Natalie Portman in Black Swan: Is her Oscar nomination for acting or for effects?

All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 14 2011 10:51 AM

Natalie Portman, Great Actor

Or is she just an excellent special effect?

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The Method's arrival on the A-list red carpet has thus resulted in a curiously quixotic new art form, tangentially related to the actor's craft but equally drawing on the fumes of celebrity, aiming not so much at verisimilitude as a kind of self-vandalizing coup de theatre. Natalie Portman's turn in Black Swan is a sensational instance of celebrity self-graffiti, a stunning instance of performance-as-special effect, and a fascinating palimpsest of meta-casting taken to the nth degree: The posters might as well read "Come see Natalie Portman earn her Oscar." But great acting?

Just as it is possible to exit the latest blockbuster going, "The special effects were great, but the movie blew," so it's possible to find Portman's performance exactly the kind of stunt that wins awards but be unsure what it connects with, emotionally, besides Nina's intense desire to be given the part of the Swan Queen and her determination to do anything to get it. This may be vividly rendered but it is not what you would call "a stretch." Nor does it deliver very strongly on one of the principle pleasures of great acting, which is interaction and reaction, for everyone in Black Swan is, to lesser or greater degrees, a projection of Nina's subconscious. She ends up in the same place De Niro ended up in Raging Bull, opposite a mirror, which should serve as a warning to all the Mickey Mouse Club refugees who will doubtless follow in Portman's footsteps, as well as a gloss on the movie's one scene of genuine physical tenderness: What price your dedication to performance, if the only person you end up playing with is yourself?

Corrections, Feb. 16, 2011: This article originally had the incorrect name for De Niro's character in Raging Bull and misspelled the name of the actor Lon Chaney. (Return to corrected paragraphs.)

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