Harvey’s Hellhole: Beautiful Girls

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. In honor of Natalie Portman, who turns 42 this month (and is currently in the news thanks to her philandering husband — keep your head up, Queen!), let’s revisit a Weinstein-produced movie she did in her younger years — which she probably doesn’t want us to revisit. 

At the 2002 MTV Movie Awards, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, at the time the stars of the Star Wars prequels, walked out on stage together to give out an award. Before they did, Portman briefly paid tribute to Ted Demme. The filmmaker, former MTV producer (he came up with Yo! MTV Raps), and nephew of legendary filmmaker Jonathan passed away in January of that year, collapsing at a celebrity basketball game and dying of a heart attack that may have been caused by cocaine found in his system. (Ironically, his last feature film was 2001’s Blow, starring Johnny Depp as an incarcerated, real-life drug trafficker.) He was 38.

“He made amazing movies like The Ref and Blow and you should rent all his movies,” Portman said before she and McGregor shouted “asscrack” in unison, as an in-joke salute to Demme.

Interestingly enough, Portman failed to mention Beautiful Girls, the Demme movie she appeared in. Released in February 1996 to likable reviews and a $10.6 million box office gross, Girls is an ensemble dramedy in the vein of Diner and The Big Chill, although Demme said he was more influenced by the less Vietnam-y parts of The Deer Hunter. Scott Rosenberg, who wrote the Tarantino knockoff Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (a Miramax release, BTW), wrote the script while hanging out in his Newton, Massachusetts hometown, waiting to see if Disney would pick up his script for Con Air. “I had just broken up with my girlfriend of seven years,” he said in a 2010 interview. “The snow plows were driving by my window, many driven by my buddies from high school. When it occurred to me: there is more quote ‘action’ going on with my buddies here – with turning 30 and not being able to deal with the women in their lives – than in twenty Jerry Bruckheimer movies.”

Timothy Hutton stars as Willie, a New York jazz pianist (and Rosenberg stand-in) who returns to his fictional hometown of Knight’s Ridge, Massachusetts for his ten-year, high-school reunion. (The movie was actually shot in Minnesota.) He’s wondering if he should quit performing and get a regular, nine-to-five gig; he’s also unsure if he wants to marry his girlfriend (Annabeth Gish).

Some of his old pals are having relationship issues too. Tommy (Matt Dillon) is creeping around on his supportive girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) with his married, tempestuous ex (Lauren Holly) from high school. His roommate/snow-plowing partner Paul (Michael Rapaport) often spends his nights vindictively plowing snow up the driveway of Jan (Martha Plimpton), who broke up with him because he wouldn’t commit. (Paul pitifully tries to win her back by giving her an engagement ring with a stone that’s brown — or “champagne,” as he claims.) All the while, Andera (Uma Thurman), a visiting smokeshow from Chicago, shows up and gets these boys’ tongues a-wagging. But she also makes them realize how dumbassish they’ve become.

As you’ve probably picked up on by now, Girls is about men stuck in arrested development. These men-children try to stubbornly hold on to their “freedom,” even if it means losing women who are not only easy to look at, but are willing to put up with their bullshit. While the movie is mostly about these guys, Demme and Rosenberg make it pretty clear they’re on the ladies’ side. They even have Rosie O’Donnell show up as a no-nonsense chum who lectures Willie and Tommy on men’s obsession with perfect pinups and skinny supermodels during a riotous drugstore run. 

At one point, Paul gives Willie the solution to all their problems: “We need models.” (Willie receives this in Paul’s bedroom, where supermodel pics cover the walls.) But Demme surrounds these numbskulls with women played by some of the loveliest actresses to come out of the ‘90s — and these muhfuckas still don’t know what to do with ‘em. Watch in horror as Paul, in an attempt to make his ex jealous, takes Andera to a bar where Jan is hanging out. Even when an unwitting Andera surprisingly plays along with the ruse, dude still screws it up by taking it one step too far. Keep an eye out for a cameo from Demme, who witnesses the cringey aftermath.

If you’re wondering what role Portman plays in all of this, she’s Marty, a 13-year-old (and self-professed “old soul”) who lives next to Willie’s family home. As they build an adorable rapport, Willie is so won over by Marty’s wise-beyond-her-years wit and intelligence, he briefly considers waiting a few years until she’s legal and free to date, which she’s actually down with.

Yes, this sounds creepy as fuck. Thankfully, this relationship stays in the realm of cute chit-chat, as both Hutton and Portman’s characters ultimately accept that this union could never be — even if they did wait until she got to voting age. 

Girls marked the second time in Portman’s still-developing career where she played an underaged object of adoration. She memorably made her big-screen debut in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, as a recently orphaned 12-year-old who grows uncomfortably attached to Jean Reno’s white-knight hitman. (Besson was most likely inspired by his relationship with an actress he first met when she was 12.) In recent years, Portman has admitted she doesn’t look back on those early roles with fondness. As she said on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast in 2020:

“Being sexualized as a child, I think took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid and it made me — like, the way I could be safe was to be like, ‘I’m conservative,’ and ‘I’m serious and you should respect me,’ and ‘I’m smart,’ and ‘don’t look at me that way.’ Whereas at that age, you do have your own sexuality and you do have your own desire, and you do want to explore things and you do want to be open. But you don’t feel safe, necessarily, when there’s older men that are interested, and you’re like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ “

As the years have progressed, Girls has become a film with several problematic fellas in its credits. It’s bad enough it was executive-produced by a man who has spent a career trying to bed young starlets. (Portman says she went through a similar thing with another unnamed producer.) But now, it features actors who’ve allegedly done women dirty in the past. 

Despite turning in a darling, mature performance, I don’t blame Portman for wanting to forget about Girls. We’ve all done weird shit as teenagers. Unfortunately, Portman’s weird shit can currently be streamed on Pluto TV.

I’m serious — “Beautiful Girls” is available to stream on Pluto TV. 

Back to top