Liz Smith: ‘Black Swan’ – Shocking, Chilling, But Will it Dance at the Box Office?

Photo by Niko Tavernise

And more from our Liz: Don’t miss Broadway’s juicy all-American musical, ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’

“NOT YOUR average, psychotic ballerina movie!”


THAT’S WHAT one shocked audience member exclaimed as he stumbled out of the Ziegfeld Theater the other night, after the premiere of Darren Aronofsky‘s “Black Swan.” Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and in a pivotal cameo – Winona Ryder – “Black Swan” is difficult to categorize. It’s “Gyspy,” “All About Eve,” “Showgirls,” and all those lurid Italian horror movies directed by Mario Bava back in the 1960’s/70’s. It’s that crazy. If you can imagine having a heart attack for two hours and being relentlessly defibrillated, you get the idea – a little.

Miss Portman is the tormented dancer, getting her big break to perform “Swan Lake” because the company’s prima ballerina, Miss Ryder, has aged out. (Fifteen years ago, perhaps even only ten, Ryder would have had Portman’s role; they share a physical similarity. But not so much here, as Winona is made to look pretty beat up.)

Miss Portman has a former-dancer mommy, played with sinister obsessiveness by Barbara Hershey. There’s the sexy and demanding dance master, Mr. Cassel, and – but of course – the delectable, perhaps devious rival to the rising star, Mila Kunis. “Black Swan” is dark. It’s terrifying. It’s gross. It’s chilling and shriek-inducing. It ain’t “The Red Shoes” – this is not the agony of ballet dancers all glammed up. (Mr. Aronofsky was responsible for such grim fare as “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream,” so nobody should be too surprised.)

Miss Portman trained for an entire year, and it shows. Not only in her dancing – though I am sure certified balletomanes will pick at her – but her posture, her body. Female ballet dancers tend not to look healthy. Portman does not look healthy. Tchaikovsky‘s thundering, gorgeous “Swan Lake” score perfectly accents all of Miss Portman’s suffering and possible delusions. Women who have issues with their own over-controlling mothers, will identify with Portman’s agonies to be perfect. (But they better have strong stomachs, too!)

When the movie came to its intense finale, the audience sat stunned. There was heavy applause, but everybody looked pale and in need of a drink. Lucky there was an after party at the St. Regis, where the most overheard phrase was “I’m still coming down from it!” All the film’s stars attended. Miss Portman is a tiny, delicate thing, for whom one wants to encourage the idea of eating heaping plates of pasta. She looked ravishing and far less strained than as the ballerina whose emotions are continuously en pointe. She was accompanied by her father.

A wonderful writer friend of mine sent me a note in which he referred to “Black Swan” as “preposterous and over-hyped.” We shall see what the world says when the film opens wide later this month.

Although the premiere audience seemed to enjoy “Black Swan” – if “enjoy” can even be used about such a movie – many were not charmed when the first words out of the director’s mouth, when he stood upfront to introduce the film, were, “Fuck – the Ziegfeld!” He was attempting to express his thrill at a film of his opening at the fabled theater. Surely “Fantastic!” would have sufficed.

Finally, a word on Mila Kunis. Many still know her only as the teenager from TV’s “That 70’s Show.” Even back then, even at 14 (the producers didn’t know how young she was!), this girl had a delicious edge, that “little something extra.” With her enormous eyes and dazzling smile, she was sexy and accessible, tough and tender. Well, Mila is all grown up and has plenty of something extra! She is a huge star waiting to happen, whether “Black Swan” flies or not.


THE VERY night that I had gone to Broadway to see the new historical musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” I took a tumble while walking a dog and fell, fracturing my hip socket. Sheer carelessness, not paying attention to what I was doing while I wool-gathered, thinking about the dynamic play I had just seen at the Bernie Jacobs Theater.

So, as I was saying when I so rudely interrupted myself, this show is some slam-bang of a unique oddity – a sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll version of the days of one of our most confoundedly controversial presidents, performed in a theater which they have made over into a Halloween/manic Christmas lights version of an insane asylum. The audience begins the evening sitting under an explosion of hanging dead animals, bizarre lights, and a jampack of artifacts new and old. They hardly know what to expect.

You will never go away from the theater humming the songs or the lyrics by Michael Friedman, but while this rock mix is being performed, I think you’ll love it. I did. This mixed-up look back to the years from Jackson’s birth in 1767 to his 1829-37 presidency, with all of writer Alex Timbers‘ comic touches, is like mixing historian David McCullough with Rube Goldberg. The result? A cacophony of contemporary touches (people wanting “to take their country back!”) to real-life folks dropping dead onstage to the zing of Indian arrows only to be later dubbed “dead of cholera.”

I don’t think old Andy Jackson was half the sex symbol he is played onstage by an incredibly talented Benjamin Walker, but the latter makes Andy an awful lot of powerful, over-sexed and violent fun.

Two things I especially loved were: (1) the storyteller who came onstage in a wheelchair (Kristine Nielsen) and suffered an interesting fate onstage and (2) in the second act, all the political contemporaries of Jackson – people representing John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, etc., political brigands to the max.

I took a highly critical true historian with me to see “Bloody Bloody…” and she ended up just loving it – especially the ending where the audience must decide: Was Andrew Jackson one of America’s greatest presidents, adding more juice, riches, and land to the United States than any other, or was he “the American Hitler,” an expert at genocide?

I say, “Don’t miss this musical” even though I cracked my pelvis while just thinking about it.

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Susan Gabriel says:

    Thanks for the heads up about The Black Swan. I’ve been intrigued every time I’ve seen that photo of Natalie Portman, which has seemed to me a bit ominous. Now I know why.  

    Susan Gabriel
    author of Seeking Sara Summers

  2. avatar mary burdt says:

    Susan, I am actually looking forward to seeing The Black Swan.  Sometimes we need a break from just sheer entertainment…maybe something like this movie.  We will see.
    I just started reading your book, “Seeking Sara Summers” this morning.  Finally I ordered the book and am excited to see how the meeting between Sara and Julia proceeds.  Thanks for signing the book, it makes it very special. Mary