The topic of Natalie Portman seems to come up quite a bit in my life. It’s been observed, typically by my lady, that this is because I’m the person who’s always mentioning her. “Natalie Portman would look good in those shoes,” I might say, or, ” I wonder if Natalie Portman likes pickles on her hamburger?” “I think Natalie Portman is just the right size for me!” Stuff like that. It’s not an obsession, just an appealing and entirely legal form of attentiveness, I think.
Anyway, the thing is, Natalie Portman is likable. She’s beautiful, intelligent, charming, and comes wonderfully accessorized with a sense of modesty and self-awareness that hang from her like a pair of pearl earrings. She seems to have an unaffected sincerity, giving her the vibe of a genuinely happy spirit and as utterly lame as this might sound, you feel that radiating from her eyes and see it in her smile.
When she played Samantha inGarden State — set against the music of Iron and Wine— she was the vivid manifestation of the girl we all hoped to meet and fall in love with. Made in 2004, Garden State was little more than a suggestion of a film, it’s narrative really just a loosely stitched together collection of effectively stylized music videos. In this movie, like in Closer, where we got to see Portman walk in slow motion to the achingly romantic strains of Damien Rice before getting hit by a car, she’s at her best when she’s nothing more than a passive receptacle for our objectification, for the truth is that she simply cannot act.
I’ve denied this for years, usually just by putting my hands over my ears and shouting NONONONONONONO at whomever was presenting the case, but after watching Black Swan*— one of the most overrated movies of the last five years — there was simply nothing I could do to defend her abilities as an actress.
Her Oscar-winning turn consisted of little more than wearing contact lenses that gave her the blood-shot appearance of genius, schizoid eye movements — like a very pretty cat following a laser pointer — and the clenching of her lower jaw. Using very, very broad strokes, Portman’s performance was a kind of mime portrait, but because everybody likes her and she learned a few rudimentary ballet moves, she was awarded the Oscar. This, of course, is the way things go in Hollywood. If your performance brings a lot of attention to itself, then it’s considered fierce, the sort of acting Tyra Banks would approve of.
Obviously, the Oscars have no legitimacy when it comes to recognizing true artistry within the industry, but it’s still frustrating. I mean, didn’t anybody see Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine? Wasn’t her performance, so full of ordinary misery as to be almost unbearable, infinitely more complex and extraordinary than Portman losing some weight and donning a tutu?
Well, of course it was, but that’s hardly the point.
A good movie doesn’t necessarily require good acting, and to “act” well is not always the intent of the movie star. Portman, for instance, is little more than a model upon whom the director sets mood. We just have to see her placed in a certain context (sexy dress, moving music, getting hit by a car!) to feel the required pull of the puppet master, and Portman herself has to do little but just be present.
Consider Bruce Willis.
I love Bruce Willis. He’s a movie star, the sort of guy that I can’t take my eyes off of when he’s on screen. I think that although he’s probably an underrated actor, he’s somebody who usually plays to type, and we watch and enjoy him because of that. The characters he plays become Bruce Willis, not the other way around, and this is fine.
However, in my mind, the goal of the actor should be to visually translate the emotional subtext that’s fueling the actions of the character. Although this can lead to all sorts of furious Tom Cruise over-acting, it’s really a subtle process that takes place just beneath the surface, and typically, the more arm waving and shouting an actor is doing, the less they’re actually conveying about character and motivation. The audience surely hears the performance, but they’re not really listening, if you know what I mean.
My favorite actor right now is Christian Bale. The guy’s a certified crazy bean, but he’s a fucking amazing actor.
Of course, when you discuss arm-waving actors, Bale is probably at the top of the list. In The Fighter, a movie that had all the panache and energy of a young Scorsese picture, Bale, in a role that was practically larger than life, was incandescent. But the thing with him is that instead of remaining Christian Bale, the celebrity actor, in every role, he dissolves into his characters existing as an animating spirit rather than imposing himself on them like some beautiful Hollywood cage.
I never cared too much about the Batman movies before he came along. I liked them fine, but they all seemed a little too one-dimensional and immediate. However, when Bale stepped on the scene for Batman Begins, a whole new dimension was added and what had been little more than an old-fashioned comic book franchise, was transformed into something literary.
However, I think my favorite Bale performance came in the weirdly mainstream Werner Herzog film Rescue Dawn. In this movie Bale played a downed Air Force pilot who escapes from a prisoner of war camp. Bale played an ordinary man who performed extraordinary feats. It was an incredibly authentic and unusual performance. I mean, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about it. He was a normal guy. He wasn’t radiating charisma all over the place or dominating every scene he stepped into, he was just like a man any one of us might know, somebody who was quietly determined and smart, but externally regular, and that Bale could portray this, and not himself, was incredible.
For promotional and star-making reasons, it’s the big performances that always garner the most attention, but it’s usually the softer ones, the roles in which the actor flattens their star quality, in which the most nuanced, respectful and compelling performances are delivered. (Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and Sam Rockwell in Conviction were performances that were skipped over by the Academy, perhaps because they lacked the requisite exaggeration Hollywood has always preferred.)
When Christian Bale is in a movie it’s very easy for me to forget that I’m actually watching him, whereas I always know that I’m watching Natalie Portman, and in that resides the distinction in their acting talent.
* As I cannot let my distaste for Black Swan vanish softly into the night, I am including a portion of an email I just received from my friend Shelagh Corbett on the subject:
“Black Swan was my favourite camp horror film since Dirty Dancing.
Yeah, I’m not much of a fan of BS either. I’m not quite the hater you are, perhaps, but the “tone” (ever important, its quality and consistency the magic, final test of the success of a film in my books) is all over the place and it had some laugh-out-loud moments for me. I mean I literally laughed out loud. The way I would, say, when Jason rises from the lake for the twenty-seventh time. I wonder if that was what Aronofsky was going for? But I don’t wonder too hard.”