SPOTLIGHT August 2015: Natalie Portman, Actress, Activist and Crusader for Women Directors

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallportman excerptNatalie Portman is no stranger to Hollywood. The Oscar-winning actress’ first feature film, Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional, debuted when she was only 13 years old. Since then, she’s racked up dozens of film credits, some of them—Closer, Black Swan—better than others. Looking at You, Star Wars prequels. But isn’t that the way? This consummate, classy professional has made it through decades in the film industry and earned a mantlepiece full of awards along the way… two of them, I’d be remiss not to mention, EDA Awards for Black Swan, issued in 2010 by this very group. Read on…

A Crusader for Women Directors

portman left 1But being an amazing actor isn’t the reason Portman is this month’s SPOTLIGHT. (Though it helps.) In addition to long-time advocacy work for a number of causes—animal rights, female education, and mircofinance among them—Portman is an outspoken supporter of the need for more female directors, a trait she shares with former SPOTLIGHT Geena Davis. (Portman was a member of the Board of Advisors of Davis’ diversity-focused Bentonville Film Festival, which had its inaugural outing last May.)

The blogosphere reported Portman “furious” when, in 2011, Marvel Studios fired original Thor: The Dark World director Patty Jenkins (Monster) over that old chestnut creative differences, eventually replacing her with Game of Thrones‘ Alan Taylor. portman thor posterPortman had apparently been reluctant to take the superhero sequel gig in the first place; it was the hiring of Jenkins, whom Portman had championed, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female director that got Portman to sign on the dotted line. After Jenkins was gone, Portman was still required by her contract to stay. (A Marvel movie has been directed by a woman before—Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone—but it’s a stand-alone film not connected to the wider Marvel film universe.)

Portman never publicly commented on Thor: The Dark World’s directorial shuffle, and we’re wary about reporting rumor—even widely reported rumor—as unassailable fact. That said, a more recent situation has arisen that has confirmed Portman’s status as an advocate for female directors.

The Notorious RGB

Earlier this year, it was announced that Portman will play Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg—only the second female Supreme Court Justice, after Sandra Day O’Connor—in an upcoming biopic titled On the Basis of Sex, which will focus on Ginsberg’s early work crusading for the rights of women. portman ginsburg No less than Ginsberg herself dropped an intriguing tidbit about the film: That Portman had insisted on a female director. “Natalie Portman came to talk to me about the film landing a female director, and we had a very good conversation,” Ginsberg told MSNBC. “And one thing, interesting, that she insisted on, it held up the project for a while. She said, ‘I want the director to be a woman. There are not enough women in this industry. There are many talented out there.’ And now they do have a woman director.”

The director in question is Marielle Heller, herself an actor (A Walk Among the Tombstones), who helmed the 2015 Sundance hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl (selected by AWFJ as its Movie of the Week for August 3-9, 2015.

Sitting in the Director’s Chair

Portman has recently set up shop in the director’s chair herself; her directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, about the creation of the state of Israel, had its debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In addition to helming the film, Portman produced and stars; she also adapted the screenplay, which is based on the memoir by Amos Oz.

portman tale of love and darknessPortman was initially reluctant to direct, a result of sneaky Hollywood sexism that had wormed its way into her brain. “I was afraid of appearing vain. I remember as a kid reading about Barbra Streisand directing herself in movies, and people would write that they were just vanity projects. But then I realised that was something they would never say about men directing themselves,” Portman told The Guardian. “It’s a very female thing of being afraid to say: ‘I’m the boss, and this is how I want it.’”

Looks like she’s not afraid of being the boss any more.

Why We Chose Her

awfjspotlightsmallsmallAs one of a growing number of actresses (Amanda Seyfried, Viola Davis, Zoe Saldana) to openly address Hollywood sexism, Portman is taking an active role in making the movie industry a more gender-balanced one for up-and-coming talent.

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Rebecca Pahle

Rebecca Pahle is a North Carolina-born, Brooklyn-based entertainment journalist with a particular fondness for science fiction, early film history, and female-directed film. She is the associate editor at Boxoffice, the premier trade magazine for the film exhibition market; other credits include Film Journal International, Syfy, Pajiba, and Vulture. You can reach her on Twitter @RebeccaPahle.