Portman is, of course, in the running for Best Actress for her role in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's new horror film about a ballerina who may be losing her mind because of (in spite of?) her landing the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake (my review here). And when it comes to Oscar nominations, one part of it is the performance. And Portman has never been better than she is here. She brings the character of Nina to illustrious life, and her mental collapse is nothing short of astonishing. Portman utilizes her talent and puts it to good use: she's fragile and always on the verge of breaking, as if one little chip could completely shatter here. And then, when that chip comes, her obsessive worry and panic overcomes her, and Portman never lets the audience go as her transformation progresses. By the end of the film, we hardly recognize her as the character she was in the beginning. Its a bravura performance from Portman, and if the Oscars were determined by performance alone, she would be more than deserving.
Of course, your career matters too when you're pursuing an Oscar. The amazing thing about Portman is that she's only 29 years old, and yet is more or less a veteran actress, having a career that began in 1994 in Luc Bresson's The Professional. In that film, it was obvious that she was talented, but no one could have imagined how much. Bit parts in Heat and Mars Attacks! kept her in the spotlight, until she got the role that would truly make her a star, Queen Padme Amidala in George Lucas' abominations, I mean, Star Wars prequel trilogy. And the prequels are a perfect representation of what's been wrong with Portman's career: she often finds herself in movies that are less deserving of her talents. Star Wars had her standing around, brushing her hair and looking contemplative, probably thinking of how she ended up with whiny, wooden Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. Since then, Portman's not been averse to popcorn flicks, as she appeared in the troubled V for Vendetta in 2006 and the royal teen soap The Other Boylan Girl in 2008. In between these films, though, Portman has made some terrific films, such as Garden State, in which she marveled as Zach Braff's epilepsy-afflicted love interest Sam, or Cold Mountain, in which she had a small supporting part as a widow. But perhaps her best performance in these films was in Closer, in which she played a stripper named Alice and earned her first Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress. She's a marvel to behold in this film, substituting actual nudity for raw emotional nakedness, and she's easily the second-best part of the film (the best being Clive Owen).
(from top) The Professional, Garden State, and Closer
When you look at it like that, you'll see that Portman, despite being in the business for so long, might just be getting started. Unless you look at her next three projects, which are worrisome. First there's her Ashton Kutcher sex comedy No Strings Attached, which, based on the trailer, looks like a terrible waste of her talents (though co-starring with Kutcher seems to do that to everyone). Then there's Your Highness, a pot comedy that could be goofy great or awful. And the first trailers for Thor don't offer much promise, and I'm not sure Portman's first foray into superhero films will be a worthwhile trip (side note: Thor's a Norse god, not a superhero, so why does Marvel treat him like one? Ugh). This is part of what worries me about Portman's Oscar chances this year: she could suffer from the Norbit effect. For those of you who don't know, in 2006 Eddie Murphy was the odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his revelatory performance in Dreamgirls. But in early 2007, Murphy released Norbit just as voters were starting to cast their ballots. The movie was a critical and commercial bomb, and when the ceremony was held, it was Alan Arkin (nominated for Little Miss Sunshine), and not Murphy, who was announced the winner, and many felt that Norbit was the cause of this. Unfortunately for Portman, No Strings Attached has a January 11 release date, which shouldn't cost her a nomination, but if voters think this is representation of her career direction, they may choose to honor someone else, such as Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) or Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone).
That's nothing to smile about, Natalie.
Then, of course, there are Portman's demographic advantages. She's 29, which means she's in her prime Best-Actress-winning years. Her film is receiving just as many raves as she is, and she worked with one of the most unique and visionary directors in Hollywood, which will certainly work in her favor. Plus, she's been sweeping the precursor awards, winning several critics' prizes and racking up nominations at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. The trick for Portman will be to continue winning, and to make sure the focus stays on her Black Swan performance and doesn't drift to her other films. If someone else were to gain the momentum, it could cost her the Oscar.
Portman's career encapsulates my opinion of her: she's extremely talented, but only so often is given the opportunity to truly showcase those talents. It could be a testament to the limited and often thankless roles that are available to women at her age in Hollywood (romantic comedies and big-budget sidekicks) that she has to take roles opposite Ashton Kutcher (was Katherine Heigl busy?) and an Australian soap opera star who makes no attempt to hide his accent despite playing a Norse god after finally landing an opportunity to push herself artistically. Here's hoping that the lovely Natalie Portman finds more demanding, rewarding roles in the future, and doesn't end up taking the path to rom-com hell.
Will she win the Oscar? Right now, she's the favorite, but only time will tell if she will be crowned come February.