Now that Natalie Portman actually has her Academy Award in hand, it’s time for the vultures to circle her graceful carcass, and so they have.
Way back in the olden days (1983), actress Jennifer Beals was first celebrated for her performance in the film, Flashdance, then later, derided because she hadn’t really been dancing. Just about every dance shot had been performed by someone other than Beals. But Flashdance was no Black Swan and Beals was no Portman. Both Portman and director Darren Aronofsky have been fairly open about Portman’s (and co-star Mila Kunis’) extensive dance training to prepare for the movie and I don’t think anyone ever came away with the impression that the actress performed all the dance scenes. Apparently, behind the curtain, a storm has been brewing.
A few days ago, Portman’s co-star (and fiance), Benjamin Millepied, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the film and he mentioned that there were articles emerging about Portman’s dance-double, Sarah Lane. According to Millepied, Lane “…just did the footwork, and the fouettes, and one diagonal [phrase] in the studio. Honestly, 85% of that movie is Natalie.” He also explained that simple and fluid choreography, along with CGI and close-up shots, allowed for Portman’s seemingly long dance scenes. But Millepied’s comments were just a prelude to bitterness and the aftermath may say as much about the kill-or-be-killed ballet environment than did Black Swan itself.
American Ballet Theatre soloist, Sarah Lane, now claims to EW that there has been a “cover-up” by some of the people involved with Black Swan and its publicists. She says that she was specifically asked by a producer not to speak to the press about her work in the film, and that part of the Oscar campaign was to create an image of Natalie Portman that included her being “transformed” into a ballerina. Lane also claims (and there may or may not be video to confirm) that Portman’s head was digitally grafted onto her (Lane’s) body. Though she claims not to be jealous, Lane’s comments about Portman certainly sound so: “I mean, from a professional dancer’s standpoint, she doesn’t look like a professional ballet dancer at all and she can’t dance in pointe shoes. And she can’t move her body; she’s very stiff…” Lane validly complains that it’s ludicrous for anyone to become a ballerina in a year and a half, and Portman had admitted as much: “It was not anything I ever could have done in a year, nothing I could’ve caught up with. But I think it was just better for all of us if I did as much as possible.”
The dance world is, of course, standing behind its own. Though I agree that it should be known that Portman and Kunis had dance doubles who made their performances more believable, that fact doesn’t make their acting less valid. Because while Flashdance may have revolved around the dancing, Black Swan revolved around the acting and directing. This film wasn’t about the dance so much as it was about the characters and the effect their professional lives had upon them. People didn’t revel in Portman’s ballet moves—they raved over her emotions, her facial expressions, her onscreen, complete and utter mental breakdown.
For a dancer to participate in a film like Black Swan (with the stars that were headlining,) and then to speak out after the fact crying about her contribution not being celebrated enough, is simply ludicrous. Sarah Lane knew what she was doing, she was a “dance-double.” Her role’s definition is its name. Anyone who saw Black Swan, with the close-ups and the camera angles and the separate shots of upper and lower body halves, knew exactly what he was watching. Not a one of us exclaimed, “Oh what a great ballet talent Natalie Portman is! She could be a professional.” Rather, we knew that a film was being made in a way that would be believable, and in a way that would showcase the actors’ talents. The things I remember most after having seen Black Swan are Natalie Portman’s terrified expressions, her trembling lips and her quivering chin. I remember her cowering and defeated posture and the baby voice she put on whenever she spoke with her mother (Barbara Hershey). I felt the pain of her bloody digits, the scratches on her back and the feather she pulled; the feeling of inadequacy that emanated from every pore I could see in the close-ups of her flawless skin. I remember sitting in the theater, mesmerized. I realized that I had never thought much of Natalie Portman before, but that now, up on that movie screen was an Academy Award-worthy actress.