2017 Film Essays

The Serious Camp of Natalie Portman

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“The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.” Roland Barthes’ words, in a brief essay where he outlined what it is that made Garbo’s face such an enduring cinematic image, belong to a long history of starlets being mythified by gay men. One need only look at Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor or, of course, Jackie Kennedy. That the allure of Jackie could be put in the same league as that of famed cinema stars reminds us of the performative aspect of that most famous of first ladies. Keyed to this comparison, it’s no surprise to see that to promote Pablo Larraín’s film Jackie, Fox Searchlight has created a Warhol-inspired poster — the better, one presumes, to showcase Natalie Portman’s performance which, like many of her best screen incarnations, exists at the intersection of self-serious straight camp and its flamboyant gay counterpart. The emotional excess she so excels at is often put down as aesthetically and stylistically inferior to male reticence and restraint, yet with Jackie you can see her straddling the two, bringing to bear what it is that’s made her such a magnetic screen presence.

The sense that Natalie could be two things at once is central to who she’s been on screen. As early as 1996, Entertainment Weekly was proclaiming that “within the bundle of energy called Natalie Portman there seem to be two actresses vying for screen time.” That same year, The New York Times spoke of “the duality of her life” while cataloguing the contents of her wallet which had photos with her family alongside some with Julia Roberts. By the time she made her Broadway debut as the lead character in The Diary of Anne Frank in 1997, theater critic Ben Brantley keyed into this very idea when praising her performance: “There is ineffable grace in her awkwardness,” he wrote, “and her very skin seems to glow with the promise of miraculous transformations.”

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The transformation that young Natalie seemed to promise again and again was the one most often wrapped up in male critics’ euphemisms. Seeing her onstage, Brantley tells us, was “to understand what Proust meant when he spoke of girls in flower.” Characters who were “on the cusp of self-aware womanhood” (as he described Portman’s Frank) became the actress’s specialty, a niche made all the more revealing given the fact that she had turned down the opportunity to star as the eponymous young nymphet in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita. But you could see why the 9 ½ Weeks director had courted her. The actress had effortlessly been able to imbue Mathilda in The Professional and Marty in Beautiful Girls with the chastely erotic allure of Nabokov’s protagonist. Her demure demeanor (she scoffed at the idea of starring in Lyne’s film because, as she said at the time, the film would be a “sleaze”) has been at the center of her celebrity image.

But underneath it lay always a discomfiting erotic allure. It’s what anchors her performance in the fussy Star Wars prequels where she moves from imperious and over-adorned queen to plucky resourceful politician, always creating and distracting those around her with decoys and masks. “I’m sorry for my deception,” she states at one point in The Phantom Menace as she breaks the spell of her twinned identity, “but it was necessary to protect myself.” Where there’s one Portman there’s always two. It’s perhaps fruitless to try and tease out complex ideas from those three ill-fated prequels, but buried beneath the garish CGI and painful dialogue was a narrative about the destructive if passionate drive of desire. And it was all on Natalie’s shoulders. When Anakin stares lustfully after her in Attack of the Clones, she evades him: “Please don’t look at me like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.” When he steals a kiss, she apologizes: “I shouldn’t have done that.” Natalie’s characters seem to tap into and explode the sense of shame even while eliciting an irrepressible form of desire. It’s what destroys the young Skywalker and what made the precocious actress a fixture in straight male dorm rooms.

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The effect she had on men, her characters kept reminding us, was almost accidental. She couldn’t help it even if she tried. Indeed, that effortlessness was what made Sam in Garden State the poster girl for that most overused of character tropes: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Unusually wacky, especially by Portman’s standards as she explained a few years back, Sam is a male fantasy come to life. But lurking within these, at times, oppressively heterosexual roles that hinged on her budding sex appeal lay a subliminal call to young boys who could see in Natalie a modern screen icon who stressed in her work what it means to conform and break down the sexual norms around her. She might not seem it at first, but Portman has been carving a niche for herself as her generation’s most unassuming gay icon. This was nowhere more explicit than in her first true adult drama: Mike Nichols’ Closer. Alice Ayres is premised on the promise and danger of sexuality. “I don’t want to lie. I can’t tell the truth. So it’s over,” she utters during the movie’s final set-piece. The moment is all the more revelatory for its simplicity. It’s all in Portman’s eyes. In her tears.

And really, there’s nothing quite like seeing Portman cry on screen. Her face is perhaps most beguiling when it contorts itself into anguish. While many of her peers do more with less, the actress is at her most enthralling when she does more with more. Portman’s emotions are often outsized, exceeding the frame that wishes to contain them. It’s why they can sometimes seem so perfectly matched to material that teeters on the edge of horror, even when it might otherwise encourage a snarky laugh. It’s no surprise her most successful collaborations have been centered on the horrors of femininity. Whether playing a Naboo queen who sees deceit as a prerequisite for survival or a jaded ingenue stripper who dons a mask to deflect the danger of simply being herself, Portman’s characters tend to exist within quotation marks. To quote Susan Sontag, they are never merely women but “women,” constantly pointing at their own artificiality. That type of performance all but unravels when wrapped in generic green-screen action but elevates material that’s intent on deconstructing the lived reality of its characters.

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Darren Aronofsky skillfully used what we might call Portman’s self-serious camp sensibility in his balletic psycho-sexual thriller Black Swan. Staring into a kaleidoscope of reflections at home, erasing the lipsticked threats of her own subconscious, examining what’s bubbling underneath her skin, fearing and desiring the sexual freedom of her doppelganger, smashing into herself with a mirrored shard of self-loathing, dancing into perfection, Nina — that sweet girl, now gone — was Portman’s duality made flesh. Black Swan is as much a horror about female sexuality as it is about same-sex desire; as compelling as body horror as a self-serious campfest. But it succeeds on either, and possible both, accounts because of Portman’s commitment to the role.

She’s accomplished that same hat trick in Jackie. Here is a film that is about Grief; an emotion so bluntly presented it destabilizes the entire frame of the picture. Larraín, who privileges uncomfortable close-up shots of his leading lady, shows Portman’s crying face in all its exquisite beauty. Fragmented by the Chilean director’s claustrophobic camera and his slice-and-dice editing style, Portman’s first lady is both histrionic and restrained, melodramatic and detached. Her Jackie is always exquisitely wounded, as if the actress had been able to make the split-second moment when Julia Roberts’ Anna takes her photograph in Closer the template for a full-length character study. She’s always on the verge of tears, self-aware of how her tear-streaked face will affect those around her. It’s a high-wire act which Portman embraces with aplomb.

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To many, this almost surreal depiction of one of the most recognizable faces in American history will seem laughable, ridiculous even. There is, after all, a scene where Mrs. Kennedy drunkenly wanders around the White House swaying along to a Broadway show tune (as camp-ready a take on a First Lady as we’re bound to get in a prestige pic), as well as a number of throwaway quips (“I don’t smoke,” Jackie intones while exhaling a puff of smoke) destined to become shorthand within gay circles. But, much as Clint Mansell’s thundering score for Aronofsky’s film framed Portman’s performance as one keyed into a highly theatrical tenor, Mica Levi’s dizzying funereal dirges let audiences know that the actress’ take on Jackie is intentionally operatic, the better to match the excess of emotion she’s embodying. Reviews may be breathlessly overusing the ready-made formulation of “Natalie Portman IS Jackie,” but they really should be following Sontag’s lead: Natalie Portman IS “Jackie.” Which, in a way, is all us Portman fans could ever have hoped for.

Manuel Betancourt (@bmanuel) is a New York City-based writer, editor and critical thinker. He believes everything you need to know you can learn from watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre. He’s a member of the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA). 

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