Natalie Portman is in the midst of a very important performance, one that could decide her future in the movie industry. And, no, it isn't her return to the big screen after a two-year break as Jane Foster, the astrophysicist girlfriend of the title comic-book hero in Thor: The Dark World, which opens this weekend. Instead, she is acting the role of a best-actress Oscar winner who is finally spreading her wings and taking advantage of her triumph as a tormented ballerina in 2010's Black Swan.
The fact is, winning an Oscar is easy. It's that next step that you take that will cause you to either stumble or soar. That is especially true of women, at least in the past decade and a half or so, who win for a leading role. While their male counterparts tend to be older - average age of 44 as opposed to 36 for lead actress winners since 2000, and already established, (Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis), leading ladies who take the prize find themselves more at a crossroads career-wise.
Some of the pitfalls:
- Settling for easy money: After making history as the first African-American woman to win as best actress by taking home the gold for 2002's Monster Ball, Halle Berry seized the opportunity for a higher paycheck by signing on as a James Bond girl in 2002's Die Another Day opposite Pierce Brosnan. More fatal was her decision to take the title role in 2005's much-derided Catwoman. While she continues to appear as the mutant Storm in the X-Men comic-book movies, Berry has yet to find another film role to equal her Academy Award winning role.
- Signing up for every offer: After her portrayal of country singer June Carter Cash in 2005's Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon - already a popular romantic-comedy star after her success with Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama –has worked at a rate of nearly a movie a year. Unfortunately, save for this summer's Mud, most titles such as Rendition, How Do You Know and Water for Elephants have belly-flopped both critically and at the box office.
- Stretching beyond your comfort zone: Hilary Swank's tom-boyish looks were a perfect fit for her Oscar-winning roles in the reality-based transgender story in 1999's Boys Don't Cry ,and as a feisty pugilist in 2004's Million Dollar Baby. But she has struggled to find other suitable roles, despite attempting every genre from period-piece romance (2001's The Affair of the Necklace) and sci-fi (2003's The Core) to neo-noir (2006's The Black Dahlia) and comedy (2007's P.S. I Love You). The closest she came was the little-seen Amelia Earhart biopic in 2009,
far, the choices made by Portman -- a 32-year-old Harvard grad who made
her big-screen debut almost 20 years ago in 1994's The Professional -- are outshining those made by
other lead actresses who have been lucky enough to find themselves with an
Oscar on their shelf. Her apparent game plan:
- Find a profitable venture: After the prim actress displayed a bawdy sense of humor in two forgettable R-rated comedies in 2011, No Strings Attached and Your Highness, Portman starred in the first film of the Thor franchise. She has said her main reason for signing on was to work with director Kenneth Branagh. But this Star Wars princess knows all too well the financial benefits of being tied to an ongoing enterprise that caters to fanboys. Portman also is smart enough to realize that proven box-office clout – something that comes far easier to Oscar-winning lead actors -- is a commodity even more prized than talent in Hollywood. However, unlike Berry, she isn't limiting herself to mostly commercial fare.
- Tend to your private life: Being in the Oscar spotlight can take a toil. Recent best actress winners including Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank and Halle Berry have found their personal relationships disrupted shortly after their moment of Academy Award glory. Portman, however, decided to put career pursuits on hold for a while and take some time off. She put her hiatus to good use, marrying dancer and Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied in 2012 and giving birth to their son, Aleph, in 2011.
- Seek out art: A serious actress can't live by popcorn vehicles alone, especially if she wants to be in the business for the long haul. Two of the best ways to ensure you find quality work? Hitch your wagon to an esteemed filmmaker (which Portman previously did with Mike Nichols in 2004's Closer, which earned her a supporting Oscar nomination for her efforts). Last year, Portman shot not just one but two back-to-back experimental films, both improvised, with Tree of Life director Terrence Malick. Knight of Cups and a second still-untitled movie are due next year.
- Do it yourself: After directing a short as well as a segment of the 2009 anthology film New York, I Love You, Portman is preparing to debut as a feature-film director. The Jerusalem born actress is helming, starring and co-writing a movie based on the autobiographical novel Tale of Love and Darkness by Israeli author Amos Oz.
Portman almost had a chance to collaborate with two respected female directors as well. Patty Jenkins (Monster) was briefly attached to Thor: The Dark World until she left over creative differences. The situation is messier with Jane Got a Gun, a rare female-oriented Western, what with the entertainment press having a field day with a lawsuit against Scottish director Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin) over her quitting the production. The movie forged ahead, though – but only after going through a raft of potential leading men including Jude Law and Michael Fassbender -- with Gavin O'Connor (Miracle, Warrior) in the director's seat while Ewan McGregor and Joel Edgerton play opposite Portman.
Actually, Portman is not alone among more recent best-actress winners in taking better control of their post-Oscar fates. Rom-com queen Sandra Bullock has managed to re-invent herself in her late 40s into a serious actress after her success in 2009's The Blind Side -- and we expect a second chance at an Academy Award nomination with the massively successful Gravity.
Meryl Streep, obviously, is in a class of her own with a record 17 Oscar nominations (and with an expected 18th for her work in next month's August: Osage County) and a third win as Margaret Thatcher in 2011's The Iron Lady. That she shows no signs of stopping at age 64 should give hope to any actress over 30.
But if any female star represents the true future for women in Hollywood, it is the sassy and smart Jennifer Lawrence, who at an impossibly young 23 is showing you can "have it all" after breaking out at age 20 with an Oscar nomination for 2010's Winter's Bone and establishing herself as an A-list talent by winning an Academy Award in last year's comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
She has done this while proving her chops as an action hero and box-office draw that appeals to both sexes in The Hunger Games franchise, which continues with Catching Fire, opening on Nov. 22. And to top it all off, David O. Russell the director of Silver Linings Playbook and co-star, Bradley Cooper, readily wanted to repeat the experience of working with the actress again and they all teamed up in the soon to open American Hustle. This just proves that Oscar can open doors – if you pick the right ones to walk through.