Natalie Portman wins Oscar for Best Actress

February 27, 2011
Natalie Portman at the premiere of Black Swan during the Toronto International Film Festival, 2010.
Courtesy of Josh Jensen.

Natalie Portman was named Best Actress at the 83rd annual Academy Awards on February 27, 2011. The frontrunner since nominations were announced, Portman was honored for her performance as an obsessive, bulimic ballerina in Black Swan.

To prepare for the role, she went through nearly 14 months of rigorous dance training, working with former New York City Ballet member Mary Helen Bowers as well as the film’s choreographer Benjamin Millipied (who would soon become her fiancé and the father of her child.) “The physical discipline helped me understand the emotional side of the character because working out eight hours a day, you get the sense of the monastic element of a dancer’s life,” she said. “You don’t drink. You don’t go out with friends. You don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain. I came to understand the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.”

The hard work paid off. She earned rave reviews for the film (Manhola Dargis of the New York Times called her performance “smashing, bruising [and] wholly committed”. In addition to the Oscar, she received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild honors for Best Actress.  

In contrast to her portrayal of a ballerina on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Portman is widely considered one of the most well-adjusted actors working in films. In naming her to the 2011 Forward 50 list of Jewish leaders making the biggest impact in American Jewish life, the paper's editors remarked: “While it would make for good copy to say that Portman’s art imitates her life, the truth is that the 30-year-old actress is possessed of such poise and aplomb that it makes her potent portrayal of the unhinged New York City ballet star Nina Sayers all the more impressive.”

Natalie Hershlag (Portman was her grandmother’s name) was born in Jerusalem on June 9, 1981. She grew up on Long Island and started modeling at age 11, after a Revlon representative discovered her in local pizza parlor. Even at a young age, she was determined to avoid being judged solely by her looks. Deciding to give acting a try, she began working with the Usdan Theatre Arts Camp, where she appeared in several local productions.

She made her film debut playing a hit man’s apprentice in Luc Besson’s 1994 film, The Professional and quickly established herself as someone who could hold her own against Hollywood heavyweights. She would later share the screen with the likes of Al Pacino (Heat) and Jack Nicholson (Mars Attacks.) As a pre-teen in the 1996 Beautiful Girls, she stood out among an all-star cast that included Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman.

Many people were surprised when, just as her film career was catching fire, she left Hollywood to spend a year on Broadway in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank. After that, it was on to Harvard, where she studied neuroscience and earned a psychology degree. An already successful actor, she was adamant about pursuing her education. “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career,” she told the New York Post. “I’d rather be smart than be a movie star.”

She had no problem juggling Ivy League rigors with film projects. In 1999, George Lucas tapped her for the coveted role of Queen Amidala in his eagerly-awaited Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The film was an international box office success. Natalie reprised her role in the next two Star Wars films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005.) Gradually, she took on more serious “adult” roles. She earned her first Oscar nomination in 2005 for her performance in Mike Nichols' film Closer, where she played Alice, an American expatriate working as a stripper in London.

All the while, she had Black Swan on her mind. The film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, first approached her about doing a ballet film in 2000—before the script was even written. By the time cameras finally rolled 10 years later, she was more than ready to take on the demanding role. "The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot," she said.   

Just two days after winning the Oscar, Portman made headlines again. Despite her position as the face of the Miss Dior Cherie perfume, she disassociated herself from Dior’s chief designer John Galliano when a video of his vitriolic anti-Semitic tirade in Paris became public. “In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way,” she said.

Several months later, she and Millepied welcomed their first child.  They named him Aleph, after the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. 

Sources: The Forward 50: Natalie PortmanThe Forward; Natalie Portman and the psychology behind `Black Swan’” Jewish Journal, November 29, 2010; “On Point. On Top. In Pain.New York Times, December 2, 2010.


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