Great Oscar debate: Is Natalie Portman overrated?

Was she too frigid in "Black Swan"? Who should really win best actress? Salon's critics discuss

Published February 23, 2011 7:45PM (EST)

Annette Bening, Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams
Annette Bening, Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams

Matt Zoller Seitz: First things first: This has been an absolutely tremendous year for performances by young female actress in complex leading roles. You've got Michelle Williams in two notable movies, and Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone," and Mary Tsoni in "Dogtooth," and Kate Jarvis in Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," which you liked, too. And Hailee Steinfield, who's nominated as best supporting actress for the Coen brothers' "True Grit" remake but should be in this category, because as Mattie Ross, she carries the movie. It's totally her movie. Every minute is about the young adolescent heroine, Mattie Ross, and what this adventure meant to her, and took from her. Yet she's in the supporting category, and Jeff Bridges, whose Rooster Cogburn is clearly a supporting character, is in the lead category! It's maybe the most absurd example of tactical nomination displacement since Timothy Hutton in "Ordinary People," who was nominated for supporting actor (and won) even though that movie is almost entirely about his character.

Which brings us to Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." She's definitely part of that 2010 mini-wave of young lead actress performances that we're talking about here. But I have violently mixed feelings about her nomination and about her performance, Andrew. Talk about an instance where you're with an artist in spirit but not in fact.

Andrew O'Hehir: Ha! We have a disagreement here, in that I think Darren Aronofsky uses Portman's awkwardness to the film's advantage. It's hard to tell whether we're watching Portman wrestling with the Black Swan/White Swan dichotomy, or her character doing so. This is sort of sophomoric, but there may not be a difference. There's such a blow-your-mind meta level to "Black Swan," anyway; a fable about the mad, controlling nature of artists made by an obsessive-compulsive director, etc. At any rate, although Portman is somewhat limited as an actress, I think she gives an amazing physical and psychological performance in this role. What are your reservations?

MZS: Vincent Cassel's choreographer character, Thomas Leroy, nails my problem with Portman's performance, in a comment early in the film that surely wasn't intended as autocriticism but comes off that way: He tells Nina that she's perfect for the role of the White Swan -- the constrained and repressed part, the woman who dots her "I's" and crosses her "T's" and doesn't have a spontaneous or dangerous bone in her body -- but he doesn't believe she can convincingly portray the Black Swan.

AOH: Do we have to say "Spoiler Alert" now, or something? If you haven't seen "Black Swan," go away!

MZS: The entire movie hinges on the conceit that in this choreographer's version, the White Swan and the Black Swan are aspects of the same woman, and the transformation from one to the other is right at the center of the production and provides its thrilling, terrifying climax. That's the entire raison d'être not just of the ballet within the film, but the film itself. So it's imperative that Aronofsky cast an actress who can make us believe Nina as both the White and Black swan. 

I believed Portman as the White Swan -- as the anal-retentive, emotionally arrested, mommy-dominated, neurotic basket case; the self-mutilating masochist; a woman totally divorced not just from adult sexuality but from her own feelings -- from her id! But at the end, when Nina has been broken down and reconstituted and remade as the Black Swan, and we need to believe that she always had it in her and now it's finally coming out, like that blast of ectoplasmic demon-angels coming out of the Ark at the end of the first "Indiana Jones" movie ... Well, to say I didn't buy it would be putting it mildly.

I was quite taken with the movie -- much more so than I anticipated going in, because I have serious reservations about Aronofsky as a control-freak, White Swan sort of director -- but that huge gamble he takes by casting Portman as the transformer, the wild card bet that pays off for the production, doesn't come through for me. At all. I buy it because the movie asks me to buy it, but I didn't feel it, you know? It was like, "OK, Darren Aronofsky, if you say so."

I'd give Portman an award for the best lead performance by an actress who was miscast. 

AOH: You know, the funny thing is that I get exactly what you're saying, but it worked on me differently.  To become the Black Swan, to liberate her libido and her, I dunno, artistic alter ego, Portman's character literally has to destroy both her own personality and her own body. She has to shed blood and literally die (we suspect) in order to liberate herself from her neurotic personality constraints.

I honestly wonder, though, if Portman's overexposure in much weaker films since the Oscar campaign began -- the lame sex film with Ashton Kutcher and the undercooked stepmom film "The Other Woman" -- have damaged whatever chances she started out with.

MZS: Was this a good year for the best actress category? It seems that way to me. Some years it's as if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is throwing its collective back out straining to fill five slots.

AOH: Oh, I definitely agree. There's nobody in the category this year who just makes you want to roll your eyes. I mean, I realize there was a constituency for Sandra Bullock last year. But, seriously now --

MZS:  I'm not crazy about Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole." I don't think she's awful -- in fact she's quite focused and effective, and she doesn't do anything that might take you out of the movie's atmosphere, which could be described as sort of a fog of grief. But looking back on it it seems more like a case of perfect casting. As our own Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out in "The Fascinating Story of Nicole Kidman's Frozen Forehead," Kidman has had so much work done that it's paralyzed her face to the point where now she's only plausible as a semi-catatonic character.

AOH: I'm with you on that one. I pretty strongly disliked "Rabbit Hole" -- watching it was like being suffocated inside a Pottery Barn catalog. I became fixated on real estate questions: "Where in NYC suburbia are these people? That's a Long Island train, but it sure looks like Westchester!" And it is eerie how Kidman -- and I think she's a wonderful actress -- is now best suited to play emotionally frozen characters. You have that critical cliché "a mask of grief." She wears that mask all the time.

MZS: That nomination seems like part of the "In crowd" effect. She already won an Oscar, and that exponentially magnifies her chances of being nominated again. I think she's the weakest of the five nominees by far. What did you think of Bening? Is she a shoo-in to win, and if so, would she deserve it?

AOH: Shoo-in is probably too strong. But I'd be surprised if Bening didn't win, both because of cynical-political factors and because she gave a wonderful performance in a well-liked film. Bening's life story and career trajectory are appealing. She was a respected theater actor and teacher for many years. She is widely admired but doesn't work much and has never played the celebrity game, and she's never won. All that sounds pretty irresistible to Hollywood. What did you make of her performance?

MZS: I thought it was terrific -- exactly the right performance in a movie that very rarely steps wrong. I wouldn't make any special claims for "The Kids Are All Right" as a great American comedy. Despite the subject matter -- a lesbian couple whose domestic life is thrown upside-down when they start interacting with their children's sperm donor -- it's probably the least edgy film Lisa Cholodenko has directed. It's really warm and sweet and reassuring, to the point where it sometimes feels like the best movie James L. Brooks never made. But Bening's performance as Nic raises it a letter grade by managing to be so likable without trying to be liked. It's a very unself-conscious performance, and it really takes you inside this character's somewhat maddening personality. Watching her, you understand why her mate would stray even as you empathize with her as a spouse betrayed.

AOH: Nic is a little bit of a jerk as well as an incipient alcoholic. She's got sharp edges and is way too quick with a cutting remark. You don't like her all that much right up to the point where she realizes she's been betrayed, and I feel like Bening turns that around with tremendous technique and perfect emotional pitch.

MZS:  So neither of us would complain if Bening won. But what about the others? In my fantasy, any of the three actresses we haven't talked about would slip in and take home the prize.

Even though "Winter's Bone" was probably too much of an art-house movie to penetrate the voters' consciousness, I'd love it if Jennifer Lawrence snuck in and pulled off an upset along the lines of Adrien Brody in "The Pianist" -- one of my favorite wins in recent times, if only because it rewarded a minimalist, reactive performance instead of a shouting-from-the-rooftops sort of turn. Lawrence isn't quite that muted in "Winter's Bone," but she's still extraordinarily precise, especially for somebody who's (hopefully) at the beginning of her career.

AOH: I'd definitely be shocked if Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar, but then "Winter's Bone" has had a really surprising run. When I saw it at Sundance last year, I loved it, but I suspected it would fly under the radar and barely get noticed in theatrical release. I guess it wound up being a great movie for 2010, both because it's a film about economic hardship in Middle America and because it's a film made by a woman, with a female protagonist who's very tough in body, mind and spirit.

Lawrence is an amazing young actress, but I don't think her Adrien Brody moment is here yet. Still, she might have more of a chance than Michelle Williams, who I think is the ultra-dark horse in this group.

MZS: Williams was superb in three films last year -- in a supporting role as the ghost haunting Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "Shutter Island," as the pioneer woman in Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff," and in "Blue Valentine," which she's up for this year. If she did pull off an upset, I'd be tempted to read it as sort of a cumulative reward both for versatility and sound judgment in material.

She makes "Blue Valentine," an extraordinarily ambitious film that's rightly been likened to Stanley Donen's underappreciated "Two for the Road." I don't think the movie would really work without her. I love its structural inventiveness and its willingness to go all over the place emotionally; if you charted its energy on a graph, the line would be zigging and zagging all over the place. But at times it felt a bit too conceptual to me -- like the kind of movie that gets points for ambition even though you're more with it in spirit than in fact. Ryan Gosling's performance was exciting but seemed, like the film, a touch too schematic, too in love with its own formal daring. But Williams didn't have that problem. She was just there -- being, existing. She gave the film an immediacy and a voyeuristic quality. When people say the movie feels like a documentary, I think her performance might be what they're actually responding to.

AOH: In terms of predicting a winner, I'm sticking with Annette Bening, which is the same thing I thought after first seeing the film more than a year ago. What about you?

MZS: I predict Bening will win, but my heart is with Michelle Williams. She reminds me of a young Ellen Burstyn in that she plays a lot of different parts, yet every time I see her in anything, I come away thinking she was so perfect in that role that not only can I not imagine anyone else playing it, but I worry she's going to be typecast as that sort of character for the next five years. You're right: It's not her year. But her time will come.

AOH: I certainly think so, and there's no question she's still near the beginning of a major acting career. It's totally possible that somebody looking back at the 2011 best-actress nominees from 40 years' distance will be like, "Huh, Michelle Williams was nominated that year and didn't win. I wonder who the rest of those people are."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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By Matt Zoller Seitz

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Black Swan Blue Valentine Film Salon Movies Oscars The Kids Are All Right Winter's Bone