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Natalie Portman, Dancing, and Oscar

This isn’t a review of “Black Swan,”  which I thought was an excellent film, and made my top 10 of ’10 list.   It’s not a celebrity gossip post, either, and I don’t really keep up with all the gossip and hardly ever post it here.   But the recent gossip, combined with Portman’s Oscar win, combine, I think to shine a light on the business of Hollywood and the art of the cinema, in an interesting way.   Anyway, I have some opinions, and I’m going to share them with you.

After Natalie Portman’s Best Actress win, I went back and re-watched the film, mostly the see if she was better than I remembered.   She wasn’t.  Now, just to clear the air, I have nothing against Portman.  Indeed, back when I was young and foolish enough to have crushes on actresses, I had a crush on her.  (I remember seeing “Where the Heart Is” — a truly awful mess of a movie — and being totally satisfied with it, because Portman was on the screen at least 80% of the time.)  Nowadays, she hardly registers.   She’s not one of those actresses (like Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl) who can ruin a movie for me, and she’s not one of those actresses (like Tilda Swinton, Emily Mortimer or Hiam Abass) who will cause me to see a movie I wouldn’t otherwise see.  She is adequate, most of the time.   And she is perfectly adequate in “Black Swan” – but not much more than that.

This is a film about the transformation of a scared and delicate young woman into a dark and dangerous creature.   As a film, it works marvelously – we feel that we see the transformation.  But the second time through it, I was struck by how much of that transformation isn’t achieved by Portman, but by her director, Darren Aronofsky.  Just like her character, Portman fully embodies the white swan – delicate, perfect, fragile — but, just like her character, she has trouble bringing out the darker side.   Aronofsky achieves in through some clever editing, as well and effective use of lights and music.   We never see the “Black Swan” for more than a few seconds, and even when we do — the bar scene, for instance, or the final performance — camera tricks are in play to make sure we’re not too focused on Portman’s actual performance.   More than ever, I’m convinced that Aronofsky really earned the Oscar that Portman won — he made her look amazing, and he made an amazing film.   Cinema really is the director’s medium, even if we pay the actors more and their names are bigger on the posters.   A good director can save a bad or mediocre performance, but it’s rare that a good actor can salvage a tepidly directed film (ironically, I think Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech” is an example of the rare occasion when a good actor does just that.)  He exhibits her strengths and shores up her weaknesses, all the while putting the story first.  Too bad the Academy is so clueless about what  a good director does.

And now there’s all this fuss about just how much of the dancing Portman did herself, and how much was done by a double.   This is all terribly misguided, in my opinion.  Floating around the internet is the idea that Portman won the Oscar because Academy voters were wowed by all the hard work and dedication she put into learning how to dance for the film.   But really, if we’re going to give Oscars for learning to dance, then a) it ought to be called the “Best Dancer” award and b) Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme have been cheated out of their awards all these years.   Learning the choreography of a dance scene and a fight scene aren’t all that different.   And doing as much of the dancing/fighting as you can while leaving as little as possible to the stunt doubles is the mark of a professional actor/actress over a celebrity hack.  But it’s not what should win you the Oscar.   Natalie Portman is a professional actress in the highest, noblest sense of the word, and I don’t want to belittle the work she put into “Black Swan.” But when the chips were down, she didn’t have the range to depict the transformation from the White Swan to the Black Swan, and, if she’d had a less talented director, this would’ve been obvious, and the movie would’ve been awful.   But it wasn’t, and for that, we should all be glad.

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  1. Nicole said

    Your take on this was really interesting to read! I saw “Black Swan” almost two months after its released and I was a little disappointed when it didn’t completely live up to my expectations. At first I thought maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the way the element of the doppelganger had been utilized. To me, it really felt like something was lacking. And reading this has made me question if it was, in fact, Portman’s performance. I’m glad you posted this.

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