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Jewish Journal

‘Black Swan’ and its Jewish actress menage-a-trois

by Danielle Berrin

September 14, 2010 | 12:20 pm

Don’t expect all tutus and point shoes from this ballet-centered psychological thriller from Darren Aronofsky, a film that, at least in the trailer, displays a fierce blend of sexual and violent intrigue. But you can expect a lethal dose of drama coming from the hottest menage-a-trois of Jewish actresses ever seen together on screen.

Let’s count: First, there’s Jerusalem-born, Long Island-raised Natalie Portman in the leading role; then Winona Ryder, born Winona Laura Horowitz, who plays Portman’s slightly elder competition; and then there’s rising star Mila Kunis (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), born to a Jewish family in the Ukraine, who plays Portman’s arch-nemisis (and brief sexual flame).

Not to mention, director Aronofsky is also Jewish, raised in a conservative home in Brooklyn, New York (and lives with another Jewish actress, Rachel Weisz).

With this film—and his personal life—Aronofsky could be considered an iconoclast, smashing tired stereotypes of nagging, homely Jewish women and replacing them with sharp, lusty actresses.

In the past, Hollywood has avoided casting Jewish women as leading ladies. In a 2009 article for Tablet Magazine about how Hollywood has historically preferred “shiksas”, writer Liel Liebovitz wrote:

Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.

In a 2001 interview conducted by Emma Forrest for Blackbook magazine, Rachel Weisz offered her insight as to why that was the case:

EMMA: Is it limiting as an actress to be perceived as being too ethnic in any way?

RACHEL: Well, I think you and I have always felt the same way — that we’re Jewish but we can get away with just being exotic. We’re kind of Jews in disguise. Those cultural stereotypes about the Jew with the big hooky nose and the fleshy face rub off on you. That’s terrible to admit, isn’t it.

EMMA: Well, it’s that Jackie Mason joke about how no Jewish woman wants to look Jewish: “‘You think I look maybe a little Italian, I look a little Russian, perhaps I can be Spanish?’ … ‘You look Jewish!’”

RACHEL: Hollywood’s run by Jews. I was advised by an American agent when I was about 19 to change my surname. And I said “Why? Jews run Hollywood.” He said “Exactly.” He had a theory that all the executives think acting’s a job for shiksas.

EMMA: Of all the self-loathing Jews in the world, the most self-loathing are the Hollywood Jews. They don’t want to see images of themselves on screen. That’s why Lauren Bacall had to hide her identity, and Winona Ryder changed her name from Horowitz.

RACHEL: In some way acting is prostitution, and Hollywood Jews don’t want their own women to participate. Also, there’s an element of Portnoy’s Complaint — they all fancy Aryan blondes.

With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky, the director of such deeply penetrating films as “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler” subverts ancient stereotypes about both Jewish women and ballet. “Swan” is a story about the dark underbelly of the dance world, foreshadowed in the trailer’s opening line: “I had the craziest dream last night,” Portman’s character says in voiceover, “about a girl who is turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.”

It promises to be a drama of biblical proportions helmed by three of Hollywood’s hottest Jewish women. In the trailer, a montage of balletic daring, mutilated skin and edgy sexuality unfolds in haunting flashes with a close-up of Portman’s blood-stained eyes hinting at utter emotional despair.

It’s the kind of deep, wrenching drama that makes up the fabric of every Jewish soul.

For Kunis, that depth has been shaped by growing up Jewish in Communist Russia and having lost countless family members in the Holocaust. She once told the Website JVibe.com:

[When] I was in Russia. I wasn’t allowed to be religious. My whole family was in the holocaust. My grandparents passed and not many survived. After the holocaust in Russia you were not allowed to be religious. So my parents raised me to know I was Jewish. You know who you are inside. You don’t need to tell the whole world. You believe what you believe and that’s what’s important. And that’s how I was raised. My family was like ‘you are Jewish in your blood’. We can celebrate Yom Kippur and Hannukah but not by the book. We do it to our own extent. Because being in Russia…Bar Mitzvahs weren’t held. When I was in school you would still see anti-Semitic signs. One of my friends who grew up in Russia, she was in second grade. And she came home one day crying. Her mother asked why she was crying and she said on the back of her seat there was a swastika. Now this is a country that obviously does not want you. So my parents raised me Jewish as much as they could and came to America. I love my religion. I think it’s a beautiful religion but I took parts of it that I want for myself. I don’t need to go to temple. I will, but I don’t need to.

For her part, Portman has said she hates playing Jewish women on screen. In February 2010, she told Elle magazine, “I’ve always tried to stay away from playing Jews. I get like 20 Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.”

Though “Black Swan” is a far cry from the death camps of Europe, its emotional depth is palpable, as are the psychological pressures real. This is the kind of emotional turmoil that stems from fame, performance and artistic perfectionism .

As Sharon Waxman, editor in chief of The Wrap.com notes on her blog, we have Fox Searchlight to thank for bankrolling the Jewish-star-studded film. Waxman wrote that, even with all the star power, the film almost didn’t get made:

I can easily imagine all the pitch meetings at which approximately five minutes in, some executive probably said:

“Does it have to be ballet?”

“Every singe studio turned this down,” Waxman reported Aronofsky saying after a screening in Toronto. “This time I had a movie star. But everyone turned it down. There is no money for independent film.”

Fox Searchlight’s gamble may pay off considering all the early Oscar buzz. But it seems that with this one, the audience is in for the real treat.

Check out the trailer:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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