' Cinema Romantico: From Marty To Nina (What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

From Marty To Nina (What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been)

"So you're the little neighborhood Lolita?"

That is what Michael Rapaport's Paul - or, as the response to the aforementioned line goes, "the alcoholic high school buddy shit for brains" - says to Natalie Portman's Marty, named for Marty, an uncle she never knew, who has managed to charm the pants off our protagonist, Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton), back in town for his 10 year high school reunion in "Beautiful Girls" (1996). Problem is, she's only 13 years old. Then again, like she tells Willie, "I have an old soul." And that seems right, doesn't it? Hasn't Natalie Portman always felt like she's had an old soul? Hasn't she always felt like the little neighborhood Lolita?


Her first film was "The Professional", in 1994, directed by Luc Besson, in which she plays a 12 year old named Mathilda. Of course, the first time we see Mathilda she is smoking a cigarette and eventually she begs Jean Reno's Leon, the title character, a professional hitman, to teach her the ways of his trade so she can avenge the death of her brother.

Her follow up to "The Professional" in Michael Mann's masterpiece "Heat" was a year later. She was featured sparingly but was devastating as a neglected child of divorce who seems to have essentially missed out on childhood and winds up slitting her wrists.

Following her career making turn as Marty in 1996 she was featured in "Where The Heart Is" as a pregnant 17 year old who decides to have her baby and raise her child. In "Cold Mountain" she's a widow raising her infant child alone on the frontier. In "V For Vendetta" she finds herself caught up in a revolution in one of those traditional futuristic dystopian societies. In "Free Zone" she's an American who's come to the Middle East in an effort to find herself. In "Goya's Ghosts" she is arrested by the church for heresy. In "Closer" she's a stripper. In the "Star Wars" prequels she's a frickin' queen. Hell, even in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" where she at first appears to be your typical sullen, contrary teenager, Taffie Dale, albeit the sullen, contrary teenage daughter of the President, she winds up being the only surviving member of the U.S. Government once the martians have finally been defeated so....guess who has to run things now? God in Heaven, didn't this young girl EVER get to play a young girl????? Couldn't they let her have a slumber party, gossip about boys, go to the prom, something?

Willie: "What is it you do, kids your age, on the weekend?"
Marty: "Well, what we've been doing lately is smoking massive amounts of drugs, bingeing on Entenmanns and listening to Pink Floyd."


Born in Jerusalem as Natalie Hershlag she re-located to Washington D.C. at age 3 before, soon afterwards, re-locating to Long Island which is to suggest a young girl who emigrates from Israel to the States at age 3 is likely to have a much different world view than someone, say, born and raised along the banks of the Des Moines River. Portman has been a vegetarian since age 8 and been part of The World Patrol Kids, an environmental song and dance troupe who advertise on their web site that - really! - "kids can change the world". In high school I starred as the villain in our class production of an atrocious spoof of "Gone With The Wind" and frittered time away by writing short stories about Juan Valdez and a coffee war between Hills Bros. and Folgers, while in high school Ms. Hershlag starred on Broadway as Anne Frank and authored papers titled "A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar." A ha! So that's why she's nominated for an Oscar and I'm writing about her Oscar nomination. But I digress. Long story short: Natalie Portman's childhood did not resemble Mischa Barton of "The O.C."


Yet for all that maturity in her own life, Portman's performances, far more often than not, have suggested way too much youthful innocence. Consider 2009's "Brothers", in which she is married to Tobey Maguire's soldier who has just returned, shell-shocked, from Iraq and who is kinda seeing his brother, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, on the sly. Caught between the two, she is the central figure, the movie's crux, but her failure to generate any sort of emotional heat fatally damages the film. Roles such as these are heavy-lifting and all along Portman has been a kind of literal and figurative china doll, too fragile to deal with anything of serious heft. Sure, she won the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe in 2005 for her work in "Closer" but, seriously, the Globes can't be trusted and while it was admirable for her to take on the role even there she seemed like someone playing dress-up.

"I might just grow to be five-ten. I'll be hot."

No one ever claimed that Portman didn't have promise. I think that much is clear. But she always struck me as someone who invested years and years in top flight acting school, a fact made too obvious because quite often you could clearly see her straining to act, to put all those lessons and long hours with her teachers to good use. My colleague Andrew at Encore Entertainment wrote a tremendous, thoughtful piece on Portman stuffed full of interesting observations and closed, not unintentionally, with "Portman’s sort of incomparable in how much of a slow burn she is – there’s loads of potential there...even if she’s still a mystery to me." An enigma, a mystery wrapped in a riddle, an actress loaded with potential who had been unable since the early days of her career to put it all together for the - lack of a better term - Break Out.


Enter: Darren Aronofsky. In an interview Portman said: "My relationship with Darren felt almost telepathic. I never had that with any director before. Darren could say half a word and I felt like I could understand him, and I could say half a word and he could understand me. We were in some strange zone of focus that allowed us to share this attention." Portman and Aronofsky are both Jewish, both attended Harvard, and both take acute interest in science (albeit in different fields). Does this all have some sort of symbolic meaning, does it suggest Portman is Aronofsky's present and/or future muse? Maybe, maybe not. But what's clear is he wrested something from her not heretofore glimpsed in "Black Swan", the film for which Portman may very well win a Best Actress Oscar this Sunday.

Yes, she had all the dance training and, yes, she lost all the weight but such things, from this writer's perspective, do not and never have been the concrete of masterful performances. Daniel Day Lewis may have learned to trap animals and fire a musket for "Last of the Mohicans" but that was not what most ably assisted in crafting his subtly defiant turn. Sure, sure, now's the part where dissenters swoop in with "But, Nick, all she did was take hold of the cinematic saxophone and hold one note for two hours."

Who is Portman's Nina Sayers? Well, she's a ballerina and, uh, not much else of anything really. Her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) was once a ballerina and has molded her daughter into a ballerina and she is a ballerina and is going to stay a ballerina and she goes to ballet practice and then returns home from ballet practice to practice ballet at home and......hey, man, this is kind of a (ahem) one note life. Don't you think? Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is the sadomasochistic artistic director for Nina's company and he wants her to play the lead for their production of "Swan Lake", the only problem being that Nina, at present, really only has the White Swan in her, not the Black Swan, which is to say that she can only play (ahem) one note. So here she is, the poor, poor girl stuck between the obligatory domineering mother and the requisite sadomasochistic artistic director and damned if she has any idea who she is. Perfect, man, she's gotta be perfect, because between being pushed by these two bloodhounds, well, striving for perfection is all she knows.

Yes, a particular facial expression (as if on the verge of a mammoth nervous breakdown) is often present on Portman's face but to claim that's all she's got is a ridiculous generalization. A couple examples: 1.) The 1970's-era Times Square inspired scene on the subway when that leery old guy is, uh, doing sordid things across the way from Nina and Portman's expression here suggests, again, a little girl who isn't necessarily disgusted by what he's doing but more confused - like she's so sheltered she doesn't quite grasp the situation and 2.) The scene at the club with Mila Kunis's fellow dancer where they are talking with the two guys and we get the impression Nina is a shut-in who has never conversed with a member of the male species outside of Lincoln Center in life as she blathers on about "comp(ing)" tickets. You can even go back to the very beginning with that girlish line reading of "It's so pretty" about the breakfast melon. They are merely variations on that one note, yes, but they are variations.


But then this note she's held for the entire movie explodes in the third act when she metamorphoses into the Black Swan and it is at this point - the most crucial point in the whole two hours - when the film reaches its most histrionic that Portman dials it way back down and suddenly, beautifully, turns eerily calm. This is to say that when her descension into the madness has become complete, she reaches peace, which seems about right, doesn't it, as opposed to descending completely into the madness and then becoming even more mad than you've been the whole movie (see: Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"). It's Springsteen singing "State Trooper" in that low wattage but terrified whisper for the entire song until right there at the end he unleashes the exhilarating, sinister "Whoo!!!!!" If he had led up to the "Whoo!!!!!" with exotic, octave-changing vocals the entire impact is blunted.

Now this type of performance may not be your glass of sangria, and that's fine. Honestly. We can't all get worked up over the same performances because that would be no fun. But......I can't sit idly by while people trot out the "She doesn't do anything" or the "All she did was lose weight and learn how to dance arguments" cuz it just ain't true.

And that's why as I sat in the theater back there in December at the conclusion and Leroy was hovering over her asking "What did you do?" this question could have been answered a couple of ways, the way Nina answers it herself, yes, but also in a way that expressed what Portman had gone off and done as an actress. She had to play a little girl to finally grow up.

3 comments:

Wretched Genius said...

I beg your pardon, but her first film was Luc Besson's Leon. There is no film called The Professional.

::cold stare::

The Professional does not exist, and that's the end of it.

Nicholas Prigge said...

But according to IMDB...I mean, never mind. Never mind, I said!!!

Castor said...

Ahah I was starting to think this was going to be another rambling homage to how amazing Natalie Portman is and how she has been so perfect all of her career.

Glad to see someone else who has also noticed that "fake" quality to quite a lot of her previous performances (including Closer). Now, I don't think there is any doubt that she gives the performance of a lifetime in Black Swan and even though I'm pulling for Michelle Williams to win Sunday, Portman practically has the gold statue in her living room already.