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Natalie Portman vs. James Franco

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Natalie Portman vs. James Franco

We pit this year's most overexposed stars against each other. Who survives, and who gets fed to the lions?

The Contestants

James Franco and Natalie Portman: two Ivy-league-educated, prolific, and high-profile emergent actors, at once awesome and annoying, talented and over-hyped, discerning and up for whatever. In honor of their recent collaboration in Your Highness, we thought we'd pit this year's most overexposed stars against each other, to weigh who's given us more. We're focusing on the three best and three worst roles they've each played, because these people have been in too many damn movies.

The Best

The Professional

A proto-Hanna, the godmother of Hit Girl, Natalie Portman's Mathilda paved the way for our current crop of tiny female assassins. The thirteen-year-old Portman's own precocity made it believable that this child could pick up a gun and teach her friendly neighborhood hitman how to read.

V for Vendetta

Natalie Portman always works better when she roughs herself up a little bit, as proven by V for Vendetta. When the film begins, her Evey is mousey, complacent, and a bit boring. But once she comes into contact with the titular anarchist, surviving imprisonment and head-shaving, her quiet citizen becomes a hardened freedom fighter, a transition that the sometimes-dainty Portman manages to sell with surprising credibility. Even V for Vendetta doesn't quite reach the heights of its source novel, Portman fulfilled all the promise of that shorn head.

Black Swan

Some alleged that Portman's performance in Black Swan came closer to self-torture than acting. But whatever you call it, Portman tore through the film like an animal, her natural sweetness sharpened by months of real-life training and unpredictable moments of twitchy rage. Even if she never wins another Oscar, you won't forget the bloodshot saucers of her eyes for a long time.

Freaks & Geeks

The underappreciated Freaks & Geeks launched many careers, but in terms of sheer Hollywood success, James Franco's gone the furthest of its cast. Maybe it's because he so perfectly captured the spirit of that elusive high-school bad boy, the one who you wished would acknowledge your presence even just for a moment. They say people spend their whole lives trying to prove something to their former high-school classmates. Maybe that's why we're all so into Franco.

Pineapple Express

Franco's non-professional pursuits have overshadowed his acting roles at times, but something about his turn as the affable pot dealer Saul really stuck with him. In lesser hands, the spacey, grungy half of this buddy comedy could have come off as supremely annoying, but Franco's charm made him a guy you wouldn't mind spending a whole day on the couch with. And would so many people be so sure he was high at the Oscars if he hadn't given such a convincing performance?

127 Hours

In many ways, this is Franco's Black Swan: a grueling, physically torturous performance that garnered him an Oscar nomination, if not a win. But while Portman plumbed the depths of paranoia, Franco gave his Aron Ralston moments of surprising and convincing liveliness for a man with his arm trapped under a boulder. And good thing, too — the movie wouldn't be watchable if Franco were weeping the whole time like the rest of us would have been.

The Worst

Star Wars: Episode I

For someone so poised in real life (occasional goofiness aside), Portman sure had trouble playing the queen of Naboo in the prequel trilogy. In a flat performance, she comes off as a young girl playing dress-up and can hardly hold a candle to her children Luke and Leia.

Where the Heart Is

It's possible you've never seen this 2000 drama starring Portman and Ashley Judd, in which case lucky you. The meandering film features Portman as a pregnant Tennessee teenager named (brace yourself) Novalee Nation, who moves into a Walmart. Portman's "aw shucks" performance comes off more as caricature than character.

Garden State

Garden State gets a lot of flack these days, and before nostalgia makes you reconsider, let me assure you: it deserves it. Portman's character never seems like anything more than an amalgamation of (annoying) quirks, let alone a real person. In Garden State, Portman gave us the definitive Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that's not a good thing.

Tristan + Isolde

Despite his good looks and charisma, James Franco has never knocked it out of the park when it comes to romance. And despite what is surely an admirable physique and sense of daring, he can't quite pull off traditional heroism either. These two weak spots combined in Tristan + Isolde, which found Franco strangely uninspiring as the titular medieval hero and star-crossed lover. If Franco ever wants to return to the time period, it's probably best if he sticks to the stoner comedies.

Flyboys

Remember what I just said about the heroics? This tepid WWI film finds Franco flying high as an American in the French Air Service. His performance seems to rely more on costuming than on true backbone. But pilot goggles can't handle all the heavy lifting, and somehow Franco just can't disappear into the role the way you'd like. Call it the curse of the pretty boy.

Spider-Man 3

Harry Osborne is meant to be a selfish, spoiled prick. But in the first two films, Franco played him with both charm and, later, an understandable rage towards Spider-Man. The last film in this trilogy was a shining moment for no one, but suddenly Franco-as-Osborne was melodramatic and too hammy by half, almost as if Franco began his soap-opera experiment a few years earlier than anyone realized. Silly in anger and unconvincing in valor, this performance just didn't work.


The Verdict

This is a tough decision, because both Franco and Portman have given us some excellent performances. (And some great viral videos, though that's for another feature.) So maybe we have to choose based on who's done more harm. While neither has a perfect track record, Franco's missteps mostly flew under the radar, while Portman's are justifiably notorious. And for that, it's Franco who takes the win.