As the Academy Awards approach, critics are busy debating whether or not the Academy will go for modern and brash ( The Social Network) or uppercrusty and safe (Brit drama The King's Speech). Debating this is like debating whether the sky is blue and the grass is green, so no one should cry into their hanky when The King's Speech walks away with all the big awards, but rather, they should ready the following inevitable post for their wall: "The Facebook movie wuz robbed!"
Instead, people should prep their outrage for the now-certain wins of Christian Bale of The Fighter and Natalie Portman of Black Swan in the Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress categories, because if best means "most overhyped performances on screen this year," then they are certainly the best.
Miss Portman and Mr. Bale are both fine actors—the latter is great, even. And without Portman's performance as Nina, the already shaky Black Swan—a movie that has divided critics over the question of whether it is a ballet horror film or an unintentional piece of high art camp—would cease to work at all. But, however decent and focused her performance is—and yes, she did really starve herself to get that emaciated ballerina figure, and trained for six months to do pointe etc, etc.—it's lacking in any range. From the first shot to the last ninth-tenths of the movie, Portman wears one expression only. Eyebrows permanently arched in a way previously only achieved by the Botox in Nicole Kidman's brows, Portman spends the entire movie quivering in a hyper-attuned state of fear.
If the narrative arc of Black Swan (spoiler alert!) is that we are dealing with a person who has a tentative grip on reality and unravels into a state of total insanity, then the actor needs to show more than one level of freaked out. Portman does not. In fact, the only time Portman's performance works is at the very end, when she becomes the black swan, but even then, she is helped quite a bit by the creepy black makeup and blood red eyes.
Contrast her performance to fellow nominees Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone and Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, two underseen, underhyped movies with less razzle dazzle than the ballet drama. Lawrence's performance as Ree Dolly has not gotten the same level of attention. She had to learn how to shoot a gun, hunt, skin a squirrel, chop wood, and operate farm equipment, yet not as much is made of her physical preparation as Portman's. (Perhaps because skinning a squirrel is just not as sexy as twirling in a Rodarte-made tutu.)
"You can only give a loud performance, like the one I gave, when you have a quiet anchor, a stoic character," Bale said at the Golden Globes. "I’ve played that one many times,"—to which we ask: When?
Lawrence's eyes—small and slitted—tell the story. She squints in a way that reminds me of Renee Zellweger, but without the sensation that she is constantly sucking a lemon. When her character is challenged, Lawrence’s protective posture—chin jutted out, shoulders thrown back—can’t mask what her eyes tell us: she’s scared as hell. We feel for her. She is that girl, hardy, brave, and vulnerable.
Kidman excels at being emotionally available, in the moment, and all of the other acting class cliches you can employ. But you don't watch Rabbit Hole and see Nicole Kidman, famous movie star.
Instead, you see a mourning mother who shuts everyone out, even the ghost of her dead child. She is a woman who is searching in the dark for a way out, and keeps running into a wall. Her frustration and pain are palpable in every scene. By the end, she has a breakthrough.
Though Annette Bening—who is also tremendously powerful as a scorned lesbian wife in The Kids Are All Right—might throw a wrench in the Portman Princess anointment, if Portman does take the Oscar, I will understand why: the Academy has deemed this year as Her Time, plus her pregnancy dress will be awesome.
But I have a bigger issue with Christian Bale's inevitable waltz to the podium. Bale's performance in The Fighter is the acting equivalent of a Kanye West ALL CAPS LOCK blog entry. An assault of acting with a Capital A, it is histrionic by definition, and even if it is faithful to its real life subject, Dickie, Bale's performance is too distracting to be infused with emotional truth. The uneven tone of the whole movie can also be blamed for the overwhelming nature of Bale’s performance.
And no, I was not impressed by the fake bald spot, because I know that in real life Christian Bale is a handsome man with lustrous long locks that he tosses when he's making acceptance speeches that make one cringe as one gets glimpses of his huge, unvarnished ego.
"You can only give a loud performance, like the one I gave, when you have a quiet anchor, a stoic character," he said at the Golden Globes, with a devious and knowing look, and a twinkle in his eye. "I’ve played that one many times,"—to which we ask: When?
What he's really saying is, I knowingly and purposely stole the show from Mark Walhberg by twitching up a storm, and after this, I'm going to twitch my way down the red carpet with a big gleaming naked bald dude in my hands.
Both Bale's and Portman's performances are the kind that the Academy swoons over. They necessitated months of preparation in the manner of the grueling method actor, and culminated with changes to physical appearance, usually making the actor uglier than they are previously. (Serious question: has the Academy ever awarded an actor or actress for transforming into a creature more beautiful than before? Though, I suppose you could argue that Sean Penn's transformation from his usual cranky, humorless hotheaded persona into charming, lovable, brave Harvey Milk, counts as an exception.)
We can name those that the Academy have honored for getting ugly: Charlize Theron in Monster, Kidman (who wore a fake nose) for The Hours, and Robert De Niro for Raging Bull. By all rights, Mickey Rourke should have fit this bill in The Wrestler and won for it, but it turned out that beyond the 'roided body and gross hair extensions, not to mention the mask of frightening plastic surgery that is now his face, his moving, heartbreaking performance was just too damn subtle and un-showy to bring home the gold.
Bale lost a pile of weight, got the aforementioned fake bald spot, and sweated and lurched for two hours, while Mark Wahlberg held on and tried to act in the middle of a tornado. When the collection of sisters showed up, the movie shifted from a realistic gritty drama into a cartoonish, patronizing take on working class stiffs.
For a truer depiction of a family living on the edge of poverty and racked by drugs, see Winter's Bone. And for a chilling portrayal of an addict imprisoned by his inescapable surroundings, see the effortless and spine-tingling performance of John Hawkes, a lesser-known character actor who is squaring off against Bale in the Supporting Actor category. Like Bale, Hawkes is dark and pale, thin and trembling, with deep circles under his eyes. But his menacing character is haunted and feral, a trapped animal hemmed in by a dreary, claustrophobic life. He is high-strung and on edge, and his volatility practically sears the screen. His character morphs—from cruel and fearsome to sympathetic and human—and by the unnerving end, we are led to believe he is the most selfless person in the gothic, almost mythical tale. His mercurial performance resonates long after the screen goes dark. We remember Hawkes for all the right reasons. So should the Academy.
Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."