Most of the time, child actors are precious and mannered and seem chosen based on their "cute" factor; rarely do they make much of an impact. Occasionally, though, someone comes along who seems wiser than that, sadder perhaps, or with untold depths. These people are full of promise. They are the ones that make us say, "She's going places."
Natalie Portman was one of those.
Her career now 17 years old, with more than 20 major feature films, she has more than lived up to that promise. She's 29 now and an Oscar winner for 'Black Swan,' a polarizing movie of the kind that usually doesn't win Oscars. She has worked with major international directors (Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Amos Gitai, Milos Forman, Wong Kar-Wai, Wes Anderson and others). She has charmed art house crowds and multiplex crowds; she would be welcome at both snooty cocktail parties and at comic book conventions. She has been called this generation's Audrey Hepburn, for her delicate, princess-like manner, but she's also capable of something hilariously vulgar and lowbrow such as her infamous 'SNL' rap; she even managed to make Ashton Kutcher look good earlier this year in 'No Strings Attached.' She has the wisdom to choose her projects well, covering a wide range of topics -- but rarely has a movie of hers come together so satisfyingly as with Luc Besson's 'The Professional' (aka 'Léon'). It's a pretty standard story of two opposites reluctantly thrown together in desperate circumstances, but Besson decided not to follow the usual formula in which one character is obnoxious. He had the strange idea to make both characters appealing. They're direct physical opposites: One is a towering, nearly mute, extremely simple giant; the other is a small, chatty, scrappy cutie-pie. Throw in a terrific story and a terrifying villain (Gary Oldman), and you've got a pulp movie that holds up 17 years later.
It might have been one particular scene in that inspired such hope for Portman. It's the scene in which she plays a "guessing game" with Léon (Jean Reno), dressing up and putting on a show as various celebrities (including Charlie Chaplin). The joke is that Léon only watches old musicals, so he doesn't know who they're supposed to be. (His blank, bewildered face always cracks me up.) Looking at the scene now, it's easy to imagine a young girl with big dreams of making it in showbiz, strutting her stuff and showing her range, and it's nice to know that this all paid off.
The scene was once a little disturbing, watching the 12- or 13-year-old Natalie doing her "sexy" Madonna and Marilyn Monroe impressions, But now that she has grown up and turned out so well, it doesn't seem that bad. Or maybe, looking back, it seems clear that Portman was always grown up.