Saturday, February 19, 2011

Black Swan: The $100 Million Dollar Ballet Blockbuster

If someone were to tell me about this time last year that a film about ballet would gross almost $100 million dollars and garner five Academy Award nominations—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress—I guarantee I would have rolled my eyes at you. I wouldn’t doubt that from a critical standpoint, a film about ballet would represent well at the Oscars. After all, in 1951, An American In Paris took home the Best Picture Oscar largely on the strength of its dazzling 18-minute ballet-inspired finale. Also, these types of pictures generally clean house when it comes to the technical categories like Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, etc.

Not so long ago though, $100 million dollars was considered the threshold for a film to be called a blockbuster. By that reckoning, Black Swan is certainly one of the strangest and most polarizing films to attract both award attention and mass audiences. For how unlikely a blockbuster the film seems, upon closer examination Black Swan has many elements that have combined to give it mass appeal.

Darren Aronofsky, the film’s director, has to be a big consideration. While Aronofsky has never really made films that have the reputation for being money makers, he does have the reputation of being a master craftsman who has translated difficult subject matter to the screen. Of the four Aronofsky films preceding Black Swan, two have become certifiable classics. In 2000, he adapted Hubert Selby’s novel about drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream, into an unflinching and powerful film. Requiem for a Dream is notable for several outstanding performances, a hyper-kinetic editing style, and contains several scenes of utter depravity that have gone further down the drug addiction spiral than any film before it or any film since. Nearly everyone who has seen the film truly admires it, yet also feels that it is a cinematic experience that once seen, is to unbearable to be watched again.

Aronofsky’s other classic is 2008’s The Wrestler. The Wrestler is very much like Black Swan, in that the main characters are athletic performers in often misunderstood forms of entertainment who sacrifice their bodies to an extreme limit because of dedication to their craft. Randy the Ram—the protagonist played by Mickey Rourke in his big comeback role—has punished his body for professional wrestling, and both films examine how sacrificing one’s body toward art changes the psyche of the athlete who offers their body to their craft. While The Wrestler was not the runaway success Black Swan has been at the box office, the $26 million dollars it made certainly exceeded any expectations box office prognosticators had for a film about professional wrestling with a burned out star in the lead. In fact, had Sean Penn not played Harvey Milk that year, Mickey Rourke would have certainly won the Oscar for Best Actor (Rourke did win the Golden Globe).

The biggest impact The Wrestler made was to establish Aronofsky as a reliable auteur filmmaker in the mold of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino or Stanley Kubrick. A film can now be sold based simply on Aronofsky’s name. He is a filmmaker associated with both quality and risk, and his films have a track record of delivering unique experiences. Black Swan reaped the benefits of Aronofsky establishing his credentials through his previous filmography. There was always going to be a percentage of the audience waiting for his next film.

In terms of drawing audiences, Natalie Portman’s popularity cannot be underestimated. She has been in films both epic—the Star Wars prequels—and intimate—Mike Nichols’ Closer, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Portman has also cultivated a controversy-free, appealing image that balances her Harvard education with her vegetarian activism and her history as a child actress. I can’t think of anyone saying they hate Natalie Portman. She’s a bonafide movie star in the mold of Audrey Hepburn.

That said, her role as Nina Sayers in the film allows Portman to go further than she has ever gone as an actress before. Aronofsky is wise to play off Portman’s good-girl image when he cast her in the role. A key plot point is that the ballet company in the film is staging Swan Lake, and the lead role in the production requires the ballerina to play both the good and evil personas of the Swan Queen. Nina’s perfect, delicate style makes her perhaps overqualified to play the “good” persona, but she seems to lack the passion and the sexuality to render the “evil” persona convincingly. Portman herself has played many goody-goody, sweetheart, and cutie pie roles. Speaking personally, I have always found Portman to never quite live up to her astonishing debut as the vengeful Mathilde in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994), a role she played at the age of 12. Portman herself said, "I'm trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person."

Combine Portman’s ambitions with the demands of the role—the intensive ballet training required for the part, the significant weight loss that goes with it, the intense and insular nature of the character, the explicit sexuality—and the stage is set for a popular, beloved actor to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime performance. I would compare the role favorably to Robert DeNiro’s Oscar winning turn as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, especially in the physical transformations necessary to make the part work.

The other two factors that account for the film’s popularity are the lurid subject matter and the fact that it is a film about ballet. Even before I saw a preview for the film, I knew that it was going to be more of a hallucinatory thriller than a film about the art of ballet. What I didn’t expect is how much melodrama was contained in the film. A key subplot is straight out of All About Eve, in that Nina usurps the part of the Swan Queen from an older ballerina (played by Winona Ryder—and that also is a bit of brilliant casting, as Portman has basically played the sorts of roles in the 2000’s-2010’s that Ryder played in the late 1980’s-1990’s). In turn, Nina is also constantly looking over her shoulder at her looser, more comfortably sexual understudy Lily (Mila Kunis, and who would have ever figured the chick who played Jackie on That ‘70’s Show had a performance like this in her), who seems like a more natural choice to play the evil Swan Queen. There is also tons of sex in the film, as the repressed Nina is basically kept in girlhood by her dominating mother (Barbara Hershey). As frenemy relationship is forged between Nina and Lily, Nina allows herself to open up sexually to Lily, culminating in a full-on lesbian sex scene between the two characters. I’m sure straight males everywhere (and probably many women) forgave their wives and girlfriends for dragging them to see the “ballet flick” after seeing Mila Kunis go down on Natalie Portman. Backstage backbiting, hallucinations, lesbian sex—there is more than enough drama in Black Swan to help audiences overcome the fact that the film is a “ballet movie”.

None of the above should discount the fact that there are many, many people who are going to see Black Swan precisely because it is a ballet movie. How many little girls in this country have taken ballet classes at some point and carried fond memories of those times into adulthood? Ballet has always managed to capture the dreams of women (and let’s face it—probably many men too). It’s fantasy. It’s Natalie Portman as a ballerina. It’s a rare chance to see the art of ballet on the silver screen. Aronofsky certainly makes the dancing the major attraction of the film. His warts-and-all approach to ballet only gives the audience further appreciation of the art. The scene where Nina’s big toe splits open quickly dispels any romantic notions of ballet, and those scenes also greatly appeal to the people in the audience who love body horror—and Black Swan is also most certainly a body horror film.

With such a broad variety of ways Black Swan appeals to moviegoers it is unsurprising that the film is a hit. Which begs the question: is the film worthy of Best Picture? In answering it, some bipolar attitudes about the film are revealed.

I was surprised that Black Swan did not receive any nominations for Art Direction, Costume Design, or Makeup—three categories I thought were absolute locks for the film. (Score was never going to be a factor, since most of the film uses Tchaikovsky, and scores that use an abundance of previously used material are ineligible for Oscar nominations.) Yet it did receive nominations for Cinematography and Editing—which are probably the two most prestige of the technical categories. Aronofsky received his first nomination, and the film’s best chance at receiving Oscar gold is via Natalie Portman for Best Actress, who looks to be a lock. Despite several positive notices neither Mila Kunis (who did receive a Golden Globe nomination) nor Barbara Hershey scored a Supporting Actress nomination.

The most telling thing when you look at Black Swan’s nomination tally is that the film did not receive a nomination for Original Screenplay, and justifiably so. The screenplay is easily the weakest part of the film. For starters, I don’t think the script is the best at balancing the ballet elements with the psychological horror elements of the film. When a key plot point of the film has—SPOILERS AHEAD—Nina literally transforming into a black swan, the screenwriting team of Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin are asking the audience to take a major leap of faith. The ballet portions of the film are so well grounded—and the most interesting—that Nina’s psychoses seem like plot devices instead of organically part of the narrative.

I also think that the characters function more as symbols than real people. Nina’s character is represents virginity, repression and almost a clinical perfection. Lily is earthy, sexual and uninhibited. Both Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey’s characters represent the ballerina gone to pasture, and Hershey has the added bonus of playing a psycho mother. Poor Natalie Portman though, for all the grueling physical preparation and transformation her body endured for the role, plays a character that is largely a cipher. Nina is motivated to be “perfect” but we never see how Nina specifies perfection or the process in which she can achieve it. A huge fuss is made over her character not being passionate enough to play the evil Swan Queen, and we never see the moment when Nina earns the role. We are told she bites the lip of her director (Vincent Cassel, oozing smarm) so hard she draws blood when he tries to kiss her, but the actual bite is never shown. For a film that revels in shots of toenails splitting in two, this is a huge missed opportunity. The way Nina is written I never felt access to her, I never felt like I was being carried along side this girl on her journey. By the time the finale rolls around, I did not have an emotional connection to Nina; I was simply watching to see how the melodrama plays out. When comparing Nina to Randy the Ram in The Wrestler—which was written by a different screenwriter—it’s night and day as to which character seems more like a real person and less like a plot device. It’s a shame, for as much as Portman sacrificed her body for the role; the screenwriters gave her very little material to carve out a character that feels real.

Ultimately, I think Black Swan benefits from the Academy expanding the field of nominees to ten instead of the more traditional five. I think Aronofsky would have secured a nomination anyway—his virtuosity as a director is on constant display—but the film itself is simply too strange to be a film with a solid chance at winning the Oscar. It’s very polarizing—popular consensus shows there are as many people who hate the film as claim to love it—which also probably accounts for its box office popularity. I know I always want to see a polarizing film so I can form my own opinions. Ultimately, I think Black Swan is a technical masterpiece that does not do enough to win the characters over on me. It’s a beautiful, but largely emotionless film. That said there are plenty of elements within the film to satisfy the curiosities of moviegoers, accounting for its surprising box office totals.


Black Swan (2010)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures (20th Century Fox)

Total Oscar Nominations: 5 (Best Picture—Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver; Best Director—Darren Aronofsky; Best Actress—Natalie Portman; Best Cinematography—Matthew Libatique; Best Editing—Andrew Weisblum)

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