With more than 20 years experience and, to date, over 60 credits to her name, Natalie Portman has become a household name. She’s built a diverse career including everything from blockbusters to underground indies to cult favorites — and she’s far from finished. Her latest film, Vox Lux, features her in a role unlike any we’ve seen her in before: as that of a global pop superstar whose life and career are shaped by a national tragedy. The ambitious project examines the dark underbelly of modern celebrity, and Portman’s gripping performance in it is just the latest in a long line of examples of her stellar talent.
In celebration of one of our favorite A-list actors, we put together a list of essential Portman performances that remind us just how talented an actor she is. Whether you’ve never heard of these films or simply forgot they existed, they’ll remind you why Portman deserves her spot in the upper echelon of Hollywood.
Léon: The Professional
It’s understandable if you forgot about Léon: The Professional since it originally hit theaters in 1994. But like so many things from the ‘90s, it’s worthy of highlighting if only because it features a teenage Portman in what is considered her breakout role. As Mathilda, Portman takes on a layered role as a 12-year-old New York City girl who begins shadowing her assassin neighbor after her family is killed. Only 13 years old in real life at the time of filming, Portman holds her own (and even steals a few scenes) among acting vets Gary Oldman and Jean Reno.
Two years after she wowed everyone in Léon, Portman got cast in enviably talent-stacked ensemble comedy Beautiful Girls starring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly and Uma Thurman. The film may feature more established stars, but Portman and her performance as a 12-year-old who misguidedly falls in love with Hutton’s character is the one that stands out; she’s a true delight as a clever preteen with wit to burn.
Anywhere but Here
Portman and Susan Sarandon as a mother-daughter duo? That’s all that really needs to be said about this 2000 movie to make you want to watch it. Portman is so convincing as a daughter fed up with being her mother’s keeper you’ll swear she must have first-hand experience with such strained dynamics in real life.
Where the Heart Is
If you somehow haven’t seen Where the Heart Is yet, what are you waiting for? Portman is endlessly endearing as pregnant young Novalee Nation. With Stockard Channing as the Good Samaritan who takes her in and Ashley Judd as a nurse who becomes her sassy best friend, this cult classic allowed Portman to show off her range.
Granted, Portman’s part in the 2003 drama Cold Mountain was a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance, but that doesn’t make the role any less affecting. In fact, that’s part of why this role deserves to be on this list. As a grieving widower trying to survive the bitter cold along with her sick baby during the last days of the Civil War, Portman turns out a gut-wrenching performance as a woman who is willing to do anything to survive.
In 2004, Zach Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State, was released. Braff starred alongside Portman, who portrayed Sam, the embodiment of the “manic pixie dream girl” and love interest in the movie. Colorful and quirky, Sam gives Andrew (Braff) the courage he needs to open himself up to truly living again. It’s one of Portman’s brassier performances, but it’s also one that sticks with you.
You can’t get a much more talented four-semble than Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Set in modern-day London, Closer follows along as two couples fall into a tangled web of sex and drama and betrayal. Portman’s character, Alice, feels particularly tragic as a young woman both intent on finding a lasting romantic connection while simultaneously being unable to stop treating the men who love her like disposable objects — making her the most compelling to watch among a truly talented lineup.
Loved by critics and audiences alike, Jackie saw Portman transform her persona to become beloved former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis From embodying Kennedy Onassis’ mannerisms to perfectly depicting her clipped mid-Atlantic accent, Portman proved she was an actor of the highest caliber, able to deliver a strong performance while portraying such an iconic American figure. The role earned her so much praise we wouldn’t be surprised to see her step into more transformational characters in the future.
Song to Song
Complex art house entry Song to Song landed quietly in theaters despite boasting a knockout cast; Portman rubbed shoulders with Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Holly Hunter in the film. The film may not be everyone’s cup of tea but one thing’s for certain: Portman is in her element in a role that is low on dialogue but high on emotional scenes that let her spread her acting wings.