Natalie Portman Ethics, Part II: The Body Double

This looks like Oscar, but it's really his body-double, Chip.

Sarah Lane, Natalie Portman’s Designated Ballet Dancer in “Black Swan, ” has caused a controversy by revealing that it was her, not Natalie (okay, maybe Natalie’s head on Sarah’s body), in some/many/most of the dance sequences. This has caused some commentators to suggest that Portman’s Academy Award was based on a sham. The film’s PR flacks made a big deal out of how Portman, with no more ballet training that your sister, worked so hard to acquire professional level dancing skills. Could this have made the difference in the Academy’s decision?

If so, the Academy voters need to see more movies,  and perhaps get brain transplants. Of course Portman couldn’t become a proficient professional ballerina no matter how hard she worked. And the real Al Jolson stood in for Larry Parks in some long shots in “The Jolson Story,” and it wasn’t always Charlton Heston in the chariot race in Ben-Hur, since he wasn’t really a charioteer,  and John Wayne didn’t really jump that high fence on his horse at the end of “True Grit,” and Paul Newman didn’t do all of his own skating in “Slap Shot.” How is any of that different from having a body double dance for Portman to allow her to  plausibly play a ballet dancer? It isn’t. This is a ridiculous controversy,  ethically meaningless, fueled by Portman’s ego. Fine, Natalie: you did 80% of your own ballet dancing, just like Bruce Willis did 80% of his own stunts in “Die Hard.” It doesn’t matter. Whatever you say.

But Portman did behave unethically regarding her honors for “Black Swan.” Check the transcript of her Academy Award acceptance speech. She thanks many people connected with the film, but never mentions the name of Sarah Lane, who made it possible for her to play the role at all by providing what Portman couldn’t possibly acquire no matter how hard she worked and practiced: professional-caliber ballet dancing skills.

That warranted a prominent and gracious thank-you from Portman at the Oscars. But she didn’t give it, and that was unfair, dishonest and ungrateful. Maybe if she had done the right thing, and shown humility and generosity by acknowledging the assistance of her body double, Sarah Lane wouldn’t have been moved to reveal the extent of her screen time.

Natalie Portman deserved her award; they didn’t dub her acting. Her performance in the film wasn’t unethical; her lack of generosity and gratitude after the film was.


Addendum: I should have noted in the original post, but didn’t, that Lane’s revelations to the media are unethical as well. She was probably bound by a confidentiality agreement, but even if she was not, what goes on behind the cameras and the secrets of “movie magic” are not for her to expose, and indeed she has a duty of confidentiality—no matter how justifiably angry she may be that Portman refused to share the glory with an essential collaborator. And vengeance is never ethical.

28 thoughts on “Natalie Portman Ethics, Part II: The Body Double

  1. Aronofsky had a breakdown on how many of her scenes Natalie actually performed, and it seems that Sarah’s comment that she did “95%” was inflated. The body double isn’t the director or editor, and for her to say something she likely doesn’t know for sure is pretty uncool.

    • I’ll go farther–it’s unethical for her to say anything at all. This is like second unit directors telling the press that Natalie was wreck on the ste and had to be taken through the role like a child. You never hear doubles and stunt actors do this: I assume they sign some kind of confidentiality agreement.

      In fact, I think I’ll amend the post. I wasn’t writing about her end of the ethics equation, but per the title, I should have mentioned it. Thanks.

  2. Unethical of Portman not to thank Sarah Lane? That’s a real stretch Jack. It doesn’t matter if the list of people she thanked is as long as “War and Peace,” I don’t see how we are in a position to judge the relative merits of who is included on, and who is excluded from, the “thank you” list. I will agree that it is polite to thank somebody for a kindness rendered, but what is the ethical rule you applied here? Particularly where there is a time limit and you don’t know the relative contributions of those included or excluded.

    • As with Jennifer Beals’ dancers in “Flashdance,” Lane’s contribution was major, far beyond that of a stuntman. Dancing is performin, and she danced with Portman’s head on her neck. Definitely more thanks-worthy than acting teachers

      • As I said, I’m not sure how we are in a position to weigh the relative merits of contributions which seems to be the path you want to take. I am still at a loss to understand your ethical argument that Portman’s failure to thank Lane was unethical. I would say, that as a starting point, an actor has no obligation to thank anybody in their acceptance speech as it is the actor who is being honored — thanking others is magnanimous be certainly not ethically required. You seem to think that once an actor proceeds down this slippery slope of “thank you” there is an applicable set of ethical rules that can be applied. So without arguing the contributions of the key grip over the prop master, what are those rules?

        • A lack of gratitude is unethical when gratitude is called for, and it was. If she ran out of time, she could have posted s longer thank you list. I think most Academy speeches are ungracious—I especially remember Michael Douglas thanking everyone connected with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” except Ken Kesey, who wrote the book.

  3. This is off-topic because it made me laugh… Remember Leslie Nielson singing for Enrico Pallazzo in “The Naked Gun?” And when Debbie Reynolds refused to sing for Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in “Singin’ in the Rain?” Hilarious.

    Those were classic comedies, and I don’t care one whit about Sarah Lane’s complaint. She was the equivalent of a stunt man/woman. She was paid for it, wasn’t she? Maybe if she could act she could actually have her own movie about ballet and drama…

  4. I’ll disagree with Jack about the need to thank Sarah Lane. I’ll give Portman a pass. Here’s why:

    The academy recognized Portman for her acting abilities, not her dancing abilities. Ms. Lane’s contributions certainly aided the motion picture in having a complete start to finish “polish”, but in no way did they assist Ms. Portman in acting better.

    Now, if Ms. Lane was also a teacher, a dance partner of Ms. Portman’s, that would be a different story. She would have effectively assisted Ms. Portman in finding her character and pulling off some of the moves. However, if she was simply a double that showed up and did her part independently, I don’t see how she could have contributed to Ms. Portman’s acting prowess.

    Additionally, for someone’s first Oscar win, it’s usually a reflection about the journey that got them to that place. Every role, every skit, every junket and every SNL, GMA, Today, and Tonight show appearance. Every acting coach and every audition and every criticism.

    When reflecting on all the people to thank for her win, I guarantee a stunt double in the film of the winning role is very low on the list in comparison to everyone else that helped her career.

    • Stunt double, yes—although they deserve recognition. Dance double in a dance movie? I think your analysis applies in most situations, but not to this one. The movie required Portman to appear to be dancing, and acting involves more than a face, head and voice. I appears that Portman’s face was electronically placed over Lane’s face in an undetermined number of scenes. That means Lane shared the screen and scene, and was part of Portman’s “acting,” material difference, I think.

      • I’ll have to see some of this “face transplant” evidentiary articles. As was previously mentioned, when the controversy arose, Aronofsky immediately ordered someone to go through and count the scenes. Frame for frame. As reported, the count had Portman at over 90% of frames, unaltered, untouched, and the vast majority of Ms Lanes frames were long shots, or indistinguishable. Additionally, it’s been said that the opening 8 minutes where the dancing was most prominent and technical, it was 100% Portman.

        If I’m not mistaken, Natalie was a trained dancer to the age of 14. More than enough time to become profficient. Couple that with the year long intensive training that she endured personally, and the magic of directing and editing alone, and it’s not a hardstretch to believe that Ms Lane was nothing more than a double.

        It’s like complaining that Tom Hanks had a stunt double in Saving Private Ryan or a running double in Forest Gump. End of the day, Ms Lane wasn’t in bed with Mila Kunis.

        • This happened before with Linda Blair in “The Exoricist”—but she didn’t win.

          I just don’t believe that Portman can dance that well..we’re talking pro-level ballet, and she clear has NOT had sufficient training to carry that off. You can tell Hollywood directors, producers and actors are lying when their lips move. There’s nothing wrong with doubles, and Lane was in the wrong making the story public. I admit this bias—-I assumed it wasn’t Portman doing the dancing from the start.

          We’ll know the truth eventually.If Lane’s body EVER carries Portman’s head on screen, Portman owes her a public thanks, awkward as it would have been. I always thank the bodies that carry MY head,

          • That seems unfair. Here you have an intelligent woman who determined who she needed to thank, and you don’t trust her judgement (you don’t know her) and you question her talent (again, you don’t know her, nor have you seen her in real life).

            What happened to the benefit of the doubt? You trust one body double who had no role in editing the movie over everyone else? You think it’s a conspiracy?


          • I don’t think Portman “owes” Lane anything. It might have been gracious, yes, but it was not a legal debt.

            My brilliant, accomplished and lovely daughter (now a Ph.D. in a different field) took classical ballet from age 4 to 20. (Teachers included Tatiana Riabouchinska at the David Lichine Ballet Academy, for those of you who know something of the art.)

            Then she dropped out of USC and danced professionally with several ballet companies back East for a number of years.

            I know a tiny bit about ballet. I don’t care who did what percentage in “Black Swan”. I thought it was a brilliant and beautiful film, loved every minute. Of course I cried at the end.

            I’m glad Portman got her Oscar; she’s a fine actor.

            As for Lane: revenge never makes you look good; just the opposite .

  5. As you say, stuntmen or professional stand-ins have been used since the beginning of motion pictures. It’s just as well, too. Otherwise, Hollywood Boot Hill would be overflowing with promising actors and the studio depositories full of movies that were likewise “nipped in the bud” because of it. No moviegoer with a brain cell working would have believed that Natalie Portman magically acquired the talents of a prima ballerina… anymore than anyone thought that Tyrone Power actually did that flamenco dance with Linda Darnell (or defeated Basil Rathbone in swordplay) in “The Mark Of Zorro”! But movies aren’t intended to be real beyond their run, where suspended disbelief vanishes. But all those professionals were mentioned in the credits and paid for their services, weren’t they? And- likely- those credits have brought or will bring them more opportunities. Except- maybe- for Sarah Lane. She’s about to find out that her talents aren’t unique or irreplaceable.

  6. Bizarro world usage of the term ethical and unethical. Maybe it isn’t nice or courteous to leave out someone, but unethical? The winners jump up on stage, sometimes with a prepared speech, sometimes not. They seem like they make honest efforts to balancing the conflicting demands of thanking everyone and not running out of time. How would an omission of a name in a hurried speech be unethical? It would only be if the person knowingly and intentionally left out someone important, but you don’t know that Portman did that. My hunch is, you are a conservative, who has decided to pick on her because Huckabee has been unfairly bashing her.

    • *Facepalm* Actually, judging from the other stuff he has written, Jack Marshall REALLY dislikes Mike Huckabee. I don’t particularly agree with Jack’s analysis here; but honestly, just because Jack thinks Natalie is being unethical doesn’t mean he’s a conservative; I’m mildly iffy on abortion, and I’m a borderline atheist who’s never voted for the Republicans.

    • Hmmm. And I’M guessing that you didn’t read the comments guidelines, which among other things says..

      “I reserve the right to express my annoyance with comments that indicate that the individual did not read the original post, repeat arguments that are dealt with elsewhere without adding anything new, or which make unfair assumptions or accusations about presumed biases rather than addressing my positions respectfully. That is, if I criticize a conservative, it does not make me a liberal, and vice-versa”.

      I don’t make my assessments based on politics and biases, but perform ethical analysis as independently as I can make it. If you bothered to read anything else here, including my criticism of how Hucakabee handled his Portman comments, you would know that what Mike Huckabee thinks or says influences me not one iota. Maybe you are incapable of keeping political bias out of your job, but I am not, and work very hard at it, and am frankly sick of people who can’t mount a genuine argument defaulting to “you just feel that way because you are liberal/conservative/ racist/ misogynist/anti-Muslim/ Democrat/ Republican.” If you can’t comprehend that opinions can and should be non-partisan and that some of us are capable of reasoning accordingly, then you need to troll the political blogs.

      I’m also guess you don’t know what you’re talking about. Professional actors nominated for an award that they will receive live on television don’t know what they are going to say if they win? Please. You know, I’ve BEEN a nominee for a major theatrical award, given out in a packed Kennedy Center, and damn straight I knew who I was going to thank. (I lost.) Grace and gratitude are, in fact, ethical virtues, so you don’t even know your Bizarro World rules, and you brought them up. On BW, ingratitude and rudeness are ethical.

      If, as I suspect will eventually be shown, Portman head was on the dancer’s body in more than 5% of the scenes (we do know that the guy making that claim is her fiancee, right?), she should have not only thanked her, but thanked her FIRST.

      I can be wrong regarding Portman and other opinions, but I am not partisan, and resent the insinuation to the contrary by someone who has the evidence right in front of him, unexamined, and makes unfounded accusations anyway.

      • Then she would have to thank also Kimberly Prosa, and everyone on the the FX Team, and probably a dozen more people that in some way helped her head find its way on Sara lanes body.
        You might believe that Sara Lanes contribution to the movie was so big, that she earned that right to be named first, but I don’t. Any other profesional dancer with a similar physique to Portman could have done it. And Sara Lane got paid, mentioned twince in the movie credits, mentioned multiple times in interviews (also by Portman herself) and can be seen on the Black Swan DVD.

        Portman did make the mistake of thanking “too many people” in her speech. There are always people who feel left out when it comes to that, and Portman seemed to name only people who she spent a lot of time and bonded with. Since technically she has to thank NOONE in that speech, I think that it’s ok not to mention a hundred or a thousand people.

        Acknowledgment comes in millions of ways and the Oscar thank speech is only one of them. Perhaps the prestigious one in that industry, but where were you when natalie portman didn’t thank Sara Lane in her godlen Globe speech or her numerous other accolades?

        Truth is, this is only an issue because the media has blown it out of proportions. Where is your demand that the FX studio should have been thanked, too? Without them this head replacement technique wouldn’t have ben possible, would it?

        • I don’t buy your logic. There is a much more personal obligation to the person whose actual body you appropriate while you take credit for its appearance than the team of technicians that make it possible. This isn’t a slippery slope at all. It’s an unusual situation, now complicated by a dubious 90% figure concocted through a “count” done by Portman’s fiance. Portman could have been garcious and acknowldged the obvious. As celebrity, show biz flaps go, this isn’t over-hyped.

          • So, for some arbitrary reason Sara Lanes contribition is much more valuable than that of the FX Team, or Kimberly Prosa (Portmans other double), the director and many others involved in the movie.
            I can’t explain the “she should have not only thanked her, but thanked her FIRST” any other way.

            Anyway, I don’t think your claim, that there is some sort of obligation for Portman to thank Sara Lane personally at her speech is in any way justified, considering that you don’t see no reason to have the FX Team either.
            Yes you think that for some reason there is some sort of a” much more personal obligation to the person whose actual body you appropriate”, but that’s just your opinion.

            Fact is:
            “Sarah Lane, who made it possible for her to play the role at all by providing what Portman couldn’t possibly acquire no matter how hard she worked and practiced: professional-caliber ballet dancing skills”
            would have been useless if not for the capable FX team that put Portmans head on Sara Lanes neck.

            • Well sure it’s my opinion. It’s also logical, fair and correct.

              I didn’t say that Sarah Lane’s contribution “is much more valuable than that of the FX Team… and many others involved in the movie.” Don’t put words in my mouth, please. If, as I think is likely because former amateur ballet dancers do not magically become plausible professional ballerinas no matter how much they practice (the fact that Portman’s team even suggest such nonsense smells of cover-up to me), Sarah Lane’s body was on screen sufficiently for her body’s contribution to be attributed to Portman’s acting, yes, Portman owed her big time, and it was ungracious not not to thank her…a thank-you without explaining the contribution would have been sufficient. A correct analogy would be if Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood or Deborah Kerr were to have won Academy Awards in the respective roles where their singing voices had been supplied by Marni Nixon. And if your response to that is, “how was she any more important than the sound engineer?,” I don’t want to hear it. The audience assumes editing, special effects and sound tech. They don’t assume that actor’s heads are on other bodies or that actors’ character’s songs are being sung by someone else, unless it is credited.

  7. My acquaintance Joe S. came from seeing the film, and said, Forget Natalie Portman, he’s totally in love with Mia Kumis.

    I can’t fault him, they’re both lovely young women.

    ….Ah, to be 50 years younger again…!

  8. Sarah Lane DID NOT start this controversy for 15 minutes of fame. She didn’t start it at all. The editor at Dance Magazine started a blog and interviewed her. Then the press smelled blood and whooped it up from there. So Sarah set the record straight and far from sounding jealous, said in several interviews that Natalie Portman deserved to win the Oscar.

    Natalie Portman should have been gracious enough to thank the girl who did all the dancing for her, but her silence only perpetuated the fraud. So yes her ethics and manners, or lack of them, are in question. But look what has happened. Now we all know who the real dancer was, and what was done to her was wrong. Sarah Lane is more known now than if the filmmakers had been honest to begin with and credited her contribution as “ballet double” properly. At the very least they owe her an apology instead of paying people to come on here and say their fraud was justified. As for Natalie Portman… what goes around will come around.

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