11 Expert Facts About Léon: The Professional

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It's been over two decades since writer/director Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional hit theaters, and we’re willing to bet that you’ve yet to shake off how the movie made you feel. The crime thriller that launched Natalie Portman’s career, and put French actor Jean Reno front and center in Hollywood, Léon tells the story of a professional assassin who takes in his pre-teen neighbor after her family is murdered. The two then develop a friendship so close that you might still find yourself fearing it could cross the line of appropriateness (even if you've seen the film 100 times and breathed a sigh of relief at its outcome). With its boundary-pushing plot and expert direction, the film is widely (and rightly) regarded as one of Besson’s best works.

1. NATALIE PORTMAN’S PARENTS WERE COMPLETELY AGAINST HER PLAYING MATHILDA.

It was an extremely complicated role for an 11-year-old: Not only would she have to deal with a broken home and violence, but she’d also have to deal with the unwanted sexualization of a young girl. In Starting Young, a documentary about Portman that’s included on the 10th anniversary DVD edition of Léon, the actress admits that after she read the script, she was so moved to tears by the film that she knew she had to have the role. Her parents weren’t as convinced. “My parents were like, ‘There is no way you’re doing this movie. This is absolutely inappropriate for a child your age ... and I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read! You’re gonna ruin my life!’” she shares in the doc. “[I] was basically just fighting with them so much.”

2. IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT, LÉON ACCIDENTALLY WALKS IN ON MATHILDA WHILE SHE'S IN THE SHOWER.

Portman’s parents were understandably not comfortable with this scene. In Starting Young, Portman notes that her parents scaled the sexual undertones way back. It was a point they made sure to detail in their daughter’s contract.

3. RENO AND PORTMAN WEREN’T ALLOWED TO REHEARSE THE FILM’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SCENE, WHERE MATHILDA PUTS ON A DRESS GIVEN TO HER BY LÉON.

Up until the moment of the dress scene—which was deleted in the original U.S. theatrical version for its racy content (it would be restored a decade later)—it’s easy to believe that Léon acts as a person stuck between childhood and adult male. It isn’t until this turning point that one begins to worry. Here, Mathilda makes Léon tell her he likes her dress and whispers to him the importance of a girl’s first time having sex. He rejects her advances, but the tension is evident in his expression.

As Reno puts it in the film’s DVD commentary, it’s “the beginning of the perversity.” Reno often asked the director when they would read the part, and Besson would avoid the question. Not being able to read the scene helped Besson and his cast genuinely capture the awkwardness the characters felt at that moment. “[Léon and Mathilda’s] relationship was very connected and very strange,” Reno concluded.

4. PORTMAN’S PARENTS ARE THE REASON WHY MATHILDA QUITS SMOKING IN THE FILM.

As per the agreement Portman’s parents outlined with Besson, the actress was allowed five fake cigarettes in her hand during the entire film shoot, and she was never allowed to inhale a single one of them. If you pay close attention to her character, you'll see that she only puts the cigarette to her lips, but never blows smoke out. Additionally, her parents demanded that her character quit smoking at some point in the movie. In the film, Léon scolds Mathilda for smoking, and later you see her throwing her unfinished cigarette away when she’s alone.

5. PORTMAN’S MARILYN MONROE IMPRESSION IN THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY MIKE MYERS.

During her audition, Besson asked Portman if she could do any celebrity impressions; what you see in the film is the entire arsenal that she presented to the director. While she was obsessed with Gene Kelly and Madonna as a kid, her Marilyn Monroe impression was done without having seen any of the legendary bombshell’s work. “I had never seen the original Marilyn tapes at all,” Portman says in Starting Young. She goes on to admit that her impression was informed by a vague memory of Mike Myers impersonating Monroe in Wayne’s World.

6. BESSON GOT THE IDEA FOR LÉON WHILE WORKING ON LA FEMME NIKITA.

In the 1990 film La Femme Nikita, Reno plays Victor the Cleaner, an operative sent in to salvage Nikita’s botched mission. According to the DVD commentary, Besson was so inspired to explore Reno’s character further that he developed a story around him, which became Léon. Fortunately (in retrospect) for the director, when filming of The Fifth Element was delayed due to Bruce Willis’s schedule, Besson was afforded the time to shoot The Professional as a passion project.

7. THE CHELSEA HOTEL WAS USED FOR THE INTERIOR SHOTS OF MATHILDA AND LÉON’S APARTMENT BUILDING.

Léon and Mathilda’s apartment building might look like a place where burnouts escape to cook some meth, but the spot is actually an iconic part of New York City history. The Chelsea Hotel was once a place where Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso enjoyed philosophical exchanges; Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Iggy Pop all called it home; Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while staying there; Andy Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls within its walls; and Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found stabbed to death there (leading to Vicious’s arrest).

8. THE CITY OF NEW YORK INSPIRED THE FILM.

While the film was shot in both Paris and New York City, Besson has noted that Léon is first and foremost a New York movie. “When it comes to Léon I feel comfortable in New York because for me, in New York, you can be invisible. You can see someone lying on the street and no one will stop,” Besson told Stumped Magazine. “If you have no phone and no credit cards, no one knows where you are … One more thing: you can’t shoot Léon in France because in France in every building you have a concierge and she knows everything. She is glue with the police all the time so you can’t be invisible in Paris.”

9. GARY OLDMAN’S CLASSIC DELIVERY OF THE LINE “BRING ME EVERYONE!” WAS PURPOSELY MEANT TO MAKE LUC BESSON LAUGH.

Never one to under-serve his characters, Gary Oldman—as Stansfield, the film’s drug-addicted DEA agent antagonist—gave Besson everything he had, creating one of the most memorable (and now classic) moments of the film. “What’s funny is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic,” Oldman told Playboy. “I just did it one take to make the director, Luc Besson, laugh. The previous takes, I’d just gone, ‘Bring me everyone,’ in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones, and I shouted as loud as I could. That’s the one they kept in the movie. When people approach me on the street, that’s the line they most often say.”

10. BESSON HAS SHUT DOWN RUMORS THAT A SEQUEL IS IN THE WORKS.

So stop asking. During his press tour for Lucy, Besson told The Guardian, "You can't imagine how many people ask me for a Léon sequel. Everywhere I go they ask me. If I was motivated by money, I would have done it a long time ago. But I don't feel it."

In an earlier interview with Cinema Blend, Besson elaborated on the topic, saying, “Natalie is old now, she's a mother … It's too late. If I got an idea tomorrow about a sequel, of course I would do it. But I never came up with something strong enough. I don't want to do sequels for money; I want to do a sequel because it's worth it. I want it to be as good or better than the original."

11. JEAN RENO PLAYED LÉON AS EMOTIONALLY REPRESSED TO MAKE SURE THE AUDIENCE KNEW HE HAD NO SEXUAL DESIRE FOR MATHILDA.

In the DVD commentary, Reno says he made a conscious decision to make Léon a little slow so that he didn’t come off as physically threatening to Portman’s character. “[Léon is] somebody who’s lost his parents, an immigrant, in fact ... If you’re not smart, it means no brain, means not a lot of words, so you have to put a lot of emotions. You defend yourself in that way, the instinctive,” Reno says about portraying Léon. “If you’re slow, [Mathilda] will control the situation."

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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