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?

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan."
Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Is what Natalie Portman doing in Black Swan great acting? It's certainly spectacular, whatever it is, and audiences have been eating it as they used to eat up the sight of Pete Townsend smashing up his Rickenbacker during Who concerts. Here, of course, the Rickenbacker is Portman herself, laying siege to her physical frame, nicking, cutting, snipping, and plucking, until she stands before us transformed, her eyes a devilish red, her back puckered with dartlike feathers, her pale white face contorted into a snarling death mask. A few telltale signs of CGI augmentation should not distract us from Portman's achievement in the film, which is essentially to have turned herself into her own species of special effect.

During last year's debate over whether the blue people in James Cameron's Avatarwere delivering actual performances or not, it was a commonly heard opinion from the acting community that "acting is the best special effect." The actors meant it as a way of pulling rank, but what if the statement were actually true? What if what lay behind our current fad for physical transformation in our actors was a desire to keep up, not with the illustrious example set by Marlon Brando, but with that set by Industrial Light and Magic? You've read the statistics, proudly trumpeted by the stars' publicists during the run-up to awards season. How Hanks lost 55 pounds for Cast Away. How Clooney put on 30 pounds for Syriana. Crowe gaining 63 pounds for Body of Lies. Bale losing 70 pounds for The MachinistThink of the language critics use to praise these performances—"immersive," "transformative," "revelatory"—and you hear distinct echoes of the way we talk about special effects.

Or think back to the godfather of these performances, as Bale himself made clear with his shout-out to De Niro at the Golden Globes last month: De Niro's turn as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. * De Niro went up from his usual 140 pounds to 160 to play La Motta as a young man, then up to 215 to play him in decline, sunk in the rolls of fat around his neck as he hammily declaims Brando's monologue from On The Waterfront to a green-room mirror in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. "By the end it became evident that much of Raging Bull exists because of the possibilities it offers De Niro to display his own explosive art," wrote Richard Corliss in Time, although precisely what explosive art he was displaying was another question. "What De Niro does in this film isn't acting, exactly," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. "Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn't pleasurable."

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The key word here is "awesome" (in the romantic-poet sense rather than the rad-skateboarder sense), for the real creative progenitor of De Niro's performance in Raging Bull, arguably, was not Brando but Star Wars, released just three years earlier, obliterating all in its path at the box office with the ruthlessness of one of Lucas' imperial star destroyers. "Star Wars was in, Spielberg was in," Scorsese told author Peter Biskind. "We were finished." Were they? In many ways, Raging Bull feels like Scorsese and De Niro's response to Lucas' space epic, an anti-blockbuster built to resist the gravitational pull of the death star by means of a spectacle no less visceral or intense: You give us exploding planets, we give you a ballooning Robert De Niro.

Movie stars had transformed for their roles before, of course—Lon Chaney in the Wolfman movies, Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress—but the studio system existed to hold actors in place, as eternal and unchanging as the stars themselves. * Audiences went to a Bogart picture to see Bogart be Bogart. Once the studio system began to come loose in the '50s and '60s, stars began to take control of their image, as Tony Curtis did for The Boston Strangler (1968), dulling his baby-blue eyes with brown contact lenses and gaining 20 pounds, or Rod Steiger, soaring past 230 pounds on two dinners a day during the shooting of In The Heat of The Night(1967). But De Niro's performance in Raging Bull was something else again, another level of centrifugal force, pulling the entire drama into his orbit, as if the only way actors could compete in the age of multimillion-dollar special-effects spectacle was quite literally to make a spectacle of themselves.

It's telling, for example, that the current vogue for actorly metamorphosis didn't really kick in until after the release of Jurassic Park in 1993. The brave new world of digital effects that movie ushered in was described recently by David Denby in The New Yorker:

Gravity has given up its remorseless pull; one person's flesh can turn into another's, or melt, or become waxy, claylike, or metallic; the ground is not so much terra firma as a launching pad for the true cinematic space, the air, where bodies zoom like projectiles and actual projectiles (bullets say) sometimes move slowly enough to be inspected by the naked eye. Roll over Newton, computer imagery has altered the integrity of time and space.

The comedians were first to wake up to the possibilities. The year after Jurassic Park (1993), we got Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994), and the Farrellys' Dumb and Dumber(1994), as if the only way comedy could hold its own against giant dinosaurs were knockout physical gags that rocked the audience back in their seats—a collective "eew" to match the collective "wow."

The comedians led, the dramatic actors followed. Soon we had such role as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000)—"the best special effect a director could ask for," said director Robert Zemeckis. But what turned the metamorphosis fad into Hollywood's acting style du jour was its first contact with Oscar Gold: Nicole Kidman's fling with a prosthetic nose in The Hours (2003) was followed, a year later, by Charlize Theron donning prosthetic teeth and abjuring hair conditioner for her role as a lesbian serial killer in Monster (2004). "What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins' Monster isn't a performance but an embodiment," wrote Roger Ebert, a polite reframing of Kael's complaint about De Niro.

Today's actors have definitely found a way of adding pleasure to the awesomeness: to see Johnny Depp cantering through the Piratesmovies, or Heath Ledger equally antic in The Dark Knight, is to see method acting spliced with a welcome burst of comic madness. But there's no denying the uptick in self-consciousness to these performances—our consciousness of them as performances—and the element of celebrity brinkmanship. Trying imagining a lesser-known actor in The Hours, or Cast Away, and you begin to see that Kidman and Hanks' performances are as much adjuncts to their status as celebrities as to their skills as actors. They might best be understood, in fact, as a form of cinematic trompe l'oeil, wherein the audience is both fooled and not fooled at the same time, for we never forget that it's Theron under that make-up, or Hanks that's lost all that weight—indeed, to do so would be to defeat the point of the exercise, which is to marvel over the distance traveled by a well-known face or name.

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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