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Oscars: Lead actress: 'Black Swan's' Natalie Portman made worthy sacrifice for her art

As a troubled ballerina in 'Black Swan,' Natalie Portman made all the right moves, no matter the price.

February 28, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Natalie Portman at the Academy Awards.
Natalie Portman at the Academy Awards. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The agony and ecstasy of Natalie Portman's "Black Swan" is a kind of gothic perfection.

It is her passion play, as much as a performance, born of a long desire to take her acting into the world of ballet that she fell in love with as a child. Perhaps if her dreams had unfolded differently, we might know her as the featured ballerina from one company or another. More likely, we would not know her at all, and the artistic world would be poorer for it.

Certainly there is movie magic in the ritualistic sacrifice of director Darren Aronofsky's film as Portman's prima ballerina suffers stigmatas of ripped skin and sprouting feathers. But there was pain enough of the real kind too. Nine months at the ballet barre before shooting began. Hours in solitary practice, pushing past exhaustion, bruised toes and aching muscles, raising her craft to dizzying heights.

Maybe we would still feel the searing pain of her doomed dancer had she not forced herself to wring the very soul out of her woman-child, but I doubt it. The work pared the body down to nearly nothing, as if her bones themselves were looking to escape the punishing regime she demanded.

Ultimately, though, what makes Portman's performance so singular is not just the dance, which is breathtakingly beautiful, but all the ways she deconstructs as the demons close in. Whimpering under a blanket as she tries to escape the lash of her mother's tongue, trembling in the embrace of the Machiavellian master who will determine her fate, the terror of the known and unknown never leaving her eyes.

The performance is fearless, frighteningly so. She stands before us emotionally naked, only her talent on the line. After last night, no questions remain. The swan soars.

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