The James Clayton column: A campaign to protect Natalie Portman

James shudders through Black Swan and wonders, just why does Natalie Portman have to endure horrible cruelty in seemingly every film she’s in?

“What happened to my sweet girl?” Well, Barbara Hershey, I’ll tell you. They battered her. They beat her down. They put her through the wringer, wrangled her, ravaged her and drove her to ruin. They swept in on vicious dark wings and brutally hurt your sweet little girl for their own sadistic ends.

Oh, no more! Will someone please step in and save Natalie Portman from further suffering? Hasn’t she been through enough in her career? It’s high time that caring arms embraced the actress, wrapped her in a cosy cotton blanket and protected her from all the cruelty.

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I like the Black Swan star and I don’t mean ‘like her’ in a schoolboy crush or dirty-old-man-ogling-on-the-subway sort of way. She’s an attractive and sophisticated person who, alongside a varied and interesting stage and film career, speaks multiple languages and holds a degree in psychology.

All things considered, she’s a positive role model who stands out in the shallow world of showbiz, and if I ever ended up at an A-list party, she’s the sort of person I’d rather end up in conversation with. It’s sad, then, that seemingly every film I see her in Portman is tearing up, being tortured or enduring horrendous ordeals.

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Perhaps through quirks of pop culture consumption I’ve managed to only watch her ‘works of woe’ and have missed the ‘happy Natalie’ flicks where harm is far away. Regardless, when you break down her back catalogue and recall what’s been required in some of the roles Portman has taken, it looks brutal and bruising.

I guess starting her career as Mathilda in Léon (a.k.a. The Professional) set a bad precedent. The unloved twelve-year-old is left orphaned after Gary Oldman unleashes carnage and has no one to turn to except the hitman of the title. Consequently, a future of violence as a ‘cleaner’ is sealed. “What happened to my sweet girl?” All hope of an innocent adolescence ebbed away and she became a cold-blooded contract killer.

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To note another example of Portman abuse, see V For Vendetta. Evey Hammond gets tricked and imprisoned by a freedom fighter with a Guy Fawkes fixation, who locks her up in his lair and shaves her head so she can become a more effective anarchist revolutionary. It might be for the greater good and for the overthrow of the totalitarian regime, but it’s still inhumane and sadistic manipulation. “What happened to my sweet girl?” She was held hostage by a theatrical terrorist who tortured her and coercively radicalised her as a political pawn.

Portman also gets wrongly tortured 18th century style in Goya’s Ghosts and ends up a withered, impoverished hag who can’t speak. (“What happened to my sweet girl?” The Spanish Inquisition screwed her over, put her in the asylum and reduced her to raggedy utter wretchedness.)

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Her role in the Star Wars saga as Anakin Skywalker’s lover is also significant as a final case in point. The prequels are just non-stop sorrow, peril, warring and clumsy dialogue for Padmé Amidala. Then Anakin turns to the Dark Side, becomes Darth Vader and she dies in childbirth. I thought that dealing with Hayden Christensen’s sulky tantrums was as bad as it could get for the actress. Not so. Enter Black Swan.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest work is horrifying on many levels and it’s the anguish of Portman’s character, Nina, that ties it together and makes the movie one of the most distressing I’ve ever sat through. (And when I say sat through, what I really mean is squirmed and writhed through in absolute agony.)

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In my humble opinion, Black Swan provides one of the most intense portrayals of total meltdown in cinema history. Films like Repulsion, Jacob’s Ladder and Oldboy, that left me significantly shaken and stirred, look like easy viewing in the shadow of Black Swan.

That’s partly due to Aronofsky’s aesthetic stylings, the sound editing and the bonus body horror that accompanies the breakdown. Plus, I have a bizarre and irrational phobia of ballet.  It strikes me as sinister and painful art form and the thought of unnaturally contorted bodies dancing to extra creepy classical music gives me the fear.

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Beneath the grace and sweet fairytale fantasy, back in the mirrored studio where little girls are breaking their bones in pursuit of perfection, ballet is bloody grim. In total, Black Swan is pretty much my own personal package of pure horror.

You need a focal protagonist, though, to project all this darkness onto and standing en pointe is Mademoiselle Natalie, taking all the misery, despair and devastation in mesmerising style. She more than deserves all the praise for her performance and the immense physical and emotional effort it entailed.

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In the beginning, Nina Sayers appears to be just a brittle, bland ballerina prodigy. Her world revolves around obsessively stretching, perfecting postures and ritually scouring her ballet shoes under the overbearing gaze of her syrupy mother. Soon, though, the macabre and menacing darkness is swallowing the drippy pink prettiness, because ballet is subversively sinister and Natalie Portman is an actor doomed to torment.

The neurotic, frigid dancer ends up unhinged by paranoia, jealousy and overzealous desire. From a seemingly happy place of being a “sweet girl”, she descends into a hellish maelstrom of dark passions and self-destruction, falling to physical injury, mental illness and distortions in reality so epic she thinks she’s turning into a murderous bird.

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You can’t help but empathise with poor Nina. It’s not just a simple case of getting a few bad rashes and freaking out because her nails seem to bleeding all the time. Her identity is splitting and she’s bombarded by hallucinations and horrifying visions and occurrences wherever she turns.

The disturbing transitions and traumas of the psychosis are all the more affecting because it’s Natalie Portman who’s going through it. It takes an outstanding acting performance to portray the white swan/black swan dichotomy and run the exhaustive range required of a repressed ballerina totally losing grip. Additionally, I’d say that Portman’s off-screen persona helps propel Black Swan into the higher echelons of abject horror, beyond the limits of bearable cinematic despair.

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As the most extreme case of cruelty, Black Swan should mark the end point of the trend and moviemaking tendency to put Natalie Portman through turmoil.

She’s been punished enough so, please, have some compassion and let her be. No more torture, abuse, swan nightmares and definitely no more ballet.

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Support the Happy Natalie Campaign. (Cue closing freeze frame of a sweet girl smiling.)

James’ previous column can be found here.

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