For many men in a particular age range--and, disturbingly, some well beyond it--Natalie Portman is a dream celebrity. Some of the reasons for this are not entirely healthy. At 23, she still has a lot of little girl in her looks, and she projects an innocence mixed with spontaneity and quiet loneliness that makes men believe she'll want to learn from them.
But Portman is also incredibly smart (at Harvard, law professor Alan Dershowitz gave her his highest grade in two classes). She's elegant, unpretentious, unguarded and kind. She's an ethical vegetarian who has used her star status to talk to John McCain and Hillary Clinton about micro-financing for women in developing countries. So the men whose idealization is a little creepy have a lot to hide behind. Clive Owen, who plays opposite Portman's stripper character in Closer, seems to have the excuse down: "We had a scene, which is probably the longest in the movie, in the lap-dance club. And it was hugely enjoyable to do it with her. She was so smart and intelligent, and I thought she nailed it." Portman is the sort of fantasy you can bring home to your mother.
The Closer role appealed to Portman because she wanted to work with Mike Nichols, who directed her in a stage production of The Seagull in New York City in August 2001. For a few years, they searched for a project, briefly considering a movie about Andy Warhol star Edie Sedgwick before settling on Patrick Marber's play. Portman had avoided sexually charged roles ever since she played, in close succession, the street urchin in The Professional and the 13-year-old who flirts with Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls. "I had a bad early experience when The Professional came out. I'm really proud of the film, but it was strange for me to be looked at as a sexual object when I was 12," she says. So she did such movies as Mars Attacks, Star Wars, Cold Mountain and, in an odd move for someone avoiding being Lolita-ized, a Woody Allen film (Everyone Says I Love You). But she felt she was ready to entrust Nichols with presenting a more sexual character in Closer. "I wanted to be able to form my own sexual identity. If other people have you in their mind as some sort of sex object, you have two choices: either to live up to it and become super-sexual or rebel against it and be super-asexual."
But a film about betrayal was a tough way to get back in the game. "I'm the anti-Method actor. As soon as we finish a scene, I need to go back to being myself, because it freaks me out. But it was hard not to take this home with me," she says. "I would feel cheated on when I went home. There were weekend nights I would lie in bed instead of going out with my friends."
In a world in which e-mail and cell phones filter so much human interaction, Portman believes that many people feel a lack of intimacy. "Almost everyone has been on one or more of the sides of the stories in Closer," she says.
And even though playing a pole dancer seems like a stretch, Portman doesn't see this character as being that radical a shift from her past roles. "I was the precocious one when I was younger, and now I'm the girlish one," she says. "Which ultimately means I've stayed the same. Which is not a good sign." Though it's precisely what makes all those men worship her. By Joel Stein