Thursday, January 6, 2011

Commentary: Natalie Portman, Black Swan and Best Actress Oscars

A major reason why you are reading this commentary instead of a Black Swan review is because when I walked out of Darren Aronofsky's film last week, I was completely blown away by the director's latest work, including the incredible acting that took place in it. Not only was Swan incredible, but I was particularly taken by Natalie Portman's performance as a troubled ballerina who gets the lead part in Swan Lake. When I expressed my curiosity for a Portman Oscar bid, my wife alerted me to the fact that she was already nominated for a Golden Globe...which means an Academy nomination is the next natural progression. Before I let out a confident statement about how the Best Actress Award is all but hers, I had to ask the question, "Who else is nominated?", and for good reason.

As if I didn't already know that the fix is in on the awards circuit, I wanted to know what exactly defines the quintessential best actress in Hollywood. It seems that winning an Oscar for a female actress is unfortunately more crapshoot than anything else. In the instance of Best Actress for the last few years, the key to winning the award seemed to be based on the character rather than the performance of the actress.

Take for instance last year. Sandra Bullock was the hands down favorite to win Best Actress for her work in The Blind Side. Critics' raved relentlessly how Bullock's performance redefined the thespian profession. Based on a true story, Bullock played Leigh Anne Tuohy, an unselfish woman who opened her heart and home to an unprivileged young man. In reality, Tuohy gets nothing but respect for being a wonderful human being. And after I sat down to watch Blind Side for the first time a couple weeks ago, I think that is the reason why Bullock won the honor. In fact, it has to be the reason. No offense to Sandra Bullock, who I have total respect for as an actress, but her "universally unequal" performance was actually very basic at best. She played a tough Southerner who maintains a take-no-crap attitude. That's it. There was no character transformation, no inner emotional struggle, no dramatic turn. Just surprisingly vanilla in contrast to the endless praise she received.

Bullock's win last year reminds me of Julia Roberts' victory with Erin Brockovich in the early 2000's. Roberts played Brockovich - a woman with a take no crap attitude, albeit with her pop-up bra thrusting her boobalas out at the camera the entire time. Roberts was the Hollywood darling at the time and portrayed a character out of her scope. So like Tuohy, Brockovich is a triumph in reality, but Roberts' performance was only passable. This instance is another reason why I feel the way I do when it comes to best actress winners. Bullock's character in Blind Side was "Sandra Bullock PLAYS Leigh Anne Tuohy" just as Roberts' character in Erin Brockovich was "Julia Roberts PLAYS Erin Brockovich".

Now back to Portman. I just read some articles playing up the "pregnancy" angle because she will be expecting when Oscar time comes around, even though she would not be the first woman to win an Oscar with child. This particular article is written as if Portman's performance alone would not be enough to justify her as the front runner. What the heck does her pregnancy have to do with winning the Oscar?

If you have not seen Black Swan yet, I implore you to do so immediately...but only if you can tolerate Aronofsky (I dig him). Unlike watching Bullock PLAY Tuohy or Roberts PLAY Brockovich, you forget you are watching Natalie Portman about 2-3 minutes in. Unlike the character she portrays in Swan, Portman loses herself in the role; bringing the audience along with her.

Other names thrown into the arena with Portman for Best Actress could potentially be former winner Halle Berry. And Michelle Williams has been recently receiving praise for her turn in Blue Valentine and is a strong dark horse. Could it be a battle of Black and Blue battle for the award? Sorry I couldn't resist. The more interesting name this year is Nicole Kidman, a big name actress who is being touted as the comeback kid since she has been a bit MIA since her Oscar win in 2002 for The Hours (ed. notes: Thanks, Emily!). And the Academy always LOVES a good comeback, so this angle might be worth keeping an eye on.

Maybe the Academy should stop giving out the awards to the hot hand or Hollywood darling of the year and start awarding actresses based on their performances. I admit that the same could be said for other awards, but the Best Actress category just makes it a bit too obvious. 


McGriddle Pants said...

THANK YOU! I feel exactly the same way about Bullock in the Blind Side. Yes, it was a good movie. Yes, she played it well. But BEST ACTRESS?! Um... no.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just not sure I want to see Black Swan. And my bet is still on Hailee Steinfeld, at least for a nomination.

allison said...

I've been wondering if I should post a Black Swan review/opinion piece or not... I think I'm the only person in the world who didn't like it. And, not to be snarky, but I was totally aware I was watching Natalie Portman throughout the entire movie. I've only seen in her in a few movies, and the only title that comes to mind is "Where the Heart Is" ... when she also played a soft spoken, sweet girl who eventually learns to stand up for herself, albeit to a lesser/less violent degree.

I'll cut myself off here to keep from writing my post in your comments.

Hart Johnson said...

I am so with you, here--it is definitely the ROLL more often than the performance. I also remember hearing, when Roberts won, about what a 'hard-working' actress she was (probably they have said the same about Bullock--I've stopped paying attention), but just because someone works hard, doesn't mean they put in a great performance. You need something that is really exceptions (or should)--I am curious to see Black Swan. I like Portman anyway, and Swan Lake was the first 'live performance' of anything I ever saw.

B-Movie Becky said...

I'm with ya on the nomination business. It can be pretty frustrating - and it happens in all categories. Why are horror films never nominated for makeup? And yet every year we get the same damn period pieces and musicals getting nominated in this category.

Anyway, Natalie Portman's performance was one of the best I've seen, but I hated the movie. I do like Aronofsky, so it's not his depressing style that got to me or anything. I have a review up if you want the long-winded version of why I didn't like it.

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman, and I'm really looking forward to see Black Swan. I very rarely bother to keep up with awards ceremonies, they tend to bore me and there's the whole political/fixing thing. But from what I've heard, Portman's performance in this is stellar.

Dan said...

I've head a lot of people comment saying that Gabourey Sidibe shoul;d have won last year, but I didn't see either film if I'm honest so couldn't give a judgement.

Geof said...

McGriddle - glad to see someone agrees with me on Bullock's award.

Alex - it's worth a watch. I haven't seen Steinfeld's film so I have nothing I comment on for that.

Allison - Even though we disagree, I have missed a nice Allison rant. And I love the word snarky. :)

Hart - Not to mention, doesn't everyone work hard in this category? I remember that "work ethic" angle as well. So laughable. "Roberts busted her ass, but every one else just slept their way through their parts." Sure. Haha.

Becky - Horror movies get ZERO love for anything at the Oscars. I'll go check out your review. =)

Jamie - This post was just something that popped in my head and I wrote down. I know awards are ine giant popularity contest but I have a soft spot for Portman too.

Dan - I haven't seen Precious so I can't comment, but Bullock was plain vanilla in her role.

Emily said...

Psst. Nicole Kidman did win a few years back for The Hours. Remember, she played ugly and hence, sealed the deal.

I really loved Portman's performance, which says something because I'm generally NOT the biggest Portman fan. I think this year seems like a strong year for best actress, especially with young Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) thrown in the mix. As long as they keep The Blind Side away from me, at least I won't kill something.

Geof said...

Emily - I haven't seen Winter's Bone yet, but I would like to especially since I have been reading so much about Lawrence. Thanks for reminding me about The Hours, the Golden Globe site I used had listed Berry but NOT Kidman as winning an Oscar, which is neither here or there so whatever. But you opened a door I meant to go down originally...playing ugly. Look I forgot all about Kidman playing Woolf and I think that is because the performance was forgettable. Same goes for Theron who did alright in Monster, but she played "ugly" and had the hot hand the following year.

Dom said...

"Maybe the Academy should stop giving out the awards to the hot hand or Hollywood darling of the year and start awarding actresses based on their performances." - 100% on the money.

Glad you pointed to Julia Roberts as an example for "Erin Brokovich". If memory serves me, she took it that year over Ellen Burnstyn in "Requiem For A Dream", which to this day is just absolutely absurd (imho).

Also, I will echo Emily's sentiment: Natalie Portman was outstanding, but if push comes to shove I think Jennifer Lawrence deserves it for "Winter's Bone". Flick is INSANE, man. Check it out and then you and I need to have a conversation regarding a scene w/a chainsaw...I'll leave it at that.

Great post, sir. Needed to be said. 2010 was an excellent year for the ladies, should make for a very interesting Oscar race.

Rock it.


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