Happy Oscar Sunday! Getting my hair blown-out (goodbye mop-top) and heading to an Oscar party. Don’t have to debate over my ballot because I’m lifting the favorites from U.K. oddsmaker Ladbrokes, as listed by Joe Morgenstern in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Cheers, Joe.
I will be tweeting throughout the show. Meanwhile, here are “my” picks:
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale, “The Fighter”
BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”
BEST ACTOR: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “The King’s Speech”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: “The Social Network”
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins, “True Grit”
BEST DIRECTOR: David Fincher, “The Social Network”
Black Swan/ 2010/ Fox Searchlight Pictures/ 108 min.
With the Oscars this Sunday, I want to highlight a contender with intriguing noir elements: “Black Swan.” Critic Michael Wilmington shares his thoughts on director Darren Aronofsky’s latest foray into tortured psyches and Natalie Portman’s startling performance.
Who makes crazier art movies — agonized characters, trapped in more nightmarish fixes — than Darren Aronofsky? David Lynch, Bong Joon-ho and Roman Polanski, maybe, but few others. A specialist in tales of the brilliantly sick and the sickly brilliant, Aronofsky has spun, with disorienting intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in “Pi”), of a family of lower- depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (“Requiem for a Dream”), and of a battered, over-the-hill wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight (“The Wrestler.”) In “The Fountain,” Aronofsky’s whole universe went bonkers, in segments.
And in his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama “Black Swan,” this chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center and promptly goes over the edge into some kind of madness, as well as, apparently, self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.
As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional. And the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. When the ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played by French star Vincent Cassel, as a kind of sexy, sadistic puppet-master) casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, who plays Beth like a mad, self-destructive witch), he’s simultaneously anointing her and hurling her into hell.
When he tells Nina she’s ideal casting for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan), he’s dropping her into an inferno of nightmares, hurling a dart at the splintering psyche we glimpse beneath Nina’s “Persona”-like, beautiful, introverted face.
Aronofsky bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).
Stricken with fear, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh, on her shoulder blades, her hands, near her cuticles, and then the cuts are mysteriously healed. She’s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Thomas, and her main rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas says is the perfect Black Swan, and who (seemingly) dives between Nina’s legs one night, a fling that Lilly then denies. (“You fantasized about me? Was I good?” she asks delightedly.)
As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. Nina works herself into near-collapse, her mind unhinges, her body is ripped open. Lilly plays the part of seductress/rival/friend, the earthy black swan against Nina’s ethereal white. Amid this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of “Swan Lake” looms.
But how much of this is really happening? Is there really a theater, really a company, even really a white and black swan? We know some it is real, some of it a dream. We can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie so interesting. It hovers on camp, of course. More than hovers: it swoops and circles and dives right in.More
Of the many visual symbols in film noir, the cat is one of the most elegant and expressive. Sitting in a doorway, watching and waiting, or sprawled contentedly on a chaise longue, these haughty creatures convey the quintessential femme fatale attitude: “If I deign to take you on, I’ll win.”
Cats are smart, nimble and fastidious. They spend hours grooming themselves and, unlike dogs, they have no work ethic. Enough said. In between doting on my cat, I’ve done a little research so I can start a new feature on the most famous kitties in film noir.
Bios: “Cats bring you luck,” says Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in 1942’s “This Gun for Hire.” Raven’s first good-luck charm is The Stray (Fluffy Taylor), a petite, violet-eyed beauty, who wanders through his window first thing in the morning. Despite being a cold-hearted hitman, Raven gives her milk and protects her from the nasty maid, Anna (Pamela Blake).
The second “charm” is a tomcat named Toughie (Tab Burton). But Toughie doesn’t fare as well as The Stray. Philip Raven happens to be a psychopath and he turns on Toughie in a deadly betrayal. Well, maybe the name Raven didn’t bode too well for feline friendship. (Off screen, however, Burton and Ladd were great chums. It was Ladd’s first major movie role and he welcomed Burton’s advice on acting.)
And contrary to some accounts, the feline stars of “This Gun for Hire” never once had a catfight on the set. Just the opposite: While working together on this film, British imports Taylor and Burton fell madly in love. Seven years Burton’s junior, Taylor had been an established star in England since kittenhood.
Burton was born in Wales and studied acting at Oxford University. Following their U.S. debut in “This Gun for Hire,” the pair soon became the “it” couple among Hollywood’s feline set, co-starring in “Catopatra,” “The Taming of the Mew” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Puss?” They were also known for their lavish, jet-set, cream-and-catnip lifestyle.
They married in 1945, divorced in 1955, remarried in 1957 and divorced for a second time in 1962. After they finally parted, Burton’s career faltered and he passed away in 1964. When Burton died, the ever-popular Taylor referred to him as “the love of my life and my very best friend.”
As their close friend Morris once said of them: “He gave her class. She gave him sex.” And they gave each other Fancy Feast Salmon.
If you have today off, why not treat yourself to a mani-pedi? I like places that let you byob and my polish du jour is The Old Bill, $14, by Butter London. It’s a tawny copper with a subtle sheen that’s quick drying and resistant to chips. And how convenient to know that if you decide the Old Bill (English slang for police) is getting too close for comfort, you can simply lock it up in a cool spot until the next time you fancy a spot of copper.
The makers of Butter products, Sasha Muir and Nonie Creme, pride themselves on providing “color not carcinogens” and call themselves a “3 Free” company, which means their products contain no formaldehyde, no toluene, no DBP [dibutyl phthalate]. What a concept!
And I love the variety of their colors. Looking to avoid the Old Bill forever? I get it. In that case, try the Artful Dodger (an arresting teal), Come to Bed Red, Pearly Queen or their latest No More Waity, Katie!, an elegant greige with a splash of lilac glitter; available for pre-order now, shipping March 1. Visit Butter London or try a beauty-supply store.
Additionally, Butter makes a matte-finish, non-toxic basecoat called Nail Foundation, $18, which primes your nails for the main event. Creamy beige in color, it can also be worn on its own in case you are evading, oops, I mean avoiding attention, as is sometimes necessary when you tend to look like trouble. 😉
Product Source: From my own collection; I did not receive products or compensation from Butter London.
This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Preservation Blogathon, a fundraiser hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren to benefit the non-profit Film Noir Foundation; their event last year raised $30,000. I hope you will consider making a donation. If you give, you help save a film: 1950’s “The Sound of Fury” starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Cy Endfield.
Looking through some photos the other day, I noticed that back in the late 90s, I often lost the fight with my fine, curly hair and just let it go wild (left). Not every day can be a good hair day. If I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I just look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder.
Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ‘do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”
It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. The jacket states: “Here, in a Q&A format — a nod to Truffaut’s unforgettable Hitchcock — Billy Wilder, Hollywood’s legendary writer-director, talks to Cameron Crowe, one of today’s best-known writer-directors, about screenwriting and camera work, set design and the stars, his peers and their movies, the old studio system and filmmaking today.
Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring.
Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet — the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.
Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”
With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake — just a wonderful brain she had.
Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.