forman's prestigious (we expect) Goya's Ghosts. And of course there is V for Vendetta, which got a mixed response at the Berlin Film Festival last month but is getting great reviews so far in the US.
This could be the movie to make her a major movie star at last. After all, her fans have been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them since she was 12 years old. Half a lifetime ago.
"Just acting in a movie you are practicing empathy; you are imagining what it is like to be another human being …and for an audience to sit together and share the experience of another person's hopes and fears… Just the simple act of attending a movie is a world bettering act; a social learning."
- Natalie Portman at the Berlin Film Festival, 2006
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