Professors Reflect on Natalie Portman

On Sunday night, Natalie Portman ’03 became the first graduate of Harvard College to win an Academy Award for best actress. She took home the Oscar for her portrayal of Nina, the troubled ballerina who struggles with perfectionism in Black Swan.

Harvard professors who knew Portman during her time at the college expressed no surprise at her success.

Former Harvard Psychology Professor and Dean of the Social Sciences Stephen M. Kosslyn worked with Portman when she was a research assistant in his lab. Eight years later, Kosslyn—who recently moved to Stanford—can see a connection between Portman’s academic persistence and her industry success.

“It was very clear when she was a student that she is a very determined person and capable of focused effort over a sustained period,” he said in a statement via e-mail. “She is now demonstrating the results of that determination and focus.”

Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz also considered Portman an exceptional student.

“She was in my seminar called Neuropsychology and the Law, and I didn’t know who she was because her name was Natalie Hershlag,” he said, referring to Portman’s birth name. “It was a few weeks into the semester that I learned she was an actress—but she was a terrific student.”

Portman’s paper on new methods of lie detection earned her an A+ from Dershowitz—the highest grade in the class. After that, Dershowitz hired Portman as a research assistant for a book he was writing.

“We talked a lot about her career,” he says. “She said she wanted to do acting, and she wanted at some point to be a psychologist.”

But Dershowitz in no way considers Portman’s divergence from psychology to be disappointing.

“It’s all about choice,” he said.  “And she has choices and options. She would be a great psychologist, and she’s a great actor. She probably influences more people in her acting.”

Dershowitz also said that he does not consider the two fields mutually exclusive.

“Her psychology background helped her in formulating the role for [Black Swan] ... She’s an actor who uses her academic background,” he said.

Portman isn’t the first Harvard affiliate to receive acclaim from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars. Mira K. Sorvino ’89 won for best supporting role in 1996. Other Harvard-affiliated nominees include Stockard Channing ’65, who was nominated for best actress in 1994, and Elisabeth Shue, who dropped out a semester before graduating in 1985 to continue acting but returned in 2000 to receive her degree.

Dershowitz said that Portman’s success is consistent with Harvard students’ achievements across the board.

“I never place limits on the potential success of my students,” he said. “If they’re going into acting, they’re going to win the Oscar ... If they’re going into law, they’re going to be chief justice.”

Kosslyn echoed these sentiments. “Harvard students should be leaders—and in my view it matters less what field they go into than what they contribute to that field, and to the society writ large,” he says. “By any measure, Natalie has played this role superbly.”

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