With an eye toward deconstructing the historical effect of films, actors and their impact on and formation of pop culture, we bring you The Way They Were: a look back at pivotal roles within an actor’s works that contributed to the Collective Pop References in some fashion.
Last week’s TWTW installment featured John Travolta: a versatile actor with a pretty solid stack of bankable box office under his belt. This week, we feature a young actress with a maturity and gravitas beyond her years. With a relatively short filmography in her brief career, Natalie Portman’s acting choices have already exerted a significant impact on pop culture. Not yet out of her 20s, Portman has solidified her place among movie fandom for not one but two roles in iconic films/franchises and already won an Oscar for her role in what will sure to become a cult favorite.
The first film of note is really a personal camp favorite, and one where Portman really wasn’t asked to do much. But as a fan of Tim Burton, I couldn’t resist including the fabulous, farcical and insane sci-fi schlockfest spoof, Mars Attacks. Of Portman’s influence, I can only say, “AAACK, AAAAAAAAACK, ACK!”
From camp to uh, more expensive camp (?), Portman’s next role of note was her turn as Queen Amidala / Padmé in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005. I say ‘camp’ because I prefer the cowboy Wild-westian braggadocio of the 1970s-1980s interpretation of the Star Wars franchise (“Don’t get cocky kid,” “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” and “Let the Wookie win,” remain three of my favorite lines uttered in the series. But I digress). In terms of screenwriting, some of the stuff Portman had to spew was a bit awkward at best and hamfisted at worst.
That said, she brought a luminescence, grit and physical chops to the role that secured her place among the pop culture firmament. In terms of casting, she was a plausible match for Leia, genetics-wise. Portman’s Padmé also possessed a certain flair for being a great shot with a blaster, champion of the Rebel Alliance and possessor of full out chutzpah that also was reflected in her two screen offspring.
Garden State. A quiet little film penned by angsty Zach Braff that allowed Portman to serve as quirky, smart, supportive ballast/foil to Braff’s Andrew. A character study on many levels, Garden State is also in some ways an introspective look at the generation to which it speaks. What is feeling? What is guilt? Who are your friends and why do you choose them? When do you assume control of your life and your choices? Is is okay to feel?
Lots of stuff here, and although some reviewers question the inclusion of the “ravine screaming” scene, I like it because it reminds me of the unnameable feeling we all get: screaming into void. “Is anybody listening?! Is anybody farking OUT THERE?!” (Yes, FWIW).
I watched V for Vendetta as I was a returning college student; aged 37, taking a course called Totalitarianism in Art: Its Influence on Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. I was so impressed by the perfect melding of the themes we were studying in class as represented by this film that I recommended it to our professor. Good move? Depends who you ask. He was so moved by the subject matter that he assigned a one page paper to the class, with its subject being to discuss three examples from class that were illustrated in the film.
So apple-polisher Poindexter that I am, I added to the assignment base for our class, BUT, it was assigned as extra credit AND the completion of the assignment would raise your grade by a full letter grade. SO there were probably some borderline students whose GPA got a healthy boost as a result. But again, I digress.
As Evey, Portman made the transition from worker bee drone/ingenue to battle-wizened revolutionary: a woman who faces her own mortality and fears. Through her internal struggle, we are able to realize our own abilities to affect change. It’s one of my favorite movies from a stylized/art perspective as well, with bonus points for tapping into its Orwellian pedigree.
Black Swan is a bit of All About Eve meets the Three Faces of Eve. A thriller based on the protagonist “self versus self” structure, Portman willingly descends into madness to fulfill her career and artistic aspirations. Wow. In being able to successfully morph psychologically in addition to physically, Portman digs deep to show us that she is more than a pretty face. This film isn’t truly old enough to gauge its pop culture resonance; however, it is my opinion that it is a film that improves upon subsequent viewings. Further, it is a film that will speak to a new generation of fans who don’t know anything about Bette Davis or Joanne Woodward (alas).
I’m looking forward to seeing more of Portman. What say you?
Filmography: 35 titles
MARS ATTACKS: (1996) – Taffy Dale
STAR WARS: (1999) Star Wars: Episode I/The Phantom Menace – Queen Amidala / Padmé
STAR WARS: (2002) Episode II/Attack of the Clones – Padmé
GARDEN STATE: (2004) – Sam
STAR WARS: (2005) Episode III/Revenge of the Sith – Padmé
V FOR VENDETTA: (2006) – Evey
BLACK SWAN: (2010) – Nina Sayers