The July 2003 cover of Vanity Fair.

The July 2003 cover of Vanity Fair.
The July 2003 cover of Vanity Fair.

BEFORE LINDSAY AND HILARY, before Amanda, before Kirsten and Britney, even before--if you can imagine--Mary-Kate and Ashley, there was Natalie. Miss Portman, just 23 years old, has had a healthy career and indeed, has already achieved an enduring legacy: She is patient zero in our culture's latest epidemic of pedophilia chic.

This isn't the first outbreak. In the '60s, Stanley Kubrick tippy-toed up to the edge when he cast the 16-year-old Sue Lyon in Lolita. In 1980, the syndrome flourished with the scantily-clad Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. Shields made an entire career out of that semi-soft core movie. She was 15 at time, so director Randal Kleiser coyly used body-doubles for the nude scenes, a fact which was not widely advertised. America was gripped in Shields-mania and for a while, Blue Lagoon became short-hand for the pervy thrill of seeing naked adolescent girls.

But it was Portman who triggered the latest, and most enduring, eruption. In her big-screen debut, Luc Besson's 1994 Léon, Portman played Matilda, a pre-pubescent orphan who is taken in by the movie's titular middle-aged professional killer. Matilda dresses mostly like a prostitute, with tight leggings and a black velvet choker. Trying to shock another character, she refers to Léon as her lover, before later telling Léon that she is falling in love with him. In the European release, there's a scene in which, while the two are in bed together, Matilda asks him to make love to her. In Léon, Natalie Portman is 13-years-old.

She was 15 in Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls, where she played a middle-school student trying to seduce the 30-something Timothy Hutton. Shortly thereafter, Portman became a cultural icon, the object of dirty grins and knowing winks. And after Natalie, the deluge. There was Britney Spears's dirty-sweet school-girl act. The celebrated website devoted to a countdown to the Olsen twins' 18th birthday. And then the crowning moment: Vanity Fair's Youngest Hollywood issue, which displayed on its cover nine underaged vixens in various states of get-up-and-go, along with a headline proclaiming: "It's TOTALLY Raining Teens: And it's, like, so a major moment in pop culture."

Even the taboo of Blue Lagoon lust is a thing of the past; today we celebrate the sexualization of young girls. Thanks, Natalie.

OF COURSE, this isn't entirely (or even mostly) Portman's fault. She has remained largely untouched by fashionable depravity. Part of what has shielded Portman is her public dignity and grace--she seems, from all appearances, to be an agreeable, well-adjusted young woman. She has also benefited from her reputation as being an actress of substance.

This reputation is not entirely undeserved. Two of Portman's early turns, in Beautiful Girls and Michael Mann's Heat, were striking. Few child actors have ever shown such promise. But she has not yet made good. Since 1996 she has turned in mostly rote performances in bad movies: Mars Attacks!, Home Is Where the Heart Is, Anywhere But Here, and Cold Mountain (I will not mention her work in the Star Wars movies; no actress should have George Lucas held against her). Still, the hope was that when Portman grew up, she would metamorphose into the second coming of Audrey Hepburn. That way, we could remember her for something more pleasant.

THIS WEEKEND, Portman embarks on her first truly adult role: She plays a stripper named Alice in Mike Nichols's screen adaptation of the play Closer.

Closer tells the story of two couples, Alice and Dan (played by Jude Law) and Anna and Larry (Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, respectively). They all live in London--although Alice and Anna are Yanks--where they talk, sex, commit to, and break up with one another. Sort of like the BBC show, Coupling. Only with more angst.

I struggle to recall all of the polymorphous permutations, but, roughly, Dan falls in love with Anna, betraying Alice. Anna rebuffs Dan, which leads her to Larry, with whom she shacks up until, finally, she gives in to Dan. So, he and Anna get together, leaving Larry and Alice to, as the kids say, do it. But then Larry does Anna again--for old time's sake--sending Dan hurtling back to Alice and . . . well let's be honest, this is exhausting and we're not even the ones doing the work of love.

Stripped down to its elements, Closer is the stuff of European bedroom farce--dozens, if not hundreds of French and Italian films have used the same basic engine. The difference is that the material in Closer isn't played for laughs. It is instead mined for psychological and epistemological truths. Earnest truths about innocence and need and fidelity and honesty. Not since American Beauty has a film wanted to dive so deep into so shallow a pool.

The thud with which it hits bottom is jarring. Our characters rage, cry, and say very naughty things, which are supposed to penetrate each other's emotional defenses; to reveal each other's core; to bring them, you know, closer to one another.

THE PROBLEM IS that none of these characters are real. They have the bulbous, exaggerated features and stilted momentum of a Macy's Day balloon. And about the same amount of heft, too.

Responsibility for this flaw falls primarily on Nichols. He is so enamored with stage productions (his last three films have been adapted from the theater) that he seems to have forgotten that art does not exist independent of medium. Still, some blame must also fall to his actors. Only Clive Owen rises to the level of genuine humanity. (His limber, charismatic performance suggests big things ahead.) Jude Law plays a grating, penniless version of Dickie Greenleaf; his charm is beginning to wear thin. Julia Roberts is so confident in her moviestardom that it has become difficult for her to act as though she doesn't own everything in the frame. And Natalie?

The role of "stripper with a heart of gold" does not require much. Had Closer been made in 1998, the part would have gone to Natasha Gregson Wagner. Portman makes do, but brings nothing unexpected to the table.

EARLY ON in the movie, Clive Owen's character is asked whether or not he fancies Portman's Alice. Not really, he replies. In the film's only great line, he explains that he prefers a woman, not a girl like Alice, who has only "the moronic beauty of youth."

The moronic beauty of youth is everywhere around us now, celebrated, coveted, and objectified in ways that would make Mae West blush. With Closer, Natalie Portman is finally all grown up. Even so, her sad legacy lives on.

Jonathan V. Last is the film critic for The Daily Standard. He also runs the blog Galley Slaves.

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