If you saw “Black Swan,” you likely remember the scene, late in the film, when Nina (Natalie Portman) confronts her rival in the ballet company, Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina is the lead in their production of “Swan Lake” but she worries that her director might replace her. Paranoid, hallucinating, and quite mad, she physically attacks Lily in her dressing room to defend her role. The scene is quite deliberately over the top. But given the news that’s been coming out about the backstage world of “Black Swan,” and watching how bitterly real ballet dancers react when the feel mistreated, maybe it wasn’t quite as over the top as initially assumed.
That news, if you’ve missed it so far, is the allegation made by dancer Sarah Lane last Friday in Entertainment Weekly, that she had performed some 95% of the wide shots in which Nina is seen dancing. According to Lane, she did almost all the most complex dance routines for Portman, whose face was then digitally grafted onto her body in post-production to create the illusion that Portman herself was dancing. As she told EW:
“They wanted to create this idea in people’s minds that Natalie was some kind of prodigy or so gifted in dance and really worked so hard to make herself a ballerina in a year and a half for the movie, basically because of the Oscar… It is demeaning to the profession and not just to me. I’ve been doing this for 22 years…. Can you become a concert pianist in a year and a half, even if you’re a movie star?”
In the days that followed, others associated with the film have rushed to defend Portman, who won her first Academy Award for her performance in “Black Swan.” On Saturday, “Black Swan”‘s distributor Fox Searchlight released a statement in which they praised Lane’s double work but asserted that “Natalie herself did most of the dancing featured in the final film.” And just yesterday, director Darren Aronofsky released his own statement:
“I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math that’s 80% Natalie Portman. What about duration? The shots that feature the double are wide shots and rarely play for longer than one second. There are two complicated longer dance sequences that we used face replacement. Even so, if we were judging by time over 90% would be Natalie Portman.”
Good for Portman. But you know what? Totally irrelevant. Lane could be correct, and Portman would still deserve her Oscar. Why? Because movies are illusions. To create those illusions, filmmakers employ tricks like special effects and doubles. Replacing Lane’s face with Portman via some computer-aided trickery is just a technologically advanced version of a technique done for decades. Audrey Hepburn didn’t sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” in “My Fair Lady.” Natalie Wood didn’t sing “I Feel Pretty” in “West Side Story.” They both had singing doubles; the same double, as a matter of fact. Does that diminish their performances? Maybe in some small way. But that’s Hollywood: hokum and fantasy. If you truly believe Natalie Portman is a ballet dancer because you saw her portray one in “Black Swan,” then you must also believe that she is the queen in a galaxy a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away because she played one in “Star Wars.” You might also be relieved to learn that Portman did not, in fact, transmogrify into a giant birdwoman for the role, either.
Technically both Lane and Aronofsky could be correct: the 28 shots of Lane could be 28 out of 30 total shots of the kind that Lane described, shots in which Nina’s full body is visible from head to toe. But again, it doesn’t matter. Elizabeth Berkley did her own dancing in “Showgirls;” they didn’t give her an Oscar for it. And with good reason. As beautiful as the dancing in “Black Swan” was, Portman didn’t deserve her Oscar for what she did or didn’t dance, she deserved it for what she did when Nina wasn’t dancing, and for what else she did while she was dancing.
As I wrote in my review of the film last December, most of the ballet scenes in the film play out in close-up. That had a practical purpose — it allowed Portman to perform tougher choreography without having her footwork scrutinized — but it had an emotional one as well. It made the film less about the steps and more about the emotional journey of the character; a stylistic choice perfectly in keeping with the theories of art — that great art is messy and personal and not rote and precise — set forth by the film. Far more than the athletic feats she may or may not have undertaken on stage, Portman convinced us she was Nina with what she did with her face and her body and her eyes and her impassioned performance, all things that no dance double could claim credit for.
I can sympathize with Lane on some level. She worked her entire life to become an extraordinarily talented dancer but she’s receiving a fraction of the attention that a less talented dancer is receiving in the same role. Maybe that isn’t very fair. And that inequity could eat a person up inside. But that sounds an awful lot like the plot of “Black Swan,” doesn’t it? Watch out for those ballet dancers, man. They can be tough.