A Black Swan of a Controversy

Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan has come under fire recently. How much of the complicated dance sequences did she really perform herself? How much was performed by a dancing double? Sarah Lane, the double, came forward and said that Portman only performed about five person of the dance numbers. Fox Searchlight, director Darren Arnofsky, and Mila Kunis have all defended Portman’s performance.

Lane has written a compelling post about the rigorous demands of ballet and what a film like Black Swan means for the ballet world in the Wall Street Journal. She writes: “My only wish is that Natalie, Darren and certain others who worked closely on the movie, could have grasped the beauty and the heart of true ballet. If they had, they would have advocated for this art more and given the real dancers the credit that they deserve.”

Is Lane justified to bring her concerns to the media?  To an extent, yes. She obviously feels as though she has been cast aside by the film’s producers in favor of Portman, the star who went on to win the industry’s biggest award. Lane feels that the media is the only place she can turn to justify her concerns and gain any sort credit.

But there is an oversight in Lane’s commentary. She seems to have seen a different version of Black Swan than I did. Yes, Black Swan is about the beauty and heart of true ballet; there is no doubt that the film captures and respects this notion.  But it is also a highly nuanced and intricate film about, for instance, the decaying female body, mental instability, sexual repression, and personal desire. Ballet serves, in many ways, a metaphor for all of this. On top of all this, Black Swan is a feast of special effects and visual creativity.

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Natalie Portman’s performance is about more than whether or not she  dances en pointe. Her strongest scenes are not these dance sequence that become inundated by these special effects, including the use a double. It is in the scene early on in the film when Nina seeks out Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy to convince him that she deserves the part of the Swan Queen. Until this moment, Nina had been a mostly silent character, shown to be meticulously dedicated to her craft and overwhelmingly quiet. It is Portman’s first scene with extended dialogue. During it you see how Nina, the character, attempts to morph into something she wants to be for the part she desire most. She wears her hair down, she wears bright red lipstick, and she attempts to really use her voice. Scenes like this are the reason why Portman won an Oscar for acting.

This is why when Lane came forward with her grievances, I thought “So?”. Lane has unintentionally exposed her naiveté about how movies are made. Yes, movies are an art form, but they are also apart of an industry. Lane, unfortunately, just became a sort of pawn in that industry. Lane has a right to express her opinion on the matter. But there is a considerable difference between what Natalie Portman did in Black Swan and what Lane did.

What are your thoughts on this controversy? Does it affect your perception of Black Swan? And, perhaps the more pressing question, how long did you wait before purchasing your copy of Black Swan?

The Dilemma’s Dilemma

Today is National Coming Out Day.

For that reason, it is appropriate to discuss a controversy that has rocked Hollywood, but not nearly hard enough as I believe it should have.

In a teaser trailer for Ron Howard’s 2011 comedy, The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, a scene was included of Vaughn’s character insulting an electric car by calling it “gay”. The trailer offended Anderson Cooper. It offended Ellen Degeneres. It offended me.

When I first saw the trailer, I was immediately turned off from seeing The Dilemma. Just like when someone uses the word “gay” as a derogatory statement in real life and I then consider them to be immature and tactless people.

In response to these growing claims of insensitivity on the part of the studio, especially at a time when the issue of LGBT teen suicides has (finally) become major news, Universal has pulled the trailer and replaced it with this one:

In a statement Universal said: “The teaser trailer for The Dilemma was not intended to cause anyone discomfort. In light of growing claims that the introduction to the trailer is insensitive, it is being replaced.”

So the trailer has been reedited (although the scene is still in the movie) and the controversy has been put aside. But not because of the claims of insensitivity. Universal recognized the liability of promoting a Ron Howard movie during Oscar season. No doubt The Dilemma will be pushed in some way as an award-worthy film.

The studio might have acted in one way but it is not the most appropriate way. Universal made no move to address why using the word “gay” as a derogatory term is not acceptable by any means. Instead of promoting an open dialogue about this issue, Universal left it at, “We’re sorry. We fixed it. (Temporarily.) But you should still see this movie.” While this does make sense from a marketing perspective, what is comes down to is this issue should not be passed over and just edited away so a movie can be successful.

I realize that it is not the studio’s job to do anything beyond release new marketing materials and protect their financial investment. They are, after all, a corporation with a certain agenda. For this reason, either the filmmakers or the actors should address why the sequence is inappropriate and not just let it wither away. By making the use of the word “gay” a non-issue, it remains a non-issue. Homophobia is not held to the same standards as other forms of bigotry in the United States. The discussion needs to start now and whenever possible, even if it is just a movie trailer, before it becomes too late.

What do you think? Did the studio do the right thing by reediting the trailer and leaving it at that? Or is this just a non-issue that has been blown up for no reason at all?

Preview: Tropic Thunder

It is always strange for me when what I’m learning in my film classes manifests itself in some way in current films and pop culture. Today after my Race, Ethnicity and the Hollywood Musicial and a discussion about the use and meanings of blackface, I went to Entertainment Weekly online and read this preview of Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, Tropic Thunder (opening August 15).

The film, directed and co-written by Stiller and starring Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., is an epic comedy about the production of a Vietnam Era film.

Downey, pictured in the center, plays Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar winning actor cast in the role Sgt. Osiris.

From EW.com “Problem is, Lazarus’s character, Sgt. Osiris, was originally written as black. So Lazarus decides to dye his skin and play Osiris, um, authentically. Funny? Sure. Dangerous? That’s an understatement. ”If it’s done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago,” Downey says. ”If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell.” [..]

The question is: Can this satire not only be a box office hit but not be a read an offensive portrayal of African Americans?

Stiller says: ”I was trying to push it as far as you can within reality. ‘I had no idea how people would respond to it.” (When a rough cut of the film was screened, it scored high with African-Americans.)

And Downey says: ”At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character. ‘I dove in with both feet. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.” [Source]

The bottom line: Satire, when it’s done right, can be the most effective way to make a point. Tropic Thunder is not necessarily making a statement about blackface (see Spike Lee’s Bamboozled), but it is definitely making a statement about Hollywood and those who make moveis. I’m most interested in seeing how more people, other than a sample audience, respond to Tropic Thunder.

The trailer for Tropic Thunder debuts online March 17.

Death of a President Premieres at Toronto

Death of a President premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday September 10.

Death of a President is a fictional docudrama set years after the assassination of President George W. Bush, that investigates the still unsolved mystery.

I realize that the following two articles will anger some readers. Please read both articles in their entirety (the second specifically explains more about the film) before you comment.

Bush Assassination Film Applauded at Festival [SOURCE]
By WENN Monday, September 11, 2006

HOLLYWOOD – A controversial British drama about the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush has been applauded following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in Canada.

Death of a President, which shows Bush shot dead in Chicago in 2007, was recently slammed as “irresponsible” and “horrible” by American politicians.

However, director Gabriel Range claims critics are judging the film unfairly as they have yet to see it.

He says, “I think the film makes it clear it would really be a horrific event. I really don’t think that anyone would get the idea of assassinating Bush from this film.” He adds, “It is using the lens of the future to look at the present. It is about issues that have affected us all in the last five years. It is a film about America today.”

The central conceit of the film was that it is a drama, but told in the style of what we hope is a fairly authentic, classic, retrospective documentary. Clearly, if we had told a retrospective documentary with a fictional president, it would have undermined and undercut that central idea.”

Bush Assassination Film Set for U.S. Release [SOURCE]
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TORONTO – After you kill off President George W. Bush in a fictional film, what do you do? How about make a deal.

Gabriel Range, the British producer/director/creator of Death of a President, the fictional documentary that sight unseen became one of the most talked-about movies of the Toronto Film Festival, has sold U.S. distribution rights to Newmarket Films, which handled Mel Gibson’s equally provocative movie The Passion of the Christ.

Newmarket, which reportedly paid $1 million for the film, is expected to give President a wide release within the next few months. It will air on Britain’s Channel 4 next month.

Range’s film opened on Sunday night to a sell-out festival crowd, which sat respectfully through it and applauded briefly at the end. Those who remained after the screening peppered the filmmaker with questions on how he achieved his special effects.

The film is shot as if it were a conventional television documentary, even though the events are fictional.

Range, who also co-wrote the film, uses footage taken of Bush during three visits to Chicago to create the scenes that lead up to the president being shot.

He also uses special digital effects to superimpose the head of the president on that of an actor pretending to be shot, and he creates a flowery eulogy delivered by President Dick Cheney at the funeral of his predecessor.

The movie opens with demonstrations against Bush as he visits Chicago in 2007. As he leaves a hotel after delivering a speech, he is shot by a sniper in a nearby building.

A police hunt leads to the arrest of a Palestinian man on flimsy evidence. Later the man is convicted of the assassination and kept in prison even as evidence points to another person as having committed the crime.

The reaction of the general public was very good,” Range said in an interview with Reuters about the opening night response.

People didn’t know what to expect. Our film has a very striking premise but it is not sensational or gratuitous. I hope people will see it as a balanced film and compelling drama. It is an oblique look at the ways the United States has changed since 9/11. We use the lens of the future to explain the past.”

The 93-minute film’s subject matter has led to protests in the United States, especially from conservatives. Range said he has received five or six death threats.

But he said that was because there was a rush to judgment about his film, without people knowing what was in it.

We portrayed the horror of assassination. … I don’t think anyone would get the idea of assassinating Bush from this film,” Range said.


Death of a President seems provocative and intriguing so I will most likely scope it out.

But what do you think? Would you ever consider going to see a film about the fictional assassination of the current president? Does it bother you that a film like this can even be released in the United States? Feel free to discuss. Doesn’t matter what your opinion is.

By the way, Death of a President has already agitated Kevin Costner. He makes some valid points about the movie. Be sure to read what he has said.