The first time I watched Natalie Portman in Leon, I was in my brother’s bedroom, watching it on his DVD player. At 12, I was the same age as she was when she shot the film and totally dazzled by the idea that a pre-teen girl could be an action star and the apprentice to a hit man at that. She was the essence of an unconventional heroine, exactly who you want to discover in the cultural treasure trove at that age – a smoking, Doc Marten-wearing, revenge-fuelled Annie figure for a cynical, arthouse audience. I watched her in awe, let the movie imprint upon me and then forgot all about it.
At 22, I watched it again, in a double bill with Kick-Ass, another movie about a tough young girl getting revenge on the grown men who did her wrong. The same Portman was on screen, smoking and snarling and loading guns, but something had changed. Or, rather, I had changed. In the 10 years between my first and second viewing of the movie, I had experienced the world and the men who lived in it. I was now able to see the subtext in Leon that I missed the first time around: Portman wasn’t just his assistant-slash-daughter figure; she was, in a strange, unspoken way, portrayed as a kind of child-wife. She puts on make-up and underwear for her fiftysomething boss, sings Like A Virgin at him, does Marilyn Monroe impressions. It’s all giddy and childlike, but there’s no denying that, when watching it as an adult, it’s kind of a creepy movie. Or, rather, it’s a great movie that is potentially catnip for creepy people.
At the Los Angeles Women’s March this Saturday, Portman seemed to reckon with the role that began her career:
“I excitedly opened my first fan mail to read a rape fantasy that a man had written me,” she reads. “A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews.”
”I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe,” she said. “And that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort. So I quickly adjusted my behaviour. I rejected any role that even had a kissing scene and talked about that choice deliberately in interviews. I emphasized how bookish I was and how serious I was. And I cultivated an elegant way of dressing. I built a reputation for basically being prudish, conservative, nerdy, serious, in an attempt to feel that my body was safe and that my voice would be listened to.”
The whole speech is incredible and a reminder of what a necessary voice Portman is in the #MeToo movement. Importantly, the men she talks about in her speech aren’t studio heads or co-stars. She seemingly has nothing negative to say about Luc Besson, who directed her in her early, provocative role. Rather, her criticism is leveraged on the larger circles of passive, non-industry people: the local radio DJs, the guys writing fan mail, the gawking reviewers. She’s talking about the millions of people who received this fragile, juvenile performance of hers and decided to twist it into something violent, sickening and unsafe. She’s not talking about how corrupt show business is, but how deeply rooted the desperation is for very young, female bodies in every level of society and how her industry feeds that sickness.
She’s not talking about how corrupt show business is, but how deeply rooted the desperation is for very young, female bodies in every level of society and how her industry feeds that sickness.
What happened to Portman did not occur in a vacuum. The stars of Harry Potter were famously protected during the filming of each movie, but that didn’t stop the tabloids coming for Emma Watson. Charlotte Church sang classical music, but that didn’t stop The Sun running with “SHE’S A BIG GIRL NOW” over a picture of the 15-year-old’s chest. Brooke Shields, who played a child prostitute in Pretty Baby aged 12, later confessed to not losing her virginity until she was 22. Sex, according to Shields, was “taboo and scary. There was no way I was going to have sex just for the pleasure of it.”
Is it a surprise that the most fetishised teenager of the 1980s would be terrified of sex? Is it shocking that Natalie Portman would hide behind her bookish demeanour, to escape the insistent sexual gaze of her “fans”, or that Charlotte Church and Emma Watson both became avid political voices in the quest for equality?
Not really, no. But I don’t think the answer is that there should be no more Leons, no more Pretty Babys, no more art where a young girl can be provocative and intimate and strange. Censorship isn’t the answer, and neither is some puritanical society where no one is allowed to be forthrightly sexual. As Portman herself says, “A world in which I could wear whatever I want, say whatever I want and express my desire however I want without fear of my safety or reputation? That would be the world in which female desire could have its greatest fulfilment. That world would be the opposite of puritanical.”