Thursday, June 9, 2016

Birthday Take: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" (2010)

Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Natalie Portman
Born: June 9, 1981 (35 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - Black Swan (won) as Nina Sayers

The Take

The idea of competition seems like a subject primed for awards season. After all, it takes so much effort to just get that far that Harvey Weinstein made an entire career around it. From there, it's narrowing down a field of five to one that is often seen to have unbearable consequences. In a way, director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is the perfect film for awards season, despite being one of the campiest, most overtly sexual films released in 2010. The idea of a ballerina sacrificing her health and sanity to become the best dancer in a production of Swan Lake is filled with rich subtext, including the theme of usurping the previous hot thing (in this case, Winona Ryder). It's an unnerving story, and one that fits perfectly with Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler. The only difference is that where that film had a grounded realism, Black Swan is about as stylized as the director gets (not counting The Fountain). It's psychological horror that explores the downside of competition in such gloriously bizarre ways.

At the center is Natalie Portman, who would win an Oscar for the performance. Of course, the film was ripe with controversy following the film's unprecedented success. A stunt double would sue for not getting enough credit for her work. Even then, Portman transitioned into her role by dropping weight and getting back into dancing shape for the role. The performance itself can be tested on whether it was charismatic and deep, or merely just an over the top campy performance. It's part of the beauty of Black Swan. It is a masterpiece that exists in the surreal middle ground that makes cinema great. She is insane. She is competitive. She is great at what she does. Everything comes together so nicely that it at times feels like a dancing version of All About Eve crossed with black tar heroin. There's hallucinations to spare, and the symbolism is about as cohesive as Aronofsky has ever gotten.

Considering that Portman's first Oscar nomination came for playing a stripper in Closer, it makes sense that she would win for playing one of the edgier Best Actress winners in recent years. While it becomes increasingly difficult to think of her as once a child actress in Leon: The Professional or Heat, it is easy to see why she'd be attracted to such conflicting roles. They come to life with her desperation to be taken seriously, and that involves going to dark and bizarre places. It help that The Academy tends to love women in peril, as is the case with Still Alice's Julianne Moore and her slow descent in Alzheimer's; or Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence's mental illness. In fairness, this decade isn't the first to embrace such a strangely specific Oscar bait trope, but it does seem like the only way to win is to have your body fail you. If that's the case, Black Swan is the master and Portman goes to extremes for reasons that make sense as an actress.

To be honest, I love Black Swan and consider it among the best films of the decade so far. I enjoy the atmosphere and feel that it is Aronofsky's best. Even then, it becomes peculiar with each passing year to understand why it was so immediately revered at The Oscars with so many nominations. It is so surreal and campy that it seems like the kind of film that wouldn't get the honor. However, my theory is that it was a film all about the toils of competition, and that is what The Academy Awards tend to be. By the time that the ceremony rolls around, the die hard competitors have sacrificed many months just to get an award. You almost feel zapped because of it. It does help that Portman's performance is so great, but at the end of the day - it makes sense to think of this film's awards success as being relevant to how artists in that community see themselves

My one hope is that this isn't the end for Portman. Like most Oscar winners, the follow-up curse hit her hard with multiple flops that included Friends with Benefits and Your Highness (which starred 2010 Oscar nominee James Franco as well). In all honesty, she hasn't done much of note in the five years since, though there's a Jackie O. biopic that she's doing that may pan out. One can only wait and see. For now, there's Black Swan. If nothing else, it may represent one of the weirdest and most puzzling Best Actress winners of the decade. It's great and all, but its lack of comparable nominees in subsequent years makes it stand out all the more like a sore, sore thumb. 

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