At the age of just 12, Natalie Portman was easily the best thing about Luc Besson’s powerful thriller Leon – and we’re talking about a film where Gary Oldman plays a Beethoven-obsessed junkie cop.
It was a star-making performance, with depth and genuine emotion, catapulting her into Hollywood and kicking off a career of mixed fortunes. She may have picked the wrong franchises (thankless roles in the Star Wars prequels and Thor films), but she’s won an Oscar and plaudits as both a producer and director.
This week sees the release of her troubled western Jane Got a Gun, which has gained more column inches for its tortured production than its quality (the Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman dismissed it as “dull”). But let’s remember fonder times and look back on the actor’s finest performances…
After turning down offers to become a child model, Portman landed a role in arguably Luc Besson’s finest film. As Mathilda, an orphan who befriends a hitman, she was confident without being precocious, likable without being cloying and effortlessly involved us in the poignant climax. The original script had Leon and Matilda becoming lovers, a bizarre shift which was happily removed from the final film.
A small role in Heat followed, but it was this more low-key indie that gave Portman the chance to expand her youthful repertoire. The starry comedy (well, starry for 1996) also starred Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Rosie O’Donnell and Mira Sorvino, but it was Portman who gave the film’s strongest turn as a teenager with an “old soul”.
While Zach Braff’s rather grating indie might have aged quite badly, Portman’s performance has managed to stay just on the right side of cute. As the under-written object of his failed actor’s affection, she’s warm, engaging and steals the film from Braff’s grasp.
In Mike Nichols’ talky relationship drama, performance was key and helped to break the film out of its inevitable staginess (it was based on a play after all). Portman’s character was arguably the hardest to play, given the mystery that surrounded her, but she went from intriguing manic pixie dream girl to bile-spewing heartbreaker with ease and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination.
But victory was just six years away and arrived courtesy of Darren Aronfosky and his deliriously unhinged melodrama. Like her character Nina, Portman has been more closely associated with the white swan roles in Hollywood, so there was pleasure in seeing her transgress here, something she does mesmerisingly well, as her character slowly unravels.
© Benjamin Lee
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