There are some insidious pop culture truisms out there that have been repeated with such regularity and certainty that they’ve obscured reality. You know what I’m talking about: “The Seinfeld finale was terrible” (false), “LeBron James chokes in the fourth quarter” (nope), “Tom Cruise jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch” (it was one quick jump, but still). Some of those I can deal with, but there’s one I simply cannot handle: “Natalie Portman hasn’t been in a good movie since Black Swan.”
I thought of Portman recently after I read her
self-indulgent branding exercise intimate email correspondence with author Jonathan Safran Foer, whose T Magazine article quickly became surrounded by criticism. It reminded me of the sentiment that’s been chirped in my ear by friends and family and colleagues alike for years: that Portman’s career—as an actress, producer, and director—tanked after she won an Oscar for Best Actress in Black Swan.
It’s time to put this pernicious bull to rest.
Natalie Takes a Break (2011-2013): Being in deadly serious movies all the time has got to be taxing. Black Swan capped off a five-movie run of such a persuasion for Portman that included the under-the-radar Brothers, among some other forgettable fare (remember Hesher?). But after Black Swan, a physically and emotionally taxing movie to watch, let alone act in, she was clearly ready for a break. No Strings Attached is the better of the two casual sex romcoms of 2011 (eat your heart out, Friends With Benefits), and for all its silliness, it doesn’t even approach the level of buffoonery in Your Highness, in which Portman plays a warrior with a grudge. Even though James Franco distances himself from it now, it’s actually fairly funny at parts, depending on your tolerance for Danny McBride. And Portman’s (kinda) funny in it!
Her next two features were part of Marvel’s Thor franchise, and let’s be honest: those are terrible movies, even by Marvel standards. Muddled, overdramatic, asking us to be surprised that *gasp* a woman can be a scientist…we’ll forget these if you will, Nat.
Natalie Gets Right Back in to Deadly Serious Movies (2014 – Present): Break over! Let’s see what we’ve got here. She produced a somber, well-received documentary about drugs on a Native American reservation called The Seventh Fire, starred in Terrence Malick’s B+ (for him) Knight of Cups, and starred in a solid B- (for anyone) Jane Got a Gun. Subtract a stinker for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which she produced) and throw in her excellent directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness, and you’ve got a pretty nice output for someone who’s busy raising a child and answering all of Jonathan Safran Foer’s questions.
The Once and Future Natalie (Present – 2017): Aside from another Terrence Malick movie (titled Weightless, a love story that takes place in the Austin music scene, coming out whenever Malick feels like it), she’s working with a festival darling in Rebecca Zlotowski, another one in Xavier Dolan, and Ex Machina mastermind Alex Garland. And, oh yeah, she’s being directed by Oscar nominee Pablo Larrain in a Jackie O biopic, which, you heard it here first, is going to net her an Oscar nomination at the very least.
There you have it, naysayers. Portman’s post-Black Swan career has in fact kept up to your high standards. And, whether you agree with me or not, Portman’s pre-Swan performances—from Léon: The Professional to Closer—more than exempt her from a few stinkers.
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Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.