I’m late on the whole Natalie Portman controversy involving the doltish dance double, and you’re probably done thinking about it, too. But let’s move the discussion over a bit. Yes, obviously Portman deserves all the credit for her award-winning performance in “Black Swan.” Because that’s how these things work. In a way, though, it’s not unlike how we credit directors for films that many would argue is a collaborative effort more than a single person’s doing. As with most film acting, her performance is somewhat aided by the craft of the director and the editor. In this specific case, she also has help from the double and the special effects technicians who put her face onto that double.
It’s the reminder that digital magic was involved that made me want to tackle this topic. Because it recalls the silly debate from a while back about whether or not Brad Pitt deserved an Oscar nomination for a performance partly achieved through special effects, in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” And then there were the complaints about Zoe Saldana being snubbed because her “Avatar” character is too much of a special effect. Andy Serkis’ name was in the mix even earlier for his work in the “Lord of the Rings” films and “King Kong.” Back to this year’s contenders, I expected Armie Hammer to be snubbed because the effects in “The Social Network” are so good we barely even realize what an achievement his double duty acting was.
But if Hammer had been nominated, would Josh Pence, who played Tyler Winklevoss’ body with Hammer’s head digitally afixed, be complaining? The thing that most people are noting in response to the Portman story is that body and stunt doubles have been around for a very long time. Did Vera Farmiga deserve her “Up in the Air” nod alone, even though someone else’s butt contributed to the role? Should stuntmen be given a chunk of the little gold man? (actually, I think a stunt category is one of the most lobbied-for new Oscar categories.) Just yesterday, I was contemplating whether cinematographer Ernest Haller should have been awarded for “Mildred Pierce” over Joan Crawford, at least as far as her performance is concerned.
Forget the bodies, though. How about the actual acting. Is it all the work of the individual doing the line readings and emoting, or are there equivalents to music producers and auto-tune helping talentless seem talented? I don’t follow editing enough to know if any editors are any better at saving performances than others, but it is a fact that thanks to film editing, film acting is easier than theatrical (live) acting. No doubt about it. It’s kind of akin to how I don’t articulate well in social situations and definitely have trouble being insightful about cinema on the spot, live, but I can write a pretty decent blog post with enough time to think and write and edit and move stuff around. And if I have an editor proofing and fixing, it’s all the better. Go see any film-trained actor in a Broadway debut to see how different, likely weaker, their talent is without the help of a cut and a reshoot.
On stage or on screen, though, directors are certainly a big part of an actor’s performance, and a number of film directors deserve more credit for this than others. Milos Foreman is one of my favorites to mention, because the guy is so good with actors he even got Courtney Love a ton of Oscar buzz, for “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” She didn’t receive the nomination — though she got a Golden Globe nod — and neither did Jim Carrey when we expected him to for “Man on the Moon,” but that’s not Foreman’s fault so much as the Academy’s. But seriously what brilliant work have we seen from F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth McGovern, Howard E. Rollins Jr. (before he died), Brad Dourif and Louise Fletcher outside of their Oscar-winning or nominated work for Foreman? Definitely nothing as good.
I now am curious about seeing “Goya’s Ghosts” and seeing how Portman does in that film. Until “Black Swan,” I hadn’t really found her to be a great actress, not even in her first Oscar-recognized role in “Closer.” But I didn’t see her collaboration with Foreman. Now, here’s the thing about the film she did just display great talent in: Darren Aronofsky directed it. And I’ve always considered him an actor’s director, much like Foreman. You think Mickey Rourke deserved the Best Actor nomination last year for “The Wrestler”? No, Aronofsky did. Marisa Tomei might continue her fight to prove she deserves the Oscar she has for “My Cousin Vinny,” but she does so by working with great actors’ directors, hence her third nomination thanks to Aronofsky.
The director only has one other nominee under his belt, Ellen Burstyn, who got her first nod in 20 years with “Requiem for a Dream,” but he’ll probably continue having such luck. He directed a great performance out of Marlon Wayans, after all. If not for the stigma against the idea, I believe he could have gotten Hugh Jackman an Oscar nomination playing Wolverine had he stuck with the project. Especially if he also got a decent stuntman, body double, editor and special effects artist to assist with the performance.
Here’s a montage of all the digital effects work in “Black Swan,” where you can see the few instances employing dancer double with face superimposition: