Natalie Portman vs Sarah Lane: Why "Black Swan" performance wasn't about dancing

Her white swan was perfect ... or was it? Ballet body double raises question of film's authenticity

By Drew Grant
Published March 28, 2011 5:20PM (EDT)
The two Ninas of "Black Swan."
The two Ninas of "Black Swan."

In a controversy that reads like a real-life version of a movie plot, "Black Swan" dancer Sarah Lane has caused a stir with claims that lead actress Natalie Portman wasn't the ballet expert that the film's publicity team claimed she was. According to the ballerina -- who performed the film's more complicated dance sequences and on whose body Natalie's face was grafted for those scenes – Portman's talent was vastly overstated in the press during Fox Searchlight Films' bid to win the best actress Oscar for their movie.

That's not to say that Lane doesn't admire Natalie's performance:

"I do give her a lot of credit because in a year and a half she lost a lot of weight and she really tried to go method and get into a dancers head and really feel like a ballet dancer."

What's funny about this whole "scandal" is that both sides of the argument only care about Natalie's performance leading up to the film's taping: something that really isn't taken into consideration while audiences are watching the film. We're not even sure we understand what Lane's motivation is with coming out with this news: If she feels like she wasn't given the proper credit, why go to the press now? Did she think, as Mila Kunis' character in "Black Swan" did, that by undermining the lead she would be given the starring credit in the production?

Unfortunately, it's equally ridiculous that the studio is now responding with its own claims defending how many of the dance scenes in the film were pure Natalie, as if her Best Actress win was based entirely on her ability to pull off a fouetté. It's become a haggling negotiation; with the film's choreographer (and Portman's fiancé) Benjamin Millepied claiming that "85 percent of that movie is Natalie" and Lane claiming that the actress only did 5 percent of the body shots.

While the studio and ballerina are haggling over the percentages of sur les pointes, the question we should be asking is, "Why does it matter?" "Black Swan" is a film that deals with dissolution of reality, takes place entirely through the eyes of an unstable young woman, and in no way purports to be a documentary. Though the studio did hit it strong with its pre-Oscar talk of Natalie's preparation for the role, nobody should have been under the illusion that Natalie Portman had somehow transformed herself into a world-class ballerina. That's not her job: She's an actress. And whatever preparation she did for the role is secondary (and for the most part, irrelevant) to her performance.

You can't help but feel that this "Black Swan" scandal is only being called such because 2010 happened to be such a big year for audiences trying to deduce the reality of films like "Catfish" and "I'm Still Here." But "Black Swan" wasn't a documentary, nor was it a faux-mentary, and all the hype surrounding Natalie's ballet chops in the film did not influence the way audiences perceived her role in the psychological thriller.

Ultimately, the blame for this controversy falls as much on Fox as it does on Sarah Lane: After all, they were the ones who made such a big deal about Natalie's dance skills to begin with, leaving the door wide open for someone to come in and question the validity of the claim. And honestly, what would the movie have lost if every interview about the film hadn't crammed in some mention of Natalie's years of prep work? Absolutely nothing. Would she still have won the Oscar? Probably. It may have even helped audiences separate the actress from her character: After hearing about all her prep work for"Black Swan," it's hard not to imagine Nina as an extension of Natalie's own hyper-fastidious, Type-A persona. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote in her review of "Black Swan" when it came out:

 Ms. Portman’s performance in "Black Swan" is more art than autobiography, and as a consequence more honest, but because it’s so demandingly physical the lines that usually divide actresses from their characters are also blurred. This is, after all, Ms. Portman’s own thin body on display, her jutting chest bones as sharply defined as a picket fence.

Again, though, this focus on Portman's physique over her performance shows just how little stock critics put on Natalie's ability to pull off the role on the basis of her acting ability alone.

Drew Grant

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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