Sex, Lies, and “Closer”: Lying to Survive as a Queer Kid, as Taught by Natalie Portman
Coming into one’s sexuality, Natalie Portman had taught me, goes hand in hand with learning how to deceive as a means of survival.
We’re in a hotel room. She’s lying in bed in a white tee and shorts, talking to a man in the bathroom. Her face is unspoiled by makeup, his hair shaggy and unkempt. Nevertheless, she’s tense, curled up, trying to calculate her best move without betraying this very instinct lest it be misunderstood.
“Trust me,” he implores.
She toys with his plea as she watches him leave. The camera lingers on her face. When he returns, rose in hand (he is nothing if not a romantic), she’s devastating: “I don’t love you anymore.”
“Now. Just now.”
Natalie Portman’s Alice hits those three words with such wounded assurance that my heart skips a beat whenever I replay them. The characters in Mike Nichols’ Closer are so prone to fanciful monologues about love and desire (“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it’s better if you do.”) that they become most riveting when reduced to brief brutal monosyllables.
There was a thrill in watching this dissection of modern romancefor the very first time—on a date no less! To watch Closer is be invited to relish in the world of these skillful liars, who are as adept at deceiving themselves as they are others. At that moment, as I watched Alice put herself at the mercy of her own volatile honesty (“I don’t want to lie. I can’t tell the truth. So it’s over,” she bemoans), I saw something of myself. She was both window and mirror. Could I have so much fun lying? Taking my clothes off?
My fascination with Alice is born out of my own obsession with the actress who embodies her. Born only three years before me, Natalie Portman has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve been obsessed with her since I watched The Professional at much too young an age and have followed her career with the apprehension of a doting parent. Neither sex symbol nor aspirational icon, Portman has always lingered instead as a spectral figure that spoke to the part of me that, for much of my youth, conflated sexual desire with shame.
As Padme, that princess-turned-senator from a galaxy far far away who must hide who she is and create decoys all around her, Portman embodied a character who felt betrayed by her own lustful wants. Who is Padme in those Star Wars prequels if not the reason the most powerful of Jedis turned into Darth Vader, that most famous of on-screen villains? Those prequels are laughable at best, but their story about the self-destructive power of one’s desires felt very real.
I first caught Attack of the Clones in 2002, a year shy of graduating from high school, a time when I was living through my very own bout of puberty. The romance between Natalie’s Padme and Hayden Christensen’s Anakin is all about furtive glances and stolen moments. Falling in love and giving in to one’s desires, we’re told, is anathema to being a Jedi. “Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden,” in Anakin’s words.
Nevertheless, Anakin pursues Padme, making her feel as if her mere presence is an illicit invitation. When Anakin stares lustfully after her midway through the film, she demures: “Please don’t look at me like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
I blushed. Though I know now the power dynamics between the two young lovers were dubious, I yearned for those stolen looks as a teenager, too entranced by fantasies of my irresistibility, of young men pursuing me despite better judgment. When they kiss, she apologizes: “I shouldn’t have done that.” Like me, she could not escape her feeling of shame, of wanting and stopping herself from that want.
By the time we saw the two young would-be lovers in a darkened, fireplace-lit chamber, Padme was echoing that voice that had been growing louder and louder in my own head: “I will not give into this.” She fails, as I would have. Later in the film, when she professes she loves the young Jedi, he’s taken aback. “You love me? I thought we had decided not to fall in love,” he tells her. “That we’d be forced to live a lie and that it would destroy our lives.”
I must have known, as a gawky teenager when I first caught these films, what these public and private distinctions were indexing for me. The way they were modeling a way of being in the world that required you to hide parts of yourself in order to connect with those around you, the importance of performing a role, of donning a mask to deflect the danger inherent in simply being yourself and indulging in your innermost desires. These films may have been aggressively heterosexual (and near sexless, at that), but they keyed in to the way I understood my own queer desires. The way they threatened to consume and destroy me if I ever let them be known.
The #MeToo movement’s rise emboldened Portman to discuss her early career choices and the reputation she sought to build, as she moved from child star to young adult. At the Women’s March in early 2018, she sported a black “Time’s Up” tee and was uncharacteristically candid. Thinking back on her time as a teen actress, and later still as a Harvard student, she confessed she’d been guided by an unmistakable sense of fear.
“I understood very quickly, even as a thirteen-year-old,” she told the crowd, “that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort.” She’d seen it happen when she played precocious Lolita-like parts in films like Beautiful Girls and The Professional. And it’s what moved her to later turn down the part of Lolita in Adrian Lyne’s film, as well as the leading role in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. More than merely shying away from exposing herself on camera, she couldn’t disentangle any expressions of sexual desire from the shame society insists we feel alongside them.
Portman felt the need to cover herself, she admitted, “and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world that I’m someone worthy of safety and respect.” The very dangers she faced were there on full display in her characters, who treated desire as something volatile and dangerous. For me, who first saw those films a closeted teen, grappling with my desire and its subjects, and the kind of message it sent to those around me, Portman was both anchor and lifeboat.
But coming into one’s sexuality, Portman had also inadvertently taught me, goes hand in hand with learning how to deceive as a means of survival.
But coming into one’s sexuality, Portman had also inadvertently taught me, goes hand in hand with learning how to deceive as a means of survival. This is nowhere clearer than in Closer’s Alice. That 2004 film follows two interlocking couples in London deployed in a series of flirtatious and bickering duets. Their tenuous relationship with honesty (“What’s so great about the truth? Try lying for a change. It’s the currency of the world!”) and with their unruly desires (“I fucked her to fuck you up!”) mean that their interactions depend on shedding and shifting the many masks they wear on a daily basis.
And at the heart of it was Alice, Eliot’s Prufrock in a pink wig at a strip club, in a black bob at an art gallery, in cascading curls on the streets of New York City. In that hotel room, she’d finally given up and let her guard down, angrily spewing the truth she knew would liberate and shackle her in equal measure.
This is why Closer’s portrait of liars so enthralls me. These people, so beautiful and yet so ugly, stab each other with lies in such a relentless manner that it made their balletic confrontations feel like the kind of emotional brawls I wanted out of my own relationships. Which is, alas, why friends and acquaintances alike tend to bristle when I mention how much I love this unloveable flick full of lovers who destroy those who dare reciprocate their feelings.
Perhaps, like these characters, I enjoy swimming in filth, in those literal aquariums they frequent, which become the guiding metaphor for their surroundings. They are creatures who amble and lurk, seemingly unaware they’re being observed. Yet, as with any glass cage, should you peer ever closer to get a better look at them, you’ll find only your own reflection staring back at you. If you’re like me, you were both titillated and appalled by what you saw there reflected.
More than any other film, Closer has become a part of my vocabulary. I quote it ad nauseum (“Hello stranger” is as versatile a come on as Portman makes it out to be, it turns out) and remain obsessed with its vision of 21st-century intimacy. An entire scene takes place between two men, a doctor and a writer, chatting online with the latter posing as a cum-hungry bitch to get a kick out of the entire experience; how could I not adore this?
It may be stylized and overly literate—my own breakups have taught me no one can have any type of eloquent conversations or yelled-out epiphanies when discussing why you cheated and why they’re leaving you—but for an impressionable twenty-year-old, it was as delicious and vicious a sophisticated look at relationships as I could ask for. So much so that when a drunk woman approached me at a gay bar one night a few years later and claimed she could read my aura—“conniving” is all she could muster—I took it as a compliment.
“It’s a lie.”
That’s Alice again. This is before her unraveling moment of truth at the hotel room. A few months earlier, actually. She’s dressed in a black cocktail dress and is staring at a blown-up photograph of her face. In it, she’s defiant, if in tears, caught in a moment of weakness. It’s the moment she first felt the man she’d come to love pull away and gravitate towards the charming photographer now snapping her pic. Forced to stare at herself, she’s ready to call out the very thematic frame that hangs around the entire exhibit. Talking to a flirtatious man, she decries the hypocrisy of the entire endeavor:
“It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they wanna see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone. But the pictures make the world seem beautiful, so the exhibition is reassuring. Which makes it a lie. And everyone loves a big fat lie.”
She’s knowingly baiting him. In doing so, she’s also inadvertently proposing a theory of lies that’s not only counter-intuitive but which feels like the kind of pompously self-effacing diatribe I’d come to master in university classes where we discussed French and German philosophers and thought ourselves much too smart for our own good. People love lies because they’re reassuring. And they’re reassuring precisely because they’re made, tailor-made.
But Portman’s Alice struck close because she’s also a variation on a theme. Her forebear, in my own cultural imagination, was none other than Blanche DuBois. “I know I fib a good deal,” this Tennessee Williams’ character freely admits at one point. “After all, a woman’s charm is 50% illusion.” That’s why she spends much of A Streetcar Named Desire covering up the naked lightbulbs in her sister’s New Orleans apartment with Chinese lanterns. Her deceptions don’t just serve as ornamentations; they would wither and die without them.
Just as when I first encountered Closer’s Alice Ayres in a cramped movie theater in Vancouver, I was a tad too young to truly understand why I was so drawn to Blanche when I read her in my senior year of high school. Where my entire English class detested her, thinking her annoying and shrill, I was enraptured. Later still, when I saw the film adaptation and got to see Vivien Leigh buckle under the oppressive if desirable slab of flesh that was Marlon Brando, her allure seemed even more obvious.
Weeks later, when we read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I found yet another brash and broken woman to love. As her near-contemporary Southern Belle, Edward Albee’s Martha—yet another gay writerly creation—is full of lies. What first emerge as playful parlor tricks that intimidate her party guests are revealed instead as pillars on which she and her husband George have built a precarious life together. We learn that the fabled “blond-eyed, blue-haired son” is a figment of their collective imaginations, the central lie that glued them together. Albee’s play offered a vision of intimacy that depended on lies. Lies that were birthed and sought to stave off a measure of self-loathing that was inescapable.
Why am I drawn to lying women? To women who, in most of these cases, lie to themselves?
To take stock of the cinematic women I gravitate towards is to find a list of characters whose lies are romanticized and sentimentalized, celebrated and exulted, lovingly shot and empathetically explored. Nina Sayers, Jasmine Francis, Mavis Gary, Sally Bowles, Raimunda, Julianne Potter, Satine, Briony Tallis . . . Why am I drawn to lying women? To women who, in most of these cases, lie to themselves?
The answer is probably too obvious. Gay men before me, after all, have often found solace in representations of broken, if strong-willed, women who find recourse only in illusions and performance. Characters like Blanche don’t become icons for their penchant for honesty and truth. “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” the aging Southern Belle tells us. “Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”
Is that not what many of us had to do to survive taunts in schoolyards and inadvertent blushes in locker rooms? For those of us who lived in closets for longer than we dare admit, our lies—mostly of omission—helped create sturdy webs that nourished and protected us. Growing up, we were told, in ways both implicit and explicit, that homosexuality was a sin. And not only was it a sin, but a dirty secret too, best scrubbed out in shame. We were left to create versions of ourselves built on lies as a way of telling half-truths.
Lying, as Joan Didion notes, is “an elementary means of self-defense, a way of scrambling out of the trap, at least temporarily.” The trap she’s discussing is the double standard that afflicts women when it comes to aging. To me, the line also refers to those lies some of us have to live with and nurture in order to survive. Those of us who had no choice but to decorate our closets with lies, to make the most of this self-constructed, if temporary, trap, to understand vividly the way truths may not always be as liberating as we’re encouraged to think. It’s why I feel a kinship to women like Alice who spin lies not—or not just—to inflict pain on those around her, but to be able to get through her day.
It’s not surprising that “Alice” (her name, her entire persona, is a fiction, we eventually find out) is most candid when stripping. Surrounded by endless mirrors and wearing nothing more than a silvery thong and a matching tasseled bikini top, she relishes spouting unassuming truths while selling the fantasy that is her body: “My name is plain Jane Jones.” The trick, of course, is that in a setting that so depends on fantasy, her words are immaterial.
The man in front of her (the doctor who’d flirted with her at the gallery and is now heartbroken because his wife left him for Alice’s former writer beau) cannot take her seriously nor does he want to. Her fiction is so convincing it’s become the truth he feels he deserves to hear. “Tell me something true!” he bellows, which prompts the playful Alice/Jane to utter the line that continues to haunt me more than a dozen years later: “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it’s better if you do.”
After watching Closer that first time, I went home and scribbled the quote onto a piece of paper. I then tacked it onto a full-length mirror in my room. It became both prompt and promise. But also, alas, a warning I could not and did not heed.
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter based in New York City. His academic work on queer film fandom has appeared in Genre and GLQ, while his work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and Electric Literature, where he writes about book-to-film adaptations. He has a Ph.D. but doesn't like to brag about it.