NASA might want to get a group rate for the new Fox Searchlight movie LUCY IN THE SKY, starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm. Not just that the space-triangle love story is ripped from the 2007 archives over at Johnson Space Center, but because Portman delivers a kind of codified performance that the real-life astronaut Lisa Nowak, on whom the plot is based, deserves.
Remember when the Associated Press ran this headline on Feb. 5, 2007? “Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot.” Or how about the more charitable overseas press, The Guardian (UK) with this zinger “Spacewoman falls to Earth on charge of trying to kill love rival.” This double header not only invokes David Bowie’s Major Tom, but his sci-fi romp, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Let’s face it, by Spring of 2007, the life-long distinguished career of one Lisa M. Nowak was essentially extinguished. And so, even by 2015, love-triangle leg Colleen Shipman still decried Ms. Nowak with these damning words to ABC’s “20/20”: “I really thought for sure she was going to murder me,” Shipman said.
The true story sucks as much as anyone could imagine. Shipman, 29, ran into astronaut Bill Oefelein at a party in Orlando, Fla.; this house party forms the bedrock of the cheating scandal upon which Nowak loses the plot for a sec, which ends her entire life-long NASA dream.
But who needs the real story to enjoy the fictional version? This is The Lucy Cola caffeinated version. The one where an Academy Award winner shows us why she has a statuette and many other nominations and wins elsewhere.
Natalie Portman is Lisa In The Sky & Why You’ll Love it On Earth
Decoding Natalie Portman’s performance in the Noah Hawley-directed movie LUCY IN THE SKY is half the draw of this Fox Searchlight gem opening today.
It’s not that Portman as fallen astronaut Nowak, whose ripped-from-the-tabloids saga fuels this extra-terrestrial tale, is so unusual; it’s the subtext of this space-bound NASA star’s trajectory that goes from cringeworthy to award-worthy. Consider “that lady” (as many aghast viewers called Nowak at the time) who spent 10 days on the International Space Station, then took a cannon-ball run from Texas to Florida’s Space Coast to confront a cheating (male) astronaut to stage a showdown.
It’s undoubtedly a much ballyhooed bizarre love triangle, right? The details include, a shovel, rope, duct tape, a handgun, a blonde wig. Perhaps you’ll recall the most sensational paparazzi detail that said perp wore NASA-regulation “adult diapers” across the 900-mile hop to avoid the Ladies Room?
Such is the DNA LUCY IN THE SKY is spun from — “a constellation of issues” for a decorated veteran space flyer who sacrificed her career for love. By the way “constellation of issues” is the deft way Natalie Portman encapsulates the subject of Lucy Cola at the press conference at The W in Beverly Hills.
And then you realized that this Oscar winner is as deft with the media, as she is in her very nuanced performance here.
Director Noah Hawley (“Legion”) may have had Reese Witherspoon set to star first, but Portman is the right one for this interior/exterior mixed up role. And playing opposite square-jawed anti-hero Jon Hamm as Mark Goodwin: Love Interest, is picture-perfect casting. Hamm was Hawley’s first choice for every reason you can see on screen: that swagger, the arch portrayal of male privilege as a card-carrying member of the Old Boys Club.
But let’s back up to the vast blackness of outer space for a moment. The solitude and sub-atomic silence of non-carbon-based environment where Euclidean geometry no longer applies…
LUCY IN THE SKY delivers all that, as the aspect ratios change in tune with Cola’s spiral into so-called madness.
Later the real-life Lisa/Lucy will be billed as a “twofer” by the red-top tabs, even by the mainstream media: she’s a n-u-t and a s-l-u-t.
For all we know, this woman is some (number one) insane, and (number two) scorned, adulterous ex-girlfriend on a murderous rampage with very specific tools in tow to execute her mission.
And this is where the story would have resided in our collective imagination, if screenwriters Brian C. Brown and Elliot DiGuiseppi hadn’t taken up booth-time in Del Taco to write this reversal of misfortune story. Hello Sunshine’s Reese Witherspoon, with producer Bruna Papandrea, greenlit this project. Reese was headliner, but her smash hit series “Big Little Lies” (HBO) yanked Witherspoon out of the cockpit. So Hawley tapped Portman.
It is in the production notes that the Black Swan actor unfolds her mysterious wings that cast a potent shadow on LUCY IN THE SKY. (Translation: This is why Portman’s casting was actually a surprisingly exact fit, despite the American Southern accent required by the script.)
“I think that the human experience is kind of always searching. Searching for meaning, searching for who you are; searching for relationships with other people, and Lucy’s going through all of that…” And here Portman’s coded language takes a left turn into the zeitgeist in Hollywood right now, as she mentions, “in a scenario where the guys with the right stuff, you know, typically have been really daring and doing kind of crazy and courageous things — and that’s what made them fit to be astronauts… a woman with the same kind of behavior might be called erratic or crazy, where the guys get high-fived for it.”
Yeah, she did just deftly reference movie classic THE RIGHT STUFF, and yes, Natalie Portman is a founding member of #TimesUp, the gender reaper that has taken out some of the biggest names (read: misogynists) in Hollywood for more than the past 18 months.
Yet, here she is on press day, a Movie Star with Jon Hamm, cast member Zazie Beetz, with newcomer Pearl Amanda Dickinson, and director Hawley, sitting in a perfect stylist-made ultra-feminine dress. What a disguise, as she is talking about, guess what?
Lucy’s “existential crisis. I mean, she sees her house from space… The sun sets every 90 minutes” where she is, up there for 10 days on the International Space Station.
When I ask her about how women are portrayed going into space and how it is different than how men are portrayed, Natalie Portman flashes a harmless professional smile, and then pounces leopard-like at an opportunity to stress that “a lot of times female astronauts are thinking a lot about her child while she’s away.” (Cola isn’t a mother.)
“That’s the drama,” Portman smiles, implying payloads about the gender bias when Hollywood depicts men and women in the same job, so to speak. (Ryan Gosling went anhedonic in space in FIRST MAN, for example.)
Portman then segues, no segue to her favorite theme of the story.
How does “I mean, she sees her house from space” decode? Lucy’s deeply held beliefs take a powder in zero G’s as the sun rises, and sets every 90 minutes in Space. What is the only overriding thought she can think about?
Lucy Cola’s entire life is a lie; her career soldering is a lie, and her marriage is also a lie, including the persona she adopted to be in said marriage.
And the only saving grace is her niece, played amazingly well by newcomer Pearl Amanda Dickinson, who keeps her teen hand on the wheel of fortune as their road-trip vehicle veers into the oncoming emotional traffic that ends Lucy’s self-made Self.
Since when is an existential crisis possible show on screen, you may wonder? Exactly.
This is where Portman’s emotionally atonal performance from achiever-heroine beloved granddaughter valedictorian to straight-up stone-cold parking lot vixen blasts off. With Zazie Beetz as a foil, Cola appears to be mad as a wet hen, but with the razor sharp skills of 50-point check system for countdown to their interpersonal crisis.
Therein lies the rub, to excel at the unravel to re-ravel here in a cathartic soul-crash of gender/power/sex, against the vast unjustness of the patriarchy, but remain a sympathetic character. If this sounds a little cryptic, just watch Natalie as Lucy in scenes up against the grandmother, Nan, played by Ellen Burstyn.
Fiery Burstyn not only echoes the subtext of Portman’s deft arc from winner to sinner, and back; but the stellar elder carves out a role for herself in this that speaks volumes to a long storied path through Hollywood when it was more male-dominated than now. And how Ellen Burstyn is completely onboard with this #TimesUp era, a leveling of the playing field long overdue in the firmament of the star system, even to these post-Star System studios.
So go see the ladies rampage, rage, and restore a little dignity to a superstar from NASA, Lucy Cola, who lost her way in life on a 900-mile drive to get some personal justice in a rigged game called the Astronaut Selection for space missions. While you’re at it, study up on NASA’s twin study, a groundbreaking recap on what happens to even the human eyeballs with prolonged exposure to space time, it is fascinating.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon and released by Fox Searchlight, this film also features (female) DP Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC, and is a moon shot for those of you who have lived in the trenches of your own personal redemption in the aftermath of any failed relationship that got ugly and took on a life of its own on this tiny planet housing the vastness of inner space.
And yes, they do payoff The Beatles melody behind the soundless wall of stars. Visit here for more details about LUCY IN THE SKY.
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