Cover Story

'Closer' Encounters

Julia, Natalie, Jude, and Clive on making ''Closer'' -- Here's how the four beautiful actors took on the ugly side of relationships for director Mike Nichols

Natalie Portman, Closer | POLE VAULT Though she usually shies away from sexual roles, Portman decided to play stripper Alice in Closer -- and she's getting Oscar buzz
POLE VAULT Though she usually shies away from sexual roles, Portman decided to play stripper Alice in Closer -- and she's getting Oscar buzz

Natalie Portman hunches discreetly in the back of a darkened movie theater watching herself strip. This is a very early screening of Closer, a blue movie in every sense — except, curiously, the dirty one. A star-crossed London love quadrangle from director Mike Nichols and British playwright Patrick Marber, the film contains not a single sex scene. The language is as raw as the feelings behind it, but never egregious. Costar Julia Roberts calls it ''specific'' and ''surgical.'' Funny, too.

Take this exchange, for instance. Portman's character, a bold but emotionally furtive waif named Alice, is disrobing in a gentlemen's club for the ungentlemanly Larry (Clive Owen), a dangerously lovelorn doctor whose wife, Anna (Roberts), has just admitted, in graphic detail, an affair with Alice's boyfriend Dan (Jude Law). (At this point, you may find a flowchart helpful — the entire piece consists of these interlinked couples' couplings and uncouplings, sprinkled over a four-year period.)

''Alice,'' Larry begs, ''tell me something true.''

''Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off,'' Alice zings back. ''But it's better if you do.''

In the back row of the theater, one of Portman's companions leans over to whisper some moral support: ''Slut!''

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