Natalie Portman the girl who could have played Lolita in Adrian Lyne's upcoming remake, but passed is about to get a publicity buildup usually reserved for persons old enough to vote. So aptly cast was Portman as an ''old soul'' in 1994's The Professional it's easy to forget that she only turned 14 last June. With performances as Al Pacino's emotionally shell-shocked stepdaughter in Heat and as the child-woman who reads lovelorn Timothy Hutton like an open junior-high textbook in Beautiful Girls, which opens Feb. 16, the snide might say that Portman risks becoming the next Brooke Shields. But as her imminent publicity crush will no doubt attest, most see her as the next Jodie Foster.
''When I met her, you could tell she was kind of a prodigy,'' says Michael Mann, Portman's director in Heat. ''In the movie, she has a very short amount of screen time to believably communicate a child who is seriously dysfunctional without any overt hysteria or exaggerated dialogue, and she delivers. Only someone with serious talent can do that.'' Portman giggles at such praise, then explains that she chooses her material to give herself fun learning experiences. Lyne's Lolita adaptation didn't cut it because she finds Nabokov's story too disturbing. ''I don't know if I'll ever be able to do nudity in film, and certainly not when I'm 14,'' she says. ''I just hope for the girl who's in it [newcomer Dominique Swain] that they keep it as a look into this man's head, and don't make it a sexy thing. Because when you're offered your first movie, of course you're going to take it.'' What did she make instead? A Woody Allen musical she just finished filming in Paris.