For her performance as a self-destructive ballerina in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman is receiving the highest praise of her career. At this point, and especially after an uncharacteristically effusive article in yesterday’s New York Times, an Oscar nomination – if not a win—seems imminent. Portman’s personal life, though considerably lower in profile, seems to be equally on the upswing: Last week, the 29-year-old actress announced she was pregnant, as well as engaged to the baby’s father, her “Black Swan” co-star and New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied (who, in case you’re wondering, is not Jewish).
For an actress who has spent the past 17 years growing up on screen, Portman is one of the few child stars that has parlayed early success into a full-bodied career and simultaneously, avoided the corrupting forces of Hollywood. To date, there have been no paparazzi-provoking nightclub scenes, no DUIs, no stints in rehab. Preferring privacy to notoriety, Portman is the rare starlet bereft a tabloid-heavy romance (there was that rumored stolen kiss with a married Sean Penn, which was either a lie or a very well guarded truth). Oh, and there was also that undergraduate degree from Harvard.
At least on the surface, Portman, perhaps more than other stars of her generation, seems to embody the real-life role of snowy white swan. But if we were to extrapolate any wisdom from the truth of her ‘Swan’ character, Nina Sayers, or the message of the eminently Oscar-bound film, it would be that every artist has the capacity for both calculated expression and dark emotional upheaval. As Portman’s ballerina reveals, within every artist lurks a controlled persona and a more feral one – in other words, a white swan and a darker, more dangerous black swan.
This is the guiding thesis behind a recent New York Times piece in which film critic A.O. Scott not so subtly peddles Portman’s performance, ramping it up with erudite analysis. But Scott’s defense of the film (according to him, “Black Swan” is the most misunderstood movie of the year) is secondary to his real claim, which is that Portman carries the heft of the film’s melodramatic madness on her Jekyll-and-Hyde wings. Or, as Scott puts it, she realizes the “inky, unhinged fairy tale” with her very flesh.
Her physical body, he says, becomes the entry point through which the audience is invited into her rapidly unraveling psyche.
Portman has made much of the punishing routine she took up to prepare for the role, equating its veracity with a kind of religious compulsion. Which is ironic, in that it’s the precise, ritualistic regimen that ultimately allows her to become unhinged. To develop her character, Portman the actress drew on a kind of focused religious practice rather than the unrestrained adventurism of Hollywood. From a place of control came a character subsumed by chaos.
“The white swan and the black represent, above all, the Apollonian and Dionysian poles of art, one restrained and rational, the other unruly, passionate and dangerous,” writes A.O. Scott in The Times.
Portman seems to embody both, though unlike many movie stars, she grounds wild performances in a well-controlled lifestyle. When we see her fall apart, we are seeing Portman the actress, not Portman the movie star.
“…n the end it all comes down to the actress, who seems, before our eyes, to be participating in the invention of a new kind of screen performance,” Scott writes.
But he tempers his glorification of Portman with the recognition that the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy; as is often our projection of the characters that inhabit Hollywood movies, they must bring something of their real lives into their characters. As Portman’s Nina descends further and further into the dark abyss of her own psyche, neither she nor the audience can distinguish between what is real and what exists in her mind. Is Scott asking us to see Portman the same way?
“We can assure ourselves that Nina does not really turn into a bird. We also know, being sane and disciplined moviegoers, that Ms. Portman — pregnant and engaged (to the movie’s choreographer) and happy in the wake of her latest professional triumph — is not Nina Sayers. But we also know, on the irrefutable evidence of our own eyes, and the prickly sensation of our skin, that she is.”
Scott would like us to see Portman and Nina as white swan and black swan, both specters of the same shadow only one is real and the other fantasy. And who can blame him?
In a celebrity tabloid culture, it has become harder and harder to distinguish between the people on magazine covers and the characters they play in movies. But this is where he gets Portman wrong: her “new kind of screen performance” is not merely about illuminating a character’s psychology through the realness of the actor’s physical body, but about the fact that Portman’s life is easily distinguishable from the characters she plays. Audiences can get lost in Natalie Portman’s characters because they are not, in fact, watching Natalie Portman the movie star – they are watching an actress.