Why Natalie Portman won Best Actress for Black Swan at the Oscars

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This emancipation is a dangerous round of Russian roulette, a tightrope act of the mind. It is a game that many artists must play in the process of discovering their essential selves. It is characterized by a willingness to land on either side of the sane/insane divide for the sake of their art. Nina subconsciously experiments on herself, going places not many are willing to visit. Her sexual naivety is actually a strength that propels her forward into uncharted waters.

Nina is innocence personified. She is quiet, conflicted, and speaks in the high-pitched voice of a little girl wanting so desperately to please Mother (played by the incomparable Barbara Hershey). Shades of pink permeate Nina's wardrobe. An impressive menagerie of stuffed animals populate her bedroom, which looks as if it were unchanged since childhood. A defining climactic moment occurs when Nina finally discovers her voice: its rich, deep tone is almost as shocking as the words that come out of her mouth.  

Though Nina admits to having had boyfriends, she has not yet lost her childlike trust. She is practically ordered by the director to discover her sexual power and to harness it. Sexuality is the deepest expression of our true selves, and Nina comes to innately understand this. Her quest for self-discovery is met with surprising results, both for herself and for the viewer. Nina's sexual maturation is the key to finding the character she is playing.

Perhaps this is true for Portman as well. Artists are drawn to projects that will ultimately inform their lives in some way. Nina’s transformative journey also shaped Portman's life, as Black Swan marks a profound shift in both her personal and professional lives. That she is pregnant and engaged to her Black Swan costar and choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, seems a signifier of how profound and transformative the project was for her. 

There has been much discussion in the press about Portman's physical transformation: long hours of rigorous ballet training, beginning one year before principal photography even began. But the real untold story is how Black Swan changed her psychologically, as an artist and as a human being. To have lived through such an experience, even in the insular world of a film set, one cannot help but find themselves changed. Aronofsky conceived of the project eight long years ago. Portman's willingness to dedicate herself to a director whose projects can only be described as experimental and who has fallen in and out of vogue with critics, is admirable.

Portman doesn’t have an acting agenda on this project other than to experience the journey with every fiber and molecule of her being. That being said, Portman channels Nina Sayers as Sayers channels the Black Swan in the film – an otherworldly tour de force that hits you out of nowhere and won’t let you go. At this point, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress would almost seem superfluous, though completely necessary to appease the cinema gods, who will not be mocked. In her acceptance speech, Natalie Portman could very well have quoted the Black Swan: "It's my turn..." 


But ultimately, the proof is of the art itself. As Oscar Wilde wrote: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." He also said: "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."

If Portman's performance is any indication, she took this wisdom very much to heart.


Check for more insights from Xerxes Smiths' blog, The Essential Cinema.

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