If Natalie Portman were to retire from acting tomorrow and not make another film, she would still be the woman who gave the brilliant performance in Jackie (2016) as former First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the days after the assassination of her husband in Dallas. Portman would still be the woman who brought such perfection to the screen as a devastated Mrs. Kennedy, struggling with mourning before the entire world and deal with the fact that just a few days earlier, her dying husbands shattered skull and brains were in her lap in Dallas.
Portman gives one of the screens greatest performances in Jackie (2016) and if justice is done, which seldom happens though sometimes, she will be holding her second Academy Award at the Oscar ceremony this year. She was Brando good, Penn good, Streep good in the film, not recreating Kennedy but inhabiting the delicate skin of a woman reeling in grief, trying to honor the memory of her dead husband, knowing most of his secrets, knowing the entire world is watching her, and feeling everything about her life change with little control. Moments after President Kennedy was declared dead, she stood by Lyndon Johnson, her famous pink dress covered in blood and brains splattered on her when the bullet tore through his skull. She looked dazed, yet refused to leave his coffin, refused to let her husband be alone. Did she understand in those moments that they were already packing up the White House for she and her children to leave so the Johnsons could move in?
What she did understand was that she was going to honor her husband and nothing was going to stop that. Nothing or no one.
The superb film, elevated by Portman’s astonishing performance captures all of that, and much much more. What Portman accomplishes as an artist might not be fully understood until there are a few years between the release of the film and the future — time being the greatest judge of all art.
We have watched Natalie Portman grow up before our eyes on the screen, from her assured, remarkable debut in The Professional (1994) as the daughter of a family slaughtered who attaches herself to a hit man through to her Oscar winning performance as a damaged ballerina fighting her emotional demons. She has taken some extraordinary risks on screen, some working such as Closer (2004), some not, such as attempt at mainstream comedy in No Strings Attached (2011). There have been exceptional critical hits, but then we think of Goya’s Ghosts (2006) and know that she is not beyond making a bad film or even giving a terrible performance. Perhaps that is what humanizes her to us, that she can fail, that she allows herself to fail, and then gives a performance that allows us to watch her soar. That extraordinary God given talent spills into her character onto the screen and she goes to levels that astonish and awe those watching. Watching her recreate Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House for television was haunting because she was more Jackie than Jackie was Jackie.
Biographical films often play like a greatest hits of that person’s life, and that is where they go wrong. No person is perfect, no person leads a perfect life. The genius of the best biographical films are that they are willing to show their character’s flaws and all, and we see this in Jackie (2016). Though emotionally wounded, she is spiky, angry even fierce when called upon to be so, and we can see why she might not always have been likable. Yet the film allows us to understand what she was trying to protect in such a very public life and we get it, we come to understand.
Somehow Portman the artist, as Jackie, reaches out and gently strokes our soul with her astonishing, mesmerizing performance, that was not her merely acting as Jackie, but Portman inhabiting the damaged soul of the character.
Here are her five best performances:
1. JACKIE (2016): I think I have said it all above, she gives one of the finest performances ever put on film, and deserves a second Oscar. Portman goes beyond mere performance, she inhabits the soul of Jackie Kennedy with absolute authenticity. Both haunting and deeply moving, truly one of the greatest performances of all time.
2. CLOSER (2004): Bold and daring, she is superb as a mysterious American woman living with a British man who cheats on her and hurts her terribly, driving her to find work in a strip club. He finds her, but do not expect a happy ending. Portman bares more on screen than she ever had, and for the first time portrayed a sexual being, though a damaged young woman who had taken hold of her own being in every way and will not be defined by a man.
3. COLD MOUNTAIN (2003): In ten short minutes of screen time she steals the film as Sara, a lonely mother living in the south waiting for a husband she knows in her heart is dead. All around her the Civil War rages, Yankees routinely steal food from the widows living in the south and into her home comes Inman (Jude Law), a deserting southerner walking home. She feeds him and then gently invites him into her bed, just to have a warm body near her, just to remind her of what it was to have a man next to her. Her performance is devastating and haunting.
4. BLACK SWAN (2010): She won an Oscar as the deeply disturbed Nina, forced to be a perfectionist by a driven mother living through her daughter. Portman captures Nina s descent into madness beautifully, from the hallucinations and behaviour through to that stunning transformation.
5. BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996): Just a teen when she portrayed thirteen year old Marty, the next door neighbour to Timothy Hutton, who she knows with all her being is her soulmate. Wise beyond her years, she should have received an Oscar nomination for this performance.