Natalie Portman in The Professional (Photo: Sony Pictures)
I swore this would never happen, but I think I’ve turned into a prude.
The other night, my husband turned on the TV and the movie The Professional was on. We both jumped up. “Oh, yeah, this is a great movie. Let’s watch this!” About three minutes later, I stood up and said, “I can’t watch this anymore. I hate this. I hate watching Natalie Portman.”
He asked me why and I went off on a minor rant, sounding like some sort of next-generation Tipper Gore. “I’m looking at this girl in ways that aren’t about the story line. The camera is lingering on her. There’s something creepy going on here.” He nodded amiably, shrugged and changed the channel. But this little outrage continued firing up, smoldering…
I’ve been thinking about why I had such an unusually knee-jerk reaction. I LIKED that movie. When I first saw it in the late 90s — just having graduated with an MFA in Theater — I wanted to be Natalie Portman; I was jealous of her getting such a great role so young, especially one that propelled her to stardom. I could’ve killed that.
So what the heck? What was I reacting so strongly to?
The most likely answer, I figured, is motherhood. It must have changed me. Now, at 40, with two daughters of my own, I don’t think young girls should be viewed as sexual objects for the pleasure of an adult audience. Sure, kids have their own sense of sexuality, but my job is to protect them from the bad intentions of others. This explanation rang true, yes — but there was something else going on, something that hit even closer to home.
Like Natalie, I started out as a young actor — albeit in my local community theater, not in the movies. At 11 years old, I lied about my age to get into my first real acting class. During my auditions, I was nervous and tried not to show it. I’d hide my shaking hands, speak in a deeper voice, and try not to smile all the time. Smiling was girly, and I was going for something more sophisticated, maybe even seductive.
Good at memorizing and pretty smart, I soon realized that people liked it when I acted older than my years.
Good at memorizing and pretty smart, I soon realized that people liked it when I acted older than my years. I’d pretend to be refined (not realizing, of course, how that sometimes gave me away) and adults found me charming. I remember being very pleased by that. Even at age 11, I knew that was crucial to being cast. And if you aren’t cast, you aren’t an actor. You can’t get famous acting alone in your bedroom.
My eventual niche? Tramps, vamps, prostitutes and ’50s showgirls — you know, the sassy, off-to-the-side, over-sexualized character. (You’d be surprised how many wanton characters there are out there.) These roles made me feel powerful and I quickly realized there were plenty of opportunities for this kind of work. Plus they suited me, even as a kid. My first role in the 4th grade was as a dockside waif, soliciting the attention of sailors. I played more than one French maid.
My parents were very supportive and took good care of me; I was surrounded by teachers and mentors who had my best interests at heart. And as I got older, I had my share of fellow actors, directors and theater folk making passes at me, but I never encountered a “casting couch” and especially never had anything particularly untoward happen to me as a young girl.
But that doesn’t change the reality that girls, as actors, are judged by the way they are perceived by the people in control — who are usually older men. Not the kind of judged where you can go home and get a hug from your mom; the kind of judged where you win or lose jobs. Your career. I saw early on that young actresses are one of two types: “likeable” or “fuckable”. If you’re both, you win the jackpot. Otherwise, you pick where you stand on the issue, you decide what you’re willing to do for your art, and let the chips fall where they may.
I uncovered this amazing video of Natalie Portman auditioning.
She was absolutely lovely. And she, too, was 11 at the time. Watching her audition, I didn’t feel the least bit ‘motherly’ toward her. I empathized with her. I saw her holding in her girly smile.
I don’t know what about Natalie Portman made director Luc Besson cast her. I do know he met his second wife, French actress Maiwenn, when she was 12 and he was 29. (According to her own IMDB bio.)
I’m assuming everyone from the producers to the technicians to the actors to the director were — well, professional on the set of The Professional. That said, Natalie Portman, an actual little girl, was directed by a 35-year-old man to do this scene.
As a woman and an actor and now a mother, it creeps me out. (In the same way I’m creeped out by Mariel Hemingway cast at 16 by a 44-year-old Woody Allen to play his lover in Manhattan.)
This world is filled with creeps and we encounter them all the time. Some of them are artists. Some of their art is even quite beautiful. And I get why Natalie would want to do the scene. One of the things I enjoyed most about acting was feeling desired; feeling like everyone in the room was looking at me and wanting me. Even as a kid. I knew that women who were sexy had power over others, and I figured I could learn how to be sexy — because who doesn’t want to be powerful?
I finally got to a stage in my life where I was bored with that. It coincided with the end of my career in the theater, although I don’t think it was the cause of it. I got married, I had kids, and I did other stuff that didn’t involve taking off my clothes in front of strangers, even for really good art. In the end, I feel very good about everything I did in the theater and I would be happy for either of my daughters to follow suit.
But audition for Woody Allen? Over my dead body.