I have a clear memory of being 12 years old, walking home from my bus stop, when I noticed a man pull up beside me. He trailed me for several blocks. Even looking straight ahead, it was hard to ignore the weight of his gaze and the lewd comments he hurled from his window. I was afraid enough to not go home, choosing to walk to a neighbor’s place instead. While I couldn’t put it into words then, this moment represented one of many demarcations between girlhood and womanhood that I had little say in. It also taught me a valuable lesson: Women often have little control over the narratives their bodies communicate. No matter your race, orientation, or culture, all women experience this phenomenon to one degree or another. This is a dynamic that film only magnifies.
Actresses’ bodies regularly become more important than their actual performances, which reveals a troubling truth: For actors, physicality can inform a performance, but for actresses, physicality is identity. You can pick nearly any actress from the history of Hollywood in order to make this argument. The clearest example is Marilyn Monroe, whose presentation as a dumb, money-hungry blonde was so believable and so irrevocably tied to her vivacious beauty, her legacy has been calcified by it ever since. She may have been a voracious reader who wanted more for her career than to play the bemused, dumb blonde, but her looks meant no one could see her as anything else. For women of color, physicality is particularly fraught: Slavery-era caricatures of black women’s bodies — as either lascivious and oversexualized or sexless mammies — have a lineage that snakes its way through American history. For Asian and Asian-American actresses, the attributes of their culture may be useful storytelling tools, but their bodies are not seen as having the right kind of mass appeal for audiences (see Scarlett Johansson’s leading role in Ghost in the Shell).
Perhaps no modern star typifies this dynamic, and how it can haunt the careers of actresses, better than Natalie Portman. After slowing down her career following her Oscar win for Black Swan and the birth of her first child, Portman returned to more demanding material with Pablo Larraín’s Jackie in 2016, which earned her another Oscar nomination. This year, she’s starring in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, premiering today at SXSW, with a handful of other projects slated for release soon, including the HBO miniseries We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Alex Garland’s sophomore film Annihilation.
Her latest, Jackie, isn’t so much a traditional biopic, but equal parts tone poem and horror film about the days surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the perspective of his wife and chief architect of his legacy. In the titular role, Portman displays remarkable growth and maturity as an actress. She nails Jackie’s odd, lilting, affected voice without slipping into caricature or parody. And with great technical prowess, she fully embodies the burden of being a highly scrutinized public figure, mother, and widow reckoning with grief and regret in the aftermath of tragedy.
And yet, even with such a powerful performance, Portman is still often described in relation to her child-star image. In a December 2016 piece for MTV News, “Natalie Portman Will Never Grow Up,” Teo Bugbee describes the actress as having a “freaky baby quality.” “Though there have been movie Jackies before, never has there been a film so fixated on her insane baby voice, her beautiful blank mask of a face, or her deliciously campy love of home décor,” she writes. “And who better to lead us into Jackie’s collapsing fairy tale than Oscar winner Natalie Portman — herself the adult–child bride of a generation?”
Jackie’s voice doesn’t have a baby quality, but a particular brand of upper-class, Northeastern, private-school-trained breeding to it – it’s as much a sign of Jackie’s style and wealth as her definitive pink Chanel dress suit. Nothing about Portman’s performance or even Jackie herself is anywhere near that of an “adult-child bride.” But such descriptors aren’t new. This type of commentary has followed Portman throughout her career. Just consider the headlines on many stories about Portman (“Has Natalie Portman (Finally) Grown Up?”, “Natalie Portman: Her Evolution From Eerily Mature Child Star to Girlish Grown-Up”) and the way critics write about her, which seems to orbit around an obsession with her looks. In 2009, Ross Douthat wrote about her performance in Brothers for the New York Times: “[Portman] looks younger than she is, and the qualities that made her appealing in teenage roles (a kind of luminous transparency, above all) make her hard to take seriously when she plays a stripper, or a terrorist, or a scheming Ann Boleyn — or, in this case, an army wife and mother of two.” This was in response to a brutal piece Dana Stevens wrote for Slate, in which she critiqued Portman’s performance in the same film: “She doesn’t overact or underact; she just stands around with whatever the appropriate expression for the scene seems to be on her sweet, pretty, childlike face.”
That Portman was considered the picture of female adolescence in her early career makes sense. Her very first role in the stylistic, morally queasy crime film Léon: The Professional cemented our understanding of her. Filmed when she was just 12 years old, Portman played Mathilda, a cigarette-smoking, sharp-tongued, yearning adolescent. She displays many of the traits that have come to define her as an actress: wit, wise beyond her years maturity, longing, and precociousness, with a face that crinkles dramatically into abject sorrow when she cries. In subsequent roles, like the suicidal teen in Michael Mann’s Heat, an “old soul” crushing on Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls, and the president’s daughter in Mars Attacks!, Portman continued to explore to varying degrees the precarious line between girlhood and womanhood that her first role displayed so beautifully. It’s easy to understand how her performance in Léon came to define her. Even if the film doesn’t wholly work, Portman is electrifying in it. It is one of those rare first performances that immediately highlights the presence of a star of considerable magnitude.
In many ways, the moment actors become famous is the same moment our ideas of them become fixed. It’s this memory of them as they were, rather than how they actually are, that filters how we conceive them. The “memory filter,” to quote LaineyGossip, allows men like Johnny Depp to retain a career after allegations of domestic violence or rise above any number of personal and professional roadblocks. For an actress like Portman, whose petite frame, soft voice, and elegant styling reminds us of her early years, it’s used against her: You can’t see her beyond that pint-sized whirling dervish of emotion she played in Léon.
But as Portman transitioned into adulthood, this line of critique made less sense, given the roles she took on. In 2004’s Closer, she is a black hole of emotional need, a stripper wearing neon-bright wigs fluttering between dalliances with Clive Owen and Jude Law. In 2005’s dystopian V for Vendetta, Portman, then 24, plays a working-class British woman dedicated to the mission of Guy Fawkes–mask-wearing freedom fighter. Portman demonstrates a self-awareness of her own girlish image and desire to undercut it, both in choosing the role and in how she approaches it. In a pivotal early scene, she dresses as a caricature of girlhood — extreme blush on her cheeks, a bright-pink short skirt, and dainty pigtails. Portman embraces the characteristics that have put a chokehold on her career — that soft fluttering voice, a mix of fear and steely determination, a tinge of coyness — until they feel like a farce. That’s because they are: It’s all simply a ruse so that V can have vengeance on a lecherous bishop with a desire for young girls.
Viewing Portman, a 35-year old mother of two, through the lens of her past girlishness also doesn’t dovetail with her own star image, which is defined by a mix of intelligence (she studied psychology at Harvard between filming the Star Wars prequels) and pretension (just look at the response to those admittedly hilarious email exchanges she had with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer), with an added dollop of privileged myopia, leading her to make statements like this from an August 2004 issue of Allure: “I’m not black but, I know what it feels like.” She subsequently apologized and has seemingly learned to avoid such blunders. More to the point, Portman is sensitive to the way she’s viewed by critics and audiences who struggle to look beyond her youthful image at her craft. Many actresses will speak of issues that only seem to directly affect them, like discussing the gender pay gap in Hollywood’s upper echelon while never working with female directors after hitting it big. But Portman is also known for championing female directors — she insisted on one for her forthcoming starring role in a biopic of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even when Portman has discussed discrepancies in the pay she’s received versus that of her male co-stars, she sounds self-aware.
Her viral 2006 SNL skit found its humor in this very conundrum by openly subverting her public image. In it, she raps about her predilection for drugs, sex, and booze with increasingly violent, expletive-laden gusto.
Portman’s inability, then, to fully shed her girlish image, begs an interesting question: What does it take for a child actress turned ingenue to grow beyond such labels?
Nudity? Wes Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, a prologue to his 2007 feature The Darjeeling Limited, covers that. Blatant sexuality? Look no further than Closer, and of course, Black Swan. A bit of actorly transformation? Her head shaving in V for Vendetta, while not as dramatic as Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in The Hours or Charlize Theron’s turn as a serial killer in Monster, exists within the same lineage of beautiful women rebelling against the ways beauty defines them. Outside of having a flashy public scandal, Portman has hit nearly every criteria it takes to shift from child star to assured adult. Yet these choices have classified her career as unfocused. As Nathan Heller wrote in a 2010 article for Slate, “she is a public figure whose attempts to be all things while committing her soul to none — to draw millions at the box office, to be a fearless small-film artist, to turn her education toward social good — echoes the conflict in our own ambitious drives, our need to keep every iron burning hot for fear of losing our glow.”
I read Portman’s shifting career tastes differently. It’s the sagacious attempt of a woman trying to shed her image. During the press cycle for Black Swan, leading up to her winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, Portman told USA Today, “I’m trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person.” Her wildly different explorations of genre, style, highbrow, lowbrow, camp, and drama can be seen as a way to break free from the narratives that place her value in relation to her youthfulness. In this light, the way Portman explores women at points of grand transition in their lives becomes a consistent theme in her work, not a reflection of her immaturity. And Black Swan may well be the greatest example of this.
If you look at the role on a surface level, you can see why critics jumped to reinforce the narrative of her girlish qualities as an actress. In the Atlantic, Christopher Orr drew a connection between the actress and the role she played, writing, “Like Portman herself, Nina is a portrait in extended adolescence, teetering between girl-dom and womanhood, full of promise not yet quite fulfilled.” As the obsessive ballerina Nina Sayers, Portman embodies two different modes of femininity — suspended adolescence defined by a room so pink it looks like a unicorn threw up in it, and a femme fatale whose ability to wield her womanhood as a weapon is both scorned and obsessed over. The film itself is about the expectations of innocence and perfection that are thrust onto Nina. Portman undergirds Nina’s childlike nature with fear and apprehension. Just when you think you have a handle on the character, she adds a note of cunning or passion that twists your understanding. In many ways, Black Swan taps into the fault lines of Portman’s career, between what people see just by looking at her and the kind of actress she really is.
Being an actress often means having your body up for discussion in uncomfortable ways, its attributes used to judge your very identity. Six years later, reading the same commentary resurface around Jackie, it’s clear critics still don’t know quite how to separate Portman’s physique from her performances. But if you pay attention, it says less about her work, and more about our inability to understand the complexity of womanhood.