By John H. Foote
We have literally watched her grow up on screen. When I interviewed Miss Portman in 2010, I was convinced she was the most beautiful woman I had ever gazed upon, and her intelligence was intoxicating. Sorry, but looks mean nothing without a brain. She was very engaging, intense, fiercely proud of her performance in the film Black Swan (2010), a performance that won her an Oscar as Best Actress. Blessed with classic movie star beauty, a self-deprecating sense of humour, and intelligence, Portman has become one of her generation’s most exciting actresses, willing to take risks in her work, fearlessly going out on a limb for her art.
Our first encounter with Portman was as a child wanna-be assassin in Leon: The Professional (1994) where surrounded by veteran actors, she blew them off the screen with a confident, precocious, even creepily sexual performance. That work stamped her a Star, this kid was going places.
Today she sits near the top of Hollywood, able to open a film, an outspoken but not exploitative member of the #MeToo movement, though she did shoot her mouth off at the Golden Globes once. Before presenting the award for Best Director, she drew attention to the fact there were no female nominees, undermining the win of a genuinely nice man, Guillermo Del Toro. Attacked immediately, she has since been less vocal but no less supportive of women.
Selected by George Lucas to portray the mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker, the love of the man who will become Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, but sadly she made no real impression. This was more the writing and absolute lack of chemistry between she and Hayden Christiansen. Their scenes together are often seen on YouTube.com and laughed at. Perhaps the most laughable is her death scene after giving birth in Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith (2005) which was horribly directed and written. This gifted lady must have wondered what she had gotten herself into.
She has more than redeemed herself and is allowed a clunker or two. Your Highness (2014)? Really? Why? Did Portman even read the script? Again, she gets forgiven because of her body of work.
Watching her grow as an actress has been an absolute pleasure, and I am sure we have not seen her finest yet. Her filmography is filled with great work and only a couple of missteps, the worst being Milos Forman’s woeful Goya’s Ghosts (2006).
Here are her 10 best:
10. VOX LUX (2018)
Gutsy, raw performance from Portman as a burned-out pop singer who got her start singing a song after a national tragedy. Now angry, arrogant, self centred, she is a walking hellion become nightmare. Celeste became a pop star when she sang after a truly horrifying tragedy, which opens the film and is horrific. A manager came, record deals, millions and now 17 years later Celeste is a broken, deeply sad woman not even connected to the world anymore. The first hour charts her rise. Portman does not come into the film for an hour but once onscreen she is overwhelming … again. Sadly the film was ignored by critics, audiences and the awards.
9. V FOR VENDETTA (2005)
A futuristic society, set in London, England, the film has a 1984, Orwellian feel to it. Evil (Portman) is caught out after curfew and saved by V, a mysterious warrior who is setting in motion an action that will free the people and give London back to the people. She becomes a devoted disciple of V, listening to him talk about his vision, training her to defend herself, pushing her to become a better person, the best she can be. It is a powerful film, almost deceptively so, with the actress superb.
8. GARDEN STATE (2004)
In Zac Braff’s bittersweet love story, Portman is outstanding as Sam, a compulsive liar prone to fainting who meets Braff, home for his mother’s funeral. The two begin spending time together and find that they are good for each other, and Sam, also an epileptic, reveals that since she has been with him she has not lied to him. Portman is wonderfully vulnerable as Sam, a young woman with many problems, though she admits her lies when confronted. The goodbye sequence at the airport is gut wrenching, though there is a happy ending. A lovely film anchored by Portman.
7. BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996)
As wise Marty, obvious soulmate of much older visiting neighbour Willie (Timothy Hutton), Portman was eerily perfect. They meet while 13-year old Marty builds a snowman in her front yard and gradually become aware of how right they are for each other, despite the age difference. Willie slowly becomes aware of Marty’s deepening feelings, but also his realization that, yes, she is perfect for him, and his confusion. Though she risked being typecast as a wiser than her years kid, she managed to bring something unique to each new role. There is love, pathos and heartache for Marty, and as she said goodbye to Willie, she knows more than any adult, she is losing the love of her life. Surrounded by fine young actors, Portman is brilliant, stealing the show.
6. ANNIHILATION (2018)
This underrated science fiction thriller was one of last years best films, and Portman gave one of her best performances. As a former soldier turned scientist, she volunteers to enter the shimmer, a force field laid down and growing by an alien life form. Together with a group, she enters the shimmer to discover both beauty and horrors. Within the shimmer all DNA merges with all living things creating mutations of animals, plants, and of course, humans. Portman projects intelligence, but it’s as the warrior that she shines, fighting for her life against a force she is only beginning to understand. It is to the credit of the actress and director-writer Alex Garland that a smart woman is at the centre of this excellent film.
5. CLOSER (2004)
Portraying the enigmatic Alice, a young exotic dancer adrift in England, Portman won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. Wounded when her lover betrays her by cheating, she returns to the club scene to dance and encounters the cuckolded lover of the woman her own lover cheated with. Together in a room she dances for him, she moves for him, she teases, she bares her body, and we are left wondering what happened after? She ends up back with her lover but then, when he cannot let go of her encounter with the brutish husband, she sends him away. Tough, cruel, cold, Portman is sexy and sensational.
4. LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)
Just 12 when she starred in Luc Besson’s solid thriller Leon: The Professional, she was astonishing as Mathilda, a child who has heard and seen too much, and is fortunate to be out of the house when her family is massacred by dirty cops. Reeling in grief and anger that her beloved little brother was not spared, she goes to her mysterious neighbour, a professional hit man. Staying under his protection, she decides she too wants to be a hit man to get even with the people responsible for killing her family. Listening, taking everything Leon says to her in, she is a master of deception. Precocious, wise beyond her years, she did not so much shine as she exploded into movies.
3. COLD MOUNTAIN (2003)
Though Portman has perhaps 15 minutes of screen time, her performance as Sarah, the lonely, devastated Southern widow trying to survive with her infant surrounded by Yankees, she was astonishing in the film. When Inman (Jude Law) stumbles upon her cabin, Sarah, emotionally ruined, feeds him and allows him to sleep in her corn crib. But partway through the night she comes to him inviting him to her bed, where she does not want sex, but to be held, to be reminded of what it is to be close to another person. The actress is stunning in her brief sequences, finally showing the steel by which she has survived by gunning down a Yankee soldier as he tries to escape. She deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
2. BLACK SWAN (2010)
As ballerina Nina Sayers, the actress won an Oscar for her performance. Portraying a dancer struggling with self worth, she is tortured with inadequate thoughts, striving for perfection, settling for nothing less. This brings about a twisted journey across the landscape of her mind, a trip that will have the viewer questioning her sanity. Chosen to dance the lead in Swan Lake, Nina feels the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan overtaking her life. Her darkest desires are explored, her duality challenges her to do things she has never before done, to step outside Nina and be the blacker side of herself. It is an emotionally exhausting performance to watch because the actress gives herself over to the role in every way. Nina, in the end, is both haunted and haunting as inhabited by Portman.
1. JACKIE (2016)
Portman was a revelation as grief stricken First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the immediate days after the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy. She captures the wispy voiced Jackie to perfection, bringing to her character the steel within, the woman who was fearless in wanting to honour her late husband, who shared her grief with that of a nation. In the White House they tried to handle her and she would not have it, fighting to maintain her husband’s legacy and her own dignity. Flashbacks take us inside the convertible during the shooting. We see his head explode all over her, covering her in blood and brains, we see her holding him in her lap, we feel her terror, and later covered in blood as she boards Air Force One with Kennedy’s coffin, we begin to feel her pain. How does a person recover from a life event so devastating? Do they? The film is told in a unique narrative, as Jackie is interviewed by a reporter from Life Magazine, and even the flashbacks have flashbacks. Portman, in the performance of her career and of the year, allows what Mrs. Kennedy never did: she lets us in. Luminous work from Portman.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”