Portman for ‘Gravity’? Is It Her Time to Become a Bankable Movie Star?

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo: Fox Searchlight

One film we keep hearing about is Gravity, the sci-fi survival thriller from Alfonso Cauron (Children of Men) that has now twice been turned down by Angelina Jolie. The difficulty in putting the film into motion has been finding a suitable replacement for Jolie because, while Robert Downey Jr. has committed to a supporting role, the picture is going to have to be carried by the lead actress.

Gravity centers on a woman who is the sole survivor of a doomed space mission attempting to return home to her daughter. The role, which has been compared to that of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, requires the actress to be the lone on-screen character for much of the film. Sam Rockwell wonderfully handled a similar role in last year’s Moon, but unlike that film, Gravity is not a small independent production. Cuaron himself touts it as “the most ambitious film, technology-wise, since Avatar.” Warner Bros. is looking at an $80 million price tag for the film, which will be shot in 3D. It will also reportedly feature 60 percent CGI and a 20 minute opening shot (seriously, how awesome was that massive tracking shot in Children of Men? Anyone know if it’s available online anywhere?).

Back in July it was said Scarlett Johansson may be taking on the role and I reported yesterday Rachel Weisz was the latest rumored to be up for the vacancy. Other names discussed for the job include Sandra Bullock, Blake Lively, Marion Cotillard, Naomi Watts, Carey Mulligan, Sienna Miller, Abbie Cornish, Rebecca Hall and Olivia Wilde. There are some interesting options on that list but none of those really pop off the top a movie poster like that of Jolie. She is in a class of her own when it comes to international box-office appeal, and looking at that list really makes you aware of the scarcity of A-list female stars at the moment (as touched on by our own Bill Cody in his recent Jolie profile).

That brings me to today’s news. While Black Swan is still months away from release, it seems the early buzz alone is going to be enough to send Natalie Portman into the next stratosphere. Jay A. Hernandez of The Hollywood Reporter today reports she has been offered the lead in Gravity based on recent Black Swan reactions from the Venice and Telluride film festivals. She didn’t even screen test for the role, but she’s expected to read the script this week and make her decision shortly.

If early Black Swan reports hold true, Portman seems to be a lock for an Oscar nomination this year and has to be looked at as one of the front-runners to win it. Her profile will get an even bigger boost if next summer’s Thor is any good at all, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking she’s long overdue for this type of recognition.

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in The Professional
Photo: Sony Pictures

Beginning with The Professional when she was just 13, Portman has built an impressive resume while continuing to hover just on the brink of superstardom. I was appalled last year when her brilliant work in Brothers was completely ignored by the awards circuit and while I admittedly like the movie far more than most, I still think she deserved some recognition in such a weak year for leading ladies.

It’s hard to believe she’s yet to turn the age of 30. It seems like she’s been around forever and while she’s always had cred amongst the fanboy crowd (that’ll happen when you make V for Vendetta and three Star Wars films), it looks like she could finally be breaking into the upper ranks of widespread appeal. If she decides to take part in Gravity her salary would be half that of Jolie’s, which is lucky for Warner Bros. because it might not be staying that way for long. They would like to begin filming in January, which would be right in between Downey’s commitments on Sherlock Holmes 2 and The Avengers.

Another rumor coming out of Telluride is that Terrence Malick is developing a Jerry Lee Lewis-related project with Brad Pitt and he wants Portman as well. There was already a biopic of the still-living Lewis released in 1989 called Great Balls of Fire! that starred Dennis Quaid as the wild rocker and centered on his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin (played by Winona Ryder). I coincidentally watched it just last week and while it isn’t very good, Lewis could certainly make a fascinating subject for a feature that dives deeper into his psyche and aspires to do more than simply chronicle the events of his rise and fall from grace.

I doubt Malick’s picture would be a traditional biopic in any sense and I certainly hope they don’t try to pass Portman off as a 13-year-old (doubtful). That said, it could still be a few years off as we’re still waiting for Malick to release Tree of Life and he’s set to begin shooting his next film (an untitled romance with Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz, Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams) next month. I’m not sure what has gotten into him and made him think he’s Woody Allen all the sudden, but the fact that he already has two projects on tap makes me think we could be seeing Tree of Life (and hopefully these other projects) sooner rather than later.

But I’m curious to know what you all think. Does Portman have the potential to approach the stardom of Angelina Jolie or is a movie like Gravity doomed to fail when they’re forced to settle for Portman rather than Jolie?