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.