by Claire Willett
If you’ve happened on Dance Magazine’s website lately – or if, like me, you have Facebook friends who are professional ballet dancers – then you may have seen Wendy Perron’s columns from last week and the week before about Sarah Lane, the ballet dancer whose body doubled for Natalie Portman in her award-winning performance as Nina in the recent film Black Swan. In the following video (caution: this contains both spoilers and some gross special effects), you can see a very cool montage of digitally-enhanced scenes from the movie with original plates overlaid by effects shots – adding feathers to Portman’s arms, erasing crew and lighting rigs in the background, color-correction, etc. One of these techniques is euphemistically titled “face replacement,” and it’s causing a major stir. Why? Because in all of the climatic moments of the movie where we see Nina in motion, it’s Sarah Lane doing the dancing. Her face has been digitally replaced with Portman’s. Watch the video here:
** One more warning, this video contains spoilers and some gross special effects **
Now, in her defense, this is not just Portman’s issue (though she may have been complicit, and I didn’t hear her thank or acknowledge Sarah Lane in her recent seventeen thousand acceptance speeches). This is a studio issue. This is a 100% Hollywood-generated fake storyline intended to create the illusion that an actress learned how to be a ballet dancer in a year with nothing but a little coaching and her own sheer chutzpah and determination. It’s shameless Oscar bait. I have my own feelings about the Academy’s constant trumpeting of big grandiose spectacle roles over the arguably more challenging task of bringing a subtle, relatable, ordinary character to life (but I haven’t seen The Kids Are All Right yet either so I’m not shilling for Annette Bening here).
Body doubles are nothing new in film; actors use them for scenes that fall outside their standard contract agreements (mostly things like stunts, motion-capture, nudity or sex scenes), or for any situation in which it might be cheaper and easier to use a double rather than pay your star. And certainly movie musicals have been openly dubbing the voices of non-singing stars for years – we all know that wasn’t really Audrey Hepburn singing “I Could Have Danced All Night,” right, guys? But my point is that in this film, the physicality of Nina’s dancing – the way her body expressed her emotions – was surely a not-at-all-insignificant component that voters evaluated in the process of handing Portman award after award after award. She was playing a ballet dancer. The quality of her dancing was under scrutiny. So aren’t we compelled to say that a good 50% of that Oscar statuette, if not more, is really Sarah Lane’s? Doesn’t Portman owe a sizable chunk of this success to the hardworking athlete whose body executed all of those tremendously complicated dance moves, who was asked by the studios to stop giving interviews and keep her mouth shut until Portman had an Oscar in her hand, and to be complicit in the creation of a lie (or “façade,” to use Lane’s own more polite word) that anyone who feels like it can just become a professional ballet dancer on a whim, because they want to try something new?
What do you think? Is this just Hollywood doing what Hollywood does – create gorgeous illusions to entertain us – or is this something more akin to plagiarism – one artist receiving credit for another artist’s work? What other movies do you know of that play the body-double/voice-double card? Weigh in below in the comments and let us know what you think.