Natalie Portman, who played a Beethoven-obsessed addict cop in Luc Besson’s riveting thriller Leon, was undoubtedly the greatest thing in the picture at the age of 12 – and we’re talking about a film in which Gary Oldman plays a Beethoven-obsessed junkie cop.
It was a star-making performance, full of depth and real passion, that launched her into Hollywood and a career full of ups and downs. She may have chosen the wrong franchises (thankless parts in the Star Wars prequels and Thor pictures), but as a producer and director, she has earned an Oscar and several accolades.
Jane Got a Gun, her difficult western, comes out this week, and it’s gotten more press for its torturous production than for its merits (the Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman slammed it as “dull”). But let us reminisce about happier times.
Portman won a role in perhaps Luc Besson’s best film after declining offers to be a child model. She was confident without being precocious, pleasant without being overbearing, and easily immersed us in the heartbreaking ending as Mathilda, an orphan who meets a hitman. The initial script featured Leon and Matilda falling in love, which was gladly dropped from the final cut.
Following that, Portman had a brief role in Heat, but it was this more low-key independent that allowed her to broaden her young repertory. The star-studded comedy also included Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Rosie O’Donnell, and Mira Sorvino, but it was Portman who stole the show as a young woman with an “ancient soul.”
While Zach Braff’s irritating indie has aged poorly, Portman’s performance has managed to stay just on the right side of adorable. She’s warm, charming, and snatches the picture from Braff’s hands as the underwritten object of his failing actor’s devotion.
Performance was crucial in Mike Nichols’ talky relationship drama because it helped the picture break out from its inherent staginess (it was based on a play after all). Given the uncertainty surrounding her, Portman’s role was undoubtedly the most difficult to portray, yet she effortlessly transitioned from an interesting manic pixie dream girl to a bile-spewing heartbreaker, earning her an Oscar nod.
Victory, however, was only six years away, thanks to Darren Aronofsky and his deliriously deranged melodrama. Portman, like her character Nina, is more closely linked with white swan roles in Hollywood, so it was refreshing to see her stray here, which she does mesmerizingly brilliantly as her character unravels.