Natalie Portman is the odds-on favorite Sunday night to win the best actress Academy Award for her role as a self-tortured ballerina in "Black Swan" - though it's clear from her early life on Long Island that she was never an ugly duckling.
Born in Jerusalem and immigrating to the United States at age 3, Portman spent her formative years living with her parents on Fortune Lane in Jericho. She attended the Solomon Schechter Day School in Glen Cove, spent years studying ballet and modern dance at the American Theater Dance Workshop in New Hyde Park and attended the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in Wheatley Heights.
"I loved it," the 29-year-old actress told Newsday last month about her time at that school. "I was really lucky that everyone really understood about my [movie] work and allowed me to take tests at different times [than other students] and miss days if I needed to because I was working. That allowed me a lot of freedom, which was really, really wonderful."
It was at Syosset High that the go-getter student co-authored, with two adult scientists, the paper "A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar," published in the Journal of Chemical Education - and which made Portman, then a senior, a semifinalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search.
She also competed in track and forensics, was in the Japanese and French clubs, made the National Honor Society and won a women-in-science award from St. John's University - all while continuing a movie career that began at age 12 with an unforgettable film debut as a pre-pubescent assassin-in-training in the cult hit "The Professional" (1994). She went on to attend Harvard, graduating in 2003.
In Syosset today, a dreamy black-and-white photo of Natalie leans against a wall, framed, wrapped and ready for delivery, at art framing store Framing Productions. It was to have been installed last week at the home of her parents, frequent customers Avner and Shelley Hershlag, said store owner John Peterson.
That will have to wait, since for now, he said, they are too busy preparing for tonight's Academy Awards ceremony.
"We've had many people come in and see the photo and say they went to school with her and they all say the same thing: "She was one of the nicest kids in school,' " he said.
"Any time she receives an award, and this is what endears her to me, she always mentions her parents and what a good life they gave her," said store manager Ralph, who asked that only his first name be used.
As for her parents, well, what would you expect?
"We are very proud and happy with Natalie as our kid," says her father, a leading fertility specialist at North Shore-LIJ Center for Human Reproduction in Manhasset, "and with her achievements, with her humanity, with her wisdom and with being a mensch. Actually, we need a word for the female equivalent of 'mensch,' " he jokes before coming up with a term of endearment for his daughter. "Why not 'womensch?' "