Drama Queen

She's got Oscar buzz for Black Swan and five more films on the way. Get ready for the year of Natalie Portman

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Niko Tavernise / Fox Searchlight

A perfect pictorial blend of strength and delicacy, Natalie Portman has never known an unlovely moment in her 17 years on film sets. Nor, one likes to think, off them. The daughter of an Israeli physician and an American artist, Portman gives the impression of having glided through life as a beautiful, dutiful child. She made her first film at 12, as a waif adopted by a gunman in Luc Besson's The Professional, and followed that by making movies with top directors (Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Woody Allen, Anthony Minghella) while acing high school and then, of course, Harvard. Some college students work as interns or burger flippers during semester breaks; Portman played Padmé Amidala in the three Star Wars prequels and graduated right on time. She's one actress whom both a teen fanboy and his mother could dream of welcoming into the family.

As much as the camera loves her, however, Portman often looks uncomfortable before it; she can shiver and wilt in its unblinking gaze. Yes, she did a naughty pole dance in Nichols' Closer, she shaved her head for the role of a mad bomber's love in the Wachowski brothers' V for Vendetta, and she had a great blowsy time as a gambler in Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. But it seemed sometimes as if her sense of propriety was telling her not to reveal too much. To act is to risk embarrassing yourself in public, and the suspicion lingered that Portman was too much the lady to be a genuine actress, digging for some ugly truth.

If Lady Natalie did indeed need a dose of directorial shock therapy, Darren Aronofsky provided it with Black Swan. Portman spent six months getting into sinewy ballerina shape as Nina, who must explore her dark side to nail the leading role in Swan Lake. In the story, Nina's choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), goads her toward artistry or madness, and Aronofsky put Portman through the same arduous steps. The result was less a performance than a primal scream, a flaying of decorum to reveal the tortured soul within. It was not acting; it was Acting!

Black Swan, made for a thrifty $13 million, earned $75 million in its first seven weeks — more money at the domestic box office than any of Portman's other non — Star Wars movies — and its run is not nearly exhausted. That's partly because its mix of high art and horror has cross-demographic appeal but also because Portman swept most of the critics' awards and is the front runner to snag an Oscar for Best Actress on Feb. 27. All the world is tuning in to catch Lady Natalie's coming-out party as a virgin turned vixen. And finally, at 29, she seems to be enjoying herself: pleased to accept her prizes and radiant with the child she is carrying, courtesy of her fiancé, Black Swan's real choreographer, Benjamin Millepied.

The Natalie Portman Film Festival

If Black Swan makes you want to see a plethora of Portman, you'll have your chance. She's in five other films, some made as long as two years ago, all opening in the next few months. Two are family dramas: Hesher, an edgy indie film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and The Other Woman, soon to get a limited release along with a Video on Demand home showcase. Two others are period fantasies: the medieval romp Your Highness, due out April 8, and the Marvel adventure Thor, which opens the summer movie season May 6.

But first she faces perhaps her sternest challenge: headlining a traditional Hollywood romantic comedy. In this month's No Strings Attached, written by Elizabeth Meriwether and directed by Ivan Reitman, Portman plays a young med student too serious for a serious relationship. So she offers a deal to boy pal Ashton Kutcher: that they "use each other for sex, at all hours of the day or night, and nothing else." Sure, he thinks. Who wouldn't? She's Natalie Portman. But soon he's fallen in love with her — because she's Natalie Portman.

No great shakes as cinema, the film is still a rarity: an R-rated rom-com in which people talk about what people talk about before, during and after sex. Not guy-guy, as in the standard bromance, but guy-gal, with all appropriate gender shadings.

No Strings Attached also tosses Portman into unfamiliar territory. In her young life she's mostly played fraught heroines, whether in big-budget action films or soulful domestic dramas. Both types of roles allow her to show her usual onscreen tenseness. But the key to a rom-com is relaxation: the old movie magic of an easy warmth kindling between two stars. Kutcher can do this just by showing up; for Portman, it's another lesson to be learned, and it takes her about half of the film to get it right.

Still, No Strings Attached (on which she also served as executive producer) is Portman's declaration that she's ready to play, occasionally, by the industry's rules — to take on the ordinary movies that, in sum, define a modern film star. Her fans may think that's a detour or a ditch for an Oscar-worthy actress. But who's to say that Lady Natalie's Hollywood eminence wouldn't be another lovely thing?