(THROWBACK!) Bottled Promise

Published on September 9th, 2011

Alex breaks down why everybody seems to love Natalie Portman despite her being a less-than-decent actress. Originally run on March 8, 2011.

The Academy Awards ceremony happened again this year, as it is wont to do, and as usual the majority of the Academy’s choices upset and personally offended me. After it was all over, I contemplated why I give a shit about awards handed out by super-old, super-rich people who I have little in common with other than the fact that we are human and allegedly value film as an art form. This inner dialogue is as much an annual tradition as the Oscars ceremony itself, and while I can comfortably say I have known that the Oscars are virtually meaningless since I’ve been old enough to spell the word meaningless, I still find it wildly uncomfortable that the Academy’s choices somehow manage to upset me. I’m still bitter about Roger Deakins losing the Best Cinematography award for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, much like I’m still furious that the 2006 Best Picture Oscar went to fucking Crash. Most smart people tend to agree that the Oscars don’t matter because of their penchant for making poor choices, but the fact that so many people still feel compelled to watch and (especially) discuss them proves that they do, in fact, matter. But how? Why do we care?

In a recent podcast, James and I briefly discussed the idea of why people still care about the Oscars, whereas other awards like the Grammys seem to have a much lower cultural value. James suggested that he likes the Oscars as a time capsule of sorts, as a way to determine what films and performances were crucial to that given year in film. I agreed with that on the podcast, but I don’t agree now. The Oscars actually tend to do the exact opposite, and this year is proof of that. The King’s Speech is a good, funny, well-shot, but generally unremarkable period movie. Almost everybody who saw Toy Story 3 didn’t just like it, but loved it. Inception was debatably the most culturally significant movie of 2010. The Social Network was Inception’s only competition for this title, but the Social Network has the edge in that it was entirely about what our culture is like in 2010. Put simply, three of the four movies listed will be fondly remembered, and the one that is most likely to be forgotten won the 2010 Oscar for Best Picture.

Sometimes I agree with the Oscars. I still think No Country for Old Men was the best movie released in 2007, just like I thought Christian Bale’s performance in the Fighter was the best male supporting performance I saw in 2010. More often than not, however, I think they’re wrong. But for some reason I still want them to get it right, and that’s why I keep coming back. Once a poorly-chosen Oscar has been awarded, it instantly loses all of its value to me, but until the name inside the envelope is read aloud, I can still hope that my favourite movie or performance will be selected. Nine times out of ten, however, my tastes are ignored and the Oscar goes to the choice that appeals to the Academy. Jennifer Lawerence couldn’t win Best Actress for her role in Winter’s Bone. Lawerence is just a relative newcomer who has had one great role, and almost nobody even knew about it. The Academy needed to see Natalie Portman’s well-known, charming, and youth-endorsed face on their stage.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It has become common to say that Natalie Portman is not a good actress, and that she is not in a lot of good movies. In looking through her IMDB page, I can pick out five movies featuring her that I like, and three of those were released prior to 1997. She’s not even good in all five: her performance in Heat is distractingly poor, and her critically acclaimed performances in both Black Swan and Closer only worked because of the melodramatic nature of each movie. I’m not knocking her for the latter two, as her performance did work well within the movie each time, but let’s not act like she is displaying a lot of range in either of them – other than wearing that stupefyingly sexy pink wig, of course.

The thing that is intriguing about Portman is that almost everybody seems to be coming around to the idea that she is not a good actress, and yet people still seem to like her. While females tend to care for her less than males, and everybody in Hollywood will inevitably have vocal critics, I don’t come across much active annoyance and hatred towards Portman the way I hear it for her peers like Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellwegger, and Angelina Jolie. Portman is rarely loved as an actress but is roundly liked as a person, and she is generally considered (at least moderately) interesting. If nothing else, she is culturally relevant in that she seems to have remained visible in Hollywood for nearly 20 years. The unfortunate thing for Portman’s career trajectory as an actress, despite the fact that she won an Academy Award nine days ago, is that she played her two most interesting characters by the age of 15. In both the Professional and Beautiful Girls, Portman plays a character that is wise beyond her years, either learning a skill that seems far from what somebody her age should be capable of (the Professional), or providing sage words of wisdom to an overly-sideburned Timothy Hutton (Beautiful Girls). Portman even played the Queen of a whole planet just as she legally became an adult. As she has aged past these unique roles, Portman’s career has unfortunately involved her playing a series of overly simple, easily stereotyped characters. So basically, she is an adult actress in Hollywood. I fear for your future, Chloe Moretz.

Portman’s most interesting role to date was in the 1996 movie Beautiful Girls, a mostly forgotten film that can essentially be boiled down to a more restrained, mid-90s version of Garden State, with Timothy Hutton playing the Zach Braff role of the late-20s male coming home. While there, Hutton (playing Willie), visits with his old high school friends, his dad and brother, and meets his family’s new next door neighbour, a 13 year old girl named Marty (played by Portman). The movie itself is pretty unremarkable – just a better-than-average comedy about going home – but the relationship between Willie and Marty is… odd.

Willie and Marty’s scenes together are the best aspect of Beautiful Girls, as the rest of the movie – while good – is pretty formulaic. They spend most of their time discussing the differences between being a teenager and an adult; Willie quietly wishes he wouldn’t age, while Marty can’t age fast enough. Marty is clearly smarter than your average 13 year old, in that she refers to herself as an old soul and seems to have a decent level of familiarity with both the works of William Shakespeare and Lou Reed. This leads to the beginning of a sort of accelerated friendship with Willie that involves a lot more half-flirting than one might expect, given the age difference.

There is definitely something wrong with this.

Before we go any further, I should point something out: I realize how damn creepy all of this sounds if you haven’t seen the movie. Even having seen the film about 10 times, I am still shocked at some of the lines that are actually in this movie. But the important thing to remember about Beautiful Girls, and why I think everybody I have talked to about the movie seems to let this creepiness go, is that Marty isn’t really a 13 year old to Willie. She represents Willie’s youth, and by being friends with Marty, Willie is essentially trying to hold onto how he felt at her age, even though this is a hopeless pursuit. Marty turns Willie back into his 13 year old self, as shown by his sometimes clumsy conversations with her, which is why he is so enamoured by her and why he discusses the possibility of waiting for her to grow up so they can be together. This is all vaguely disturbing, but the film recognizes it, and Willie’s friends do not shy away from telling him that he is engaging in some questionable behaviour. Willie himself recognizes how bizarre it all is, but he is so uncomfortable with aging that he still finds himself talking to Marty.

At one point in the film, Willie is visiting with his friend Paul (played by Michael Rapaport) who, despite being a 30 year old, has a dog named Elle MacPherson and covers his walls with magazine pictorials of supermodels. Willie questions his friend as to why he values supermodels so highly, and Paul responds with a memorable monologue in which he calls supermodels “bottled promise.” The supermodels are beautiful girls, and these beautiful girls give Paul hope for a better day, or the promise of a new tomorrow. This, according to Paul, is “the single greatest commodity known to man.” Willie looks at Marty in a similar fashion; not as a supermodel, but as bottled promise. Marty is him hanging onto the hope that tomorrow will be filled with all the things Willie loved doing when he was 13, and she is as much a signifier of his unwillingness to grow up as the supermodels are to Paul. Willie says to his friend Mo (Noah Emmerich) at one point, “I just want something beautiful, Mo,” and to both Willie and most adult males, the idea of being 13 again seems beautiful.

Since Beautiful Girls wasn’t directed by Roman Polanski, Willie eventually comes to his senses and accepts his adulthood at the end of the movie. In the final scene, he gives Marty a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye, which is essentially him kissing his youth goodbye. The return of conventional age roles is complete with Marty’s reaction to the kiss: she gets completely flustered, just as you would expect a 13 year old girl to do when her crush kisses her. Willie says goodbye to Marty, and everything is back in its correct place. Except that it’s not. Not really.

If you’re a heterosexual male under the age of 30, chances are that you love Natalie Portman. Not necessarily as an actress, but when you are channel-surfing and flicker past an image of Portman, you’re probably at least going to stop for a second to see what she’s saying (or at least what she’s wearing, typically hoping that the answer is “nothing”). I fit these criteria, and as such, I love me some NatPo. She is charming, smart, self-aware, and gorgeous. If nothing else, she is a likeable person from what we see at awards shows, in interviews, and on Saturday Night Live. But why do we all seem to care for this actress, even though the public opinion of her seems to have become that she isn’t particularly good at acting?

It can’t just be that she’s good-looking, because there are better looking starlets… Portman’s likability has to play a part. There are other likeable young actresses who aren’t always good at their profession, but nobody is liked quite on the scale that Portman is. Her longevity must contribute as well: Portman has been present in our lives for about as long as we under-30 North American males have been watching movies. She was in formative movies for young action (The Professional), rom-com (Beautiful Girls), drama (Heat), comedy (Mars Attacks!), and science-fiction (Star Wars prequels) fans, movies we saw at a young enough age that the quality of acting didn’t matter. We didn’t care about what we did and didn’t like about these movies, we just knew that we liked something about watching them, and that Natalie Portman was in them all. As time has passed, we realize that not many of these movies are particularly good, but we still grew up with Natalie Portman as an integral part of our movie watching experience, so we value her for that. And until she does something totally unlikable, such as get herself arrested for a DUI while screaming “I’M AN OSCAR WINNER, YOU PIGS! I’M BLACK SWAAAAAAAN!”, she will be well-liked by people my age. Like Willie, we’re beginning to grow up, but unlike Willie we will never really have to kiss our collective Marty goodbye: we can just watch the movies again. When we see Natalie Portman in a bad movie, or give a poor performance, we don’t dislike her for it for long, and we certainly don’t write off anything she is in because of her presence. If anything, we’re more willing to give No Strings Attached a chance precisely because she is there. We know better by now, but Natalie Portman’s presence is still bottled promise: the hope for a movie that will resonate with us in a way that movies did when we were younger.

And that’s why Portman’s Oscar is meaningless. She already held a completely intangible place in Hollywood, and that place is far more unique than her tangible award of an Oscar. It might earn her a certain level of prestige within the filmmaking industry, but to the people who really care about film for non-business reasons, she can’t mean any more than she already did. The cultural products and people that resonate with mass culture do just that not because they win awards, but because something about them engages the viewers either intellectually or emotionally. The King’s Speech might mean something to the Academy, but it doesn’t mean much for mass culture, and will be almost wholly meaningless in a matter of years. Almost nobody even remembers that Slumdog Millionaire existed, let alone that it won Best Picture. Crash has become the butt of three jokes a week (and that’s just from me), even though it won more awards than far more honest fare. And going back even further, the 1989 Best Picture Award went to Driving Miss Daisy – a film so painfully broad that it hurts me to even write a synopsis of it – in the same year Do the Right Thing received little in the way of Academy recognition despite being an infinitely better film. Just like would happen with Crash in 2006, the broad movie that made its audience feel good at the end received the Best Picture Award. But only one of those 1989 films matters anymore, and it’s not the one that took home Best Picture. We like Natalie Portman so much because she seems like a normal young person, somebody who may not fit in with the type of person that seems to be an Academy member. Portman probably likes Do the Right Thing; I doubt she has even seen Driving Miss Daisy.

We don’t need to worry about the King’s Speech winning Best Picture over the Social Network, Inception or Toy Story 3. The masses don’t need to protect the films that resonate widely: that same cultural resonance will protect them over time. We always hope to see Natalie Portman in good films, just like we will always hope that the Academy’s tastes correspond with ours. But her Academy Award won’t really alter how the public perceives her in the long run. The Oscars will remain interesting and culturally significant because they are the film industry’s version of bottled promise, and we care about them because that bottled promise is the hope for a day when our personal tastes are publicly acknowledged. We will always hope for this to happen, but we don’t actually need it to happen. Willie didn’t need to wait to reconvene with an adult Marty in order to realize that he was trying to hold onto something he had no control over. In the long run the movies themselves, and what we learn through them, are all that matter. Our favourite movies and performances of 2010 will remain memorable years from now. The Academy’s won’t.

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