Black Swan—visceral, grotesque, and mind-bending—is the dark darling of a fistful of end-of-year films, plumed and poised for industry award recognition. Natalie Portman has a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod for Best Actress in her role as the whispery, pristine ballerina battling external pressures and her own jagged psyche. Although Portman’s performance was masterfully eerie, I am continuously haunted by how ghostly skinny the young actress got for this role.
In the film, childlike, virginal Nina Sayers (Portman) is stalked by her erotic, rapacious other (embodied by both her coquettish rival, Mila Kunis, and her own reflection) as she pursues a prima ballerina’s ultimate role. The Odette/Odile role in Swan Lake (the rival white and black swans) is typically performed by the same dancer, and presents the destructive virgin/vamp dichotomy long applied to women. Nina’s own severing personality further displays this impossible schism.
While this film may have been intended to exhibit, at least, the manipulation of women’s bodies in the ballet world, and, at most, the predominant warping of women’s sense of self in the greater media/entertainment industry—the achievement of the principle role required Portman to put her own health in jeopardy.
In an interview with Michael Ordoña for the San Francisco Chronicle last November, Portman admonished the branding of women as little girls in male-controlled ballet companies, and assured her fans that she loves to eat and didn’t start dieting for the role until the last possible minute.
Considering Natalie Portman cut back on eating and “sculpted” her body for a year just to achieve the look of a dancer necessary for this role (a part she had wanted to play for ten years), I can’t help but wonder if she latched on to the inevitable glory of the Black Swan part the same way many Hollywood actors jump for the Oscar-guarantee of a leading role in a Holocaust movie.
On the road to the Academy Awards, Portman shrunk from slender to skeletal as she transformed into Nina Sayers. A metamorphosis eerily similar to that of Nina herself, who wretched into the toilet and clawed a perennial wound into her shoulder as she jeté’d her way toward center stage.
The only thing more unsettling than watching bony Nina pirouette in a sea of other women whose bathroom scales don’t go into triple digits, is the new ‘health’ fad this role has spawned. Natalie’s trainer, Mary Helen Bowers, retired from the New York City Ballet at age twenty-six and, in the wake of Black Swan buzz, launched her fitness website, “Ballet Beautiful.” Bowers demonstrated some of her moves (think yoga poses with pointed toes and fluttering arms) on two talk shows, where Lisa Rinna declared, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a dancer’s body,” and Tanya Rivero affirmed, “All women admire dancers’ bodies.” But the extreme maintenance necessary for a “ballerina body” is simply unrealistic for most women, as is the idea that all our bodies should look the same.
Bowers boasts on Access Hollywood, “You can turn any body into a ballerina.” But, after two hours of a tense and by no means glamorous look into the ultimately tragic life of a woman who possesses this body—why would we want that?