May 24 (Bloomberg) -- Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her histrionic performance as the feather-sprouting ballerina in “Black Swan.” It wasn’t the first time she’s been overrated.
Looking alternately freeze-dried and pop-eyed, Portman tries very hard to mimic high emotion in “Black Swan.” She can also be so still in her movies that she comes across as an oil painting. In fact, Portman was picked for her part in Milos Forman’s “Goya’s Ghosts” (2007) because she reminded the director of a Goya model.
Some of her most celebrated performances are her most inexpressive. Her beautiful blankness, which many find enigmatic, I often find blah.
It’s probably not fair to judge her for her role as Padme in three “Star Wars” prequels since her conical hairpiece made her resemble a snail awaiting liftoff. But couldn’t she at least have cracked a smile?
In the faux-Orwellian “V for Vendetta” (2006), Portman played an anti-government agitator with robotic doggedness. As a spurned lover in Mike Nichols’s “Closer” (2004), which inexplicably earned her a best-supporting actress nomination, she was done in by the talkiness.
One reason Portman often seems miscast is because her range is limited.
In “Anywhere But Here” (1999), she played a small-town Wisconsin girl tethered to her flighty mother, played by Susan Sarandon. This film should have been called “The Underactor and the Overactor.” In “Where the Heart Is” (2000), Harvard grad Portman portrayed a low-rent, ill-educated pregnant teen. I didn’t buy it for a minute.
Portman’s best performances have come in her least recognized films.
As a gambler in Wong Kar Wai’s otherwise dismal “My Blueberry Nights” (2006), she was edgy and altogether believable. As a romantic partner in the short, “Hotel Chevalier,” she has a startling sensuality and her voice -- which can drone -- had a velvety purr.
While she doesn’t do much out of the ordinary in “Thor” (2011), I liked her in that film more than in “Black Swan.” Normality suits her. It shatters her glaceed facade.
While we’re on the subject of overrated movie performers, why is Tina Fey so uninspired on the big screen?
After all, this is the same woman who cracked us up on “Saturday Night Live,” continues to spark “30 Rock,” and just wrote a hilarious best-selling memoir, “Bossypants.”
But in her first two starring roles on film -- “Baby Mama” (2008) and “Date Night” (2010) -- Fey (the actress, not the character) looked downright tense and uncomfortable.
TV stars used to save their best for the movies. Now it’s often the other way around.
Fey’s best movie work has come in voiceovers for the animated “Ponyo” (2008) and “Megamind” (2010). When it comes to film, so far at least, she’s better heard than seen.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
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