There are few filmmakers whose work is as instantly recognizable as Darren Aronofsky‘s. His subject matter has differed wildly, from Kabbalistic mathematical conspiracies to drug addiction to high-class ballet to Biblical apocalypse in this weekend’s “Noah.” But his heart-on-its-sleeve, unsubtle (that’s not a knock, necessarily), highly cinematic, uniquely stylized films couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anyone else’s, even as their content proves ever-surprising.
But even aside from directorial technique, there’s a continuity in the filmmakers’ work: he’s a great director of actors. Despite the films being almost the definition of Oscar-unfriendly, he’s helped four performers earn Oscar nominations in the 15 years since he broke through, including a win for Natalie Portman. But even those who go unrecognized—from first-timers to Aronofsky favorites like Mark Margolis to major movie stars—turn in fantastic performances. With Russell Crowe getting some great notices for “Noah,” even as the early reviews are more divided (what’s new, for an Aronofsky film?), we decided to pick out 6 of our favorite performances from the director’s five films to date. Agree? Disagree? Say your piece in the comments section below.
Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in “Requiem For A Dream” (2000)
Aronofsky’s second film, his impossibly bleak, hyperactive adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.‘s “Requiem For A Dream” is, like all of the director’s films, either the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, or an over-styled mess. Love it or loathe it, there’s one element of the film that’s basically inarguable, and that’s the performance turned in by veteran Ellen Burstyn. The actress, the star of “The Exorcist” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (the latter of which won her an Oscar) had a quiet couple of decades, cropping up only every so often in lukewarm weepies like “How To Make An American Quilt” or “When A Man Loves A Woman,” so few were prepared for what she could do with Aronofsky. As Sara Goldfarb, the pill-popping, deeply lonely, TV-struck mother of heroin addict Harry (Jared Leto), the then 68-year-old actress wore two different fat suits (the largest adding as much as 40 pounds), before shedding 10 pounds for the final stages of filming as an emaciated Sara is institutionalized. But the transformation goes far beyond the physical. Though the character’s desire to fit into her old red dress is at the source of her downfall, there’s not a shred of vanity in Burstyn’s actual performance, as she throws herself wholeheartedly into Sara’s desperation, heartbreak, aspirations and fears. All four principal actors are remarkable in the film (who knew that Marlon Wayans was capable of something like this?), but it’s Burstyn raw, totally vulnerable, self-deluded turn that’s the source of the desperate, overwhelming sadness that makes the film such a (deliberately) tough watch, not least for anyone with an aged parent themselves—her mid-film monologue will undoubtedly leave you sobbing like Leto immediately afterwards. Burstyn received another Oscar nomination for the performance, the first for one of Aronofsky’s films, but it proved too tough a watch for the Academy, who went for Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” instead.
Hugh Jackman as Tomas/Tommy/Tom Creo in “The Fountain” (2006)
Hugh Jackman has been a movie star for nearly a decade-and-a-half now, but he’s still best known either for his superhero ass-kicking, or charming Broadway-approved song-and-dance, with praise for his straight-up acting only arriving in the last few years, with an Oscar nod for “Les Misérables” and critical plaudits for last year’s “Prisoners.” All of which is a little unfair, because in 2006, the Australian star gave the two best of performances of his career, cannily using his innate charm against itself with an impressively unsympathetic turn in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” and taking a very different turn—or three—in the most divisive and derided film of Aronofsky’s career, “The Fountain.” Originally intended for Brad Pitt in the film’s bigger-budgeted earlier incarnation, the triptych of parts sees Jackman playing a 16th century conquistador on the hunt for the Tree Of Life, a present-day scientist hoping to cure his wife’s brain tumor, and a bald-headed astronaut in the far future escorting the Tree through the universe. This isn’t “Holy Motors” or “Dr. Strangelove”—the three roles aren’t wildly different, and Jackman isn’t doing anything to make them wildly different from each other. But that’s because the nature of the film is that they are all the same person, or elements of each other, and the actor does a good job at showing that throughline of shared DNA between the three Toms. But more than anything, it’s the rawness of the turn that makes this memorable. The film is the most transparent, unsubtle, personal and sincere film of the career of a director who’s never been far from those qualities, and Jackman was the perfect person to pin the film on, especially in his present-day incarnation. He’s a man who knows that the fight against death is already lost, but he’ll fight against it as long as he can stand, even at the expense of spending final moments with his wife (Rachel Weisz, also strong). It’s pig-headed, but eminently relatable, and Jackman’s raw and immensely moving in the way that he captures that kind of I-can’t-stop-or-I’ll-collapse approach to grief.
Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in “The Wrestler” (2008)
There are some great performances that owe at least a portion of their greatness to factors outside the talent of the actor taking the role. And the one moment in Aronofsky’s catalogue where lightning was undeniably bottled, and a real-life persona and a role conflated to an almost transcendent degree, was Mickey Rourke playing the physically ruined, emotionally broken Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler on the irreversibly downward-sliding portion of his later career. Rourke’s own history, as an actor-briefly-turned-pro-boxer with a gossip-column-worthy personal life, hellraising reputation and several arrests, brings added nuance to his character, but even if you were totally unaware of any of that, it’s how his own story is writ large across his face (messed up by some disastrous cosmetic surgery) and across the weary but pumped set of his muscled, aging body that gives the movie its fascinating physicality. Because it is all about physicality—selling the spectacle of your body for money, and what happens when that body starts to give out—all themes that have close parallels to an actor’s life and to Rourke’s in particular. But it’s not just metatextuality that makes this performance so outstanding. Ever the method actor, Rourke is committed and vulnerable, right down to the bone and gristle of the part (though apparently he found the supermarket scenes the hardest, as he “connected to the shame”), and Aronofsky wisely knows to get out of the way; this is the least adorned of the director’s films and all the stronger for it. It was of course written with Rourke in mind, though briefly Nicolas Cage was mooted, but while there’s no doubt “The Wrestler” would have been an interesting film no matter who took the role, it’s Rourke who invests this small, specific story with such grand, operatically tragic overtones. Oscar-nominated, though beaten by Sean Penn for “Milk,” Rourke’s comeback may have stalled somewhat since, but we’re very glad he got at least this gracenote performance. “The Wrestler” preaches, after all, that in whatever form—love, family, career—everyone deserves a second shot, whatever you end up making of it.
Marisa Tomei as Cassidy in “The Wrestler” (2008)
Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “My Cousin Vinny” may have been the subject of maybe the meanest of Awards rumors (the thoroughly debunked speculation that Jack Palance called out her name in error, and the Academy covered up the gaffe), she has made good on the award retroactively in films like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” But she’s probably never been better than here, playing the perfect foil to Mickey Rourke’s showier, central role, but holding her own and imbuing her character, Cassidy, with such hard-won wisdom that she’s a much realer, more rounded and oddly dignified character than the “aging stripper” tag might suggest. Of course the parallels between her profession and that of the pro-wrestler are very clearly drawn, but both actors are so completely at home in their characters that none of it feels contrived, especially not the tenderness that underlies their mutual, tentative reaching out to one another. And it never strays too far into full-on love affair either; there’s always a hard streak of pragmatism to Cassidy’s relationship with Randy, that reinforces the idea that she is the stronger of the two, or perhaps she’s just not quite as calcified into old, self-destructive patterns. Which is not to say that Tomei’s experience on the film was not extremely gruelling too, with Aronofsky’s fondness for exploring different ways into a scene resulting in many multiple takes. “… even just the dance alone was 26 takes and that’s like two minutes of dancing on a pole. That’s really a lot. And that was not one day, that was part of a day. It was a very, very physically challenging shoot,” said the actress in an interview. But with this film, claims Tomei, Aronofsky “intended to make an actor’s piece and he cherished us and we’re very grateful to him,” and its vérité, lo-fi feel does make it seem like something of an outlier in the director’s output, even as it’s a highlight for the actress. She gained a third Best Supporting Actress nomination for the role, and safe to say had her name and not Penelope Cruz’s (for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona“) been called that year, no one would have suggested there’d been a mistake.
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan” (2010)
Time and time again, Aronofsky has transformed the actors in his films. The cast of “Requiem For A Dream” lost weight to a terrifying degree, Hugh Jackman went from Spanish explorer to bald-headed mystic astronaut, Mickey Rourke bared his soul. But nothing in his films has been as literally transformative, on a number of levels, as Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in “Black Swan,” the film that proved, unexpectedly, to be the biggest critical (a Best Picture nomination) and commercial ($300 million worldwide) success of the director’s career. Portman had been an enormously promising actress since her breakthrough in “Léon,” but for every turn that fulfilled that promise, there’d be another with flat line readings or ill-advised choices. But “Black Swan” put any doubt to rest, with Portman perfectly cast as the demure ballerina with a dark side. Her downtrodden, naive little girl in the film’s opening scenes plays nicely into her child star background, and the actress sketches out Nina, and her white swan side, deftly and economically. But very gradually, she lets the black swan out too (Aronofsky often described the film as a werewolf movie in all but name), and we see the cold ambition, the repressed sexuality, and the near-feral darkness that Nina appears to have been hiding for so long. It’s very unlike anything that Portman has done before or since, and all the more terrifying for it: the way she moves in the final dance sequence, regal and withering and monstrous, more reptile than bird, chills the blood. And yet Portman doesn’t let it slip into pure genre either, as the hint of the girl she used to be returns as Nina dances her last number. Some complained when she won the Oscar that a dancing double had been used for some scenes, but few could doubt that this is Portman’s performance through and through.
Barbara Hershey as Erica in “Black Swan” (2010)
One of the critiques most frequently levelled against Aronofsky as a filmmaker is that his films can lack subtlety and/or subtext. We’re not sure how much we agree with that assessment (or rather, we’re not sure how much of a criticism it is, and how much it’s simply part of his style) but one performance which undercuts it, to a degree at least, is Barbara Hershey in “Black Swan,” playing the controlling mother of Natalie Portman’s overachieving ballerina. The film essentially utilizes an unreliable narrator in the form of Nina herself, so the view we get of her mother does become progressively more demonic as the film progresses and as whatever psychotic break with reality Nina is experiencing takes further hold. But Hershey walks the ambiguity of the role brilliantly, playing the demon that Nina sees (and sometimes hallucinates) with just enough flashes of what is perhaps the real woman to leave that relationship open to a myriad of other interpretations. Is she the ultimate stage mother, mercilessly manipulating her daughter into living out her own thwarted ambitions? Is she a lonely, aging woman whose overprotectiveness is triggered by a recognition that her daughter is unwell and is only interpreted as monstrous by her Nina’s fracturing mind? Or has she, as some of the more outre theories have it, actually caused Nina’s condition by years of psychological and possibly even physical molestation? Hershey’s performance captures so many polar opposites, love and hatred, admiration and disdain, scorn and envy that it can be read in any of these ways and still feel complete. Hershey herself credits a great deal of this to Aronofsky’s directorial process, claiming he was totally open to any idea on set, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it. “You felt peacefully used up when you came home at night,” said the actress, “which was a great feeling.”
Honorable Mentions: It’s rare to find a bad performance in an Aronofsky film, and we could also have included Sean Gullette in “Pi,” though it’s rougher round the edges, any of the “Requiem For A Dream” ensemble, namely Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly or Marlon Wayans, Rachel Weisz in “The Fountain,” Evan Rachel Wood in “The Wrestler,” or Mila Kunis in “Black Swan.” And though we haven’t seen it yet, early word is that Russell Crowe delivers one of his best performances in years in “Noah,” while Logan Lerman is said to be a standout too. — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang