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Meryl Streep, in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
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Angela Bassett, in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)
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Best Actress: Champs Natalie Portman
1 Nomination (10)
1 Win (10)
1 Supporting Nomination (04)

click boldfaced years for profiles of those races

Natalie Portman has finally been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, an event that for many years has been hotly anticipated if not utterly taken for granted by her ardent fans—people who until very recently were all her age, or older, or much older. At 29 years old, which Nathaniel tells us is the most common age for Best Actress victories, Portman finds herself as the imposing frontrunner for Darren Aronofsky's schizophrenic ballet-themed horror pastiche Black Swan (my review). In its unhinged excess and salacious eroticism, its wing-sprouting, face-stabbing, skin-peeling Guignol, Black Swan feels patently opposed to the kinds of movies that score Oscar nominations for their lead actresses, though I suppose we shouldn't pretend as though Caged, Baby Jane, The Exorcist, Breaking the Waves, and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream never happened. More to the point, Nathaniel's archival work exists to teach us that there is little Hollywood will deny a gorgeous, hardworking, dues-paying, glamorous celebrity-actress, no longer a fawn but not yet 30, who not only finds herself at the center of a big hit but who worked hard to make that hit happen.

Natalie Portman, though, has never been easily measurable by the paradigms laid down by other actresses. In fact has felt remarkable through the last 16 years in her capacity to seem like a law unto herself. I like Portman tremendously in interviews and admire her proud intellectualism, her worldliness, her humor, and the way her statements about her work reflect a series of thoughtfully weighed convictions. She has never lacked a palpable drive to challenge herself, and to challenge other women and girls to invest as she does in their own integrity—even when, as in recent, inexplicable résumé swerves, that firm sense of purpose limns a prerogative to make silly, scurrilous comedies, just like the boys. Whether I totally buy her as an actress is a different story, and I'm thus of two minds about her fantastically unusual AMPAS breakthrough. That Portman, a previous nominee as a supporting player in Closer, has managed a toe-hold (planted a toe-shoe?) in the leading-actress derby via a flagrant, divisive spookhouse like Black Swan suggests that she is prodigious enough to sell the Academy and the public on a flavor of film for which neither has betrayed much prior appetite. Just as plausibly, though, it implies that "the rules" are somehow always different for her, that she manifests on screen as an imprimatur of privilege and prestige as much as ability, without always meriting the most rapturous claims filed on her behalf. I'm not suggesting she hasn't worked hard for her position in the industry or that she is taking advantage of anything except opportunity. For better or worse, though, Portman has never been cast, directed, or responded to like any other actress her age.

If Natalie Hershlag Portman has a precedent, it's Alicia Jodie Foster, equally quick to announce herself to the industry, equally committed to her education and to her early-formed beliefs about female representation and professional principles, equally able to ride out inauspicious projects and maintain a solid-gold rep as someone who made good early on and will obviously make good again. Just give her time. Portman's following Foster, too, into the producer's office and even the director's chair, though the women bear important differences. Foster could play a doctor; Portman, currently seen assuming that vocation in the disposable raunch-comedy No Strings Attached, is unmistakably a physician. They could go up for the same role in a TNT drama, except Foster would play a lawyer, and Portman an attorney. Even when she's acting frisky or experimenting with lewdness, something about Portman says tomahto. There's an air of glossed refinement that's awfully hard for her to lose, laminating most of her performances.

Foster played a young hooker in Taxi Driver and interacted unforgettably, directly, with De Niro. Portman's Mathilde in The Professional (or Léon) interacts mostly with her director and his notions, playing an idea of a young hooker, though the movie prevaricates on the nature of her work. Mathilde was written for an older actress, who presumably would have inhabited the character's aggressive libido more forthrightly. The compulsion to cast Portman instead, apparently irresistible to the filmmakers, forces them into timidities and incoherencies, since they refuse to just jettison the carnal dynamics in her scenes. They wind up with a girl who lays on the bed in uncomfortably solicitous poses, wearing ostentatiously huge, de-eroticizing boxer shorts that would never in a million years fit under the skin-tight, girlish leggings she prefers when fully dressed. Who can blame Portman for not finding the character, or for coming across as indomitable despite the dramatic untenability of her circumstances? The filmmakers (and IMDb voters, apparently) prefer a split movie with her in it to a more honest one with somebody six or eight years older. Of course she gets stuck trying to play a haircut rather than a girl, licking her lips at wicked insinuations and juvie-hall vulgarities the actress may not then have understand. When she's not doing her best with chic, baby-assassin composure, she's a reliable damsel in distress, grimacing with a moist, screwed-tight, life-or-death frown while she hopes against hope that Léon—peering at her, as we are, through the peephole on his apartment door—will open it up and save her from getting murdered with a grocery bag in her hand.

From that early point forward, not just circa The Professional but in evident counterpoint to it, Portman's career bloomed in the shadow of a three-part word cloud, indelibly linked to Precocious Talent, to Prestige Treatment, and to No Nudity, which you wouldn't imagine would be such a distinctive badge for an 18-year-old actress, but that's Hollywood, and that's the media: reporters have never stopped asking her about it, ever since she held out against signing her contract for Anywhere But Here until a gratuitous demand on revealing her body was written out of the script. You can bargain that way when, by such a green age, you've kickstarted your career with a cult auteur's American crossover (The Professional), an ensemble dramedy in which you got all the showcase scenes and best reviews (Beautiful Girls), and three brooch parts in enviably A-list projects: Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, Tim Burton's joyously kitschy Mars Attacks!, and Michael Mann's Heat. Heat is almost certainly the most important film Portman has appeared in, in a strictly cinephile sense, though her parts in all three movies could have been cast with a non-name at a quarter of the price. Still, not every actress would have had and proferred such deadpan fun with the simple Mars Attacks! punchline "I guess it wasn't the dove."

Since Portman has appeared as an enthusiastic guest judge on Project Runway, I feel I can say this: auteurs of global stature, prepping their couture shows, made quick grabs at Portman as though she was the toniest, chicest accessory on the Bluefly wall. Actually, it was Beautiful Girls, the least artistically pedigreed of these early projects, that gave Portman the best vehicle for her abilities, with Ted Demme's loose, flannelly relationship to framing and narrative resonating with Portman's coltish tics. A native restlessness, in the actress and the director, is subdued by a centering intelligence, and it's not surprising their sensibilities melded so well. Portman is relaxed, incisive, and rhythmically creative with her lines in Beautiful Girls, and completely beguiling in it. Her self-consciousness is tempered by the movie's modesty. Manny Farber said people dilute film art by imagining it as a hunk of area to be filled with Craft, more or less in the same way a display case is filled with watches. Besson, Burton, and Mann sure do fill their hunks of area; Allen does so in his casting, if not in his mise-en-scène. Across a huge range of tones and intents, Portman was five times a movie actress, four times a Rolex in someone's glittering case. It took Demme to spring her from the vitrine.

George Lucas didn't even bother treating his casts as luxe value-added in the Star Wars reboots. In The Phantom Menace (my review), Portman risked looking like a déclassée knockoff of her formerly tony self; Lucas didn't help matters by building in a plotline about Portman's interchangeability with another actress (Keira Knightley, as it turned out!). Attack of the Clones didn't make her seem any better used or any less bored, though she put her all into a horrifying, wailing birth scene near the end of the tougher, better Revenge of the Sith. By that point, sympathy had swung so hard against the Star Wars prequels and against Lucas in particular that Portman's poor reviews didn't hurt her, anymore than it hurt her to play a girl squatting in a Walmart in the widely disdained Where the Heart Is. But here the shadow of The Professional loomed, too: Portman retained a reputation for being a precociously smart, self-determining agent navigating a sexist business, while at the same time she drew pity for male directors' wrong-headed, cynical misuse of her potential. Upon finishing Harvard and recommitting to work, Natalie seemed no more easily castable than fellow mortar-boarded, high-IQ ingénue Claire Danes, but name directors didn't stop trying. Fundamentally serene where Danes seems fundamentally restive, and interesting to tabloids without furnishing them any material, Portman nonetheless factored consecutively into some of the worst movies by Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited, reviewed here), Miloš Forman (Goya's Ghosts), and Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights). She even headlined the continued freefall of the Wachowski name-brand (V for Vendetta), all without earning a reputation for poor project choice. And if Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium can't consign you to that fate, you are clearly, by Hollywood standards, supernaturally insulated.

Portman does what she can for some of these movies, shedding some cosmetic inhibition if not her more fundamental guardedness for Darjeeling, and giving a game run at erratic, bottle-blonde joie de vivre in Blueberry Nights—though Wong, like Besson before him, has the kind of cinematic style that only heightens the self-regarding valence of an already self-regarding performer. Portman got 15 years into a highly regarded career without giving one performance after the low-on-the-radar Beautiful Girls that everyone seemed to love. She had revisited the fanboy well of Professional admirers in the Lucas trilogy and in Vendetta, and it didn't derail her that both she and the movies connected less and less over time. She could wear 2004 with pride, succeeding in making her Shins-shilling pixie-cipher in Garden State seem fetching rather than infuriating, and winning the Golden Globe for her Alice in Closer, who's at least written to be an inveterate, strategic self-regarder.
Confusion over whether BS is "good," and whether it's abusing her, becomes interesting World Citizen (Pjtaim, NYILoveYou) (Goya, Blueberry); Good Sport (all these comedies) Give or take BG, SNL is her peak Cloud Atlas, Thor, Your Highness, No Strings Attached - Black Swan - Brothers, The Other Woman - NY I Love You, Paris je t'aime - Other Boleyn, Magorium, V for, Garden, Darjeeling, Goya, Blueberry, Free, Cold, CLOSER Star Wars,

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