Natalie Portman Suffers for Art: Dance Movies as Kung Fu Movies

So now

Natalie Portman got an Oscar

for starving and shuddering her way through Black Swan, a movie so textually fatuous (

it was only a dream

—oh, and that other part,

also only a dream!

) that its real dramatic arc was built entirely of subtext: can “Nina” dance the “Black Swan”? Meaning: can Natalie Portman act?

And now it’s over. The off-screen narrative, which was the story, is a wrap. Natalie Portman has the statue that says, yes, she did act. The acting was a work of pain; the performer must suffer. There is no performance without suffering. “You are constantly putting your body through

extreme pain

,” Portman said, promoting the movie.

It is the dance-movie star’s job to be authentic, beyond the bounds of the movie. That’s what elevates a dance drama—that girl-friendly tale of self actualization, of becoming the prettiest and most enchanting sylph on stage—into important artistic work, or work that can be regarded as artistically important. “I was dancing 8 hours a day and then not sleeping, and taking pain pills,”

Neve Campbell

said, recounting how she carried a broken rib through the filming of The Company.

Secretly, the dance movie is the shadowy mirror rival of the martial-arts movie. There is no performance without pain, even if the flying leaps don’t end with a foot landing in someone’s windpipe. Eight hours of training a day? That’s what

David Carradine

said he did for Kill Bill—three straight months, eight hours. Donnie Yen spent late nights hitting a wooden dummy with his bare hands, mastering the specific Wing Chun technique he needed for the title role in

Ip Man


If you see enough dance movies and kung fu movies, each genre begins to look like the shadow of the other (also, eventually, you end up watching

Kung Fu Hip Hop

). In a mass of young aspirants, the protagonist catches the teachers’ eyes by showing extraordinary skill—but also a passionate, nonconformist streak. There will be a training montage. A rival whose arrogance (and abilities?) may surpass the hero’s or heroine’s. Possibly there is




There will be a setback, forcing the protagonist to consider the him- or herself, and the craft, in a new way. To loosen up:

Jackie Chan gets drunk

; Natalie Portman

learns to masturbate

. Then comes a discovery. Jet Li, in

Twin Warriors

, goes mad and

discovers tai chi

; Amanda Schull, in

Center Stage

, sneaks away from classical ballet for theater dance. The final show (or showdown) will shock everyone.

Both are built around the promise of kinetic spectacle. The star must do something difficult, but make it look easy, while still reminding that audience that it is difficult, after all. If the big dance or the big fight is no good, there is no movie. This can make the less ambitious genre movies, and their respective faithful audiences, seem undemanding: devotees of dance and kung fu cinema will accept lower standards for acting, for dialogue, or for originality of plot—but they won’t let you cheat the physical stuff.  

So directors make tradeoffs between casting people who are good at acting and casting people who are good at dancing or fighting. Sometimes, they mix and match (Center Stage, House of Flying Daggers); sometimes they use experts at the physical skills and hope for the best (

Mao’s Last Dancer

, Fist of Legend). In some lucky cases—

Mikhail Baryshnikov

, Jackie Chan—the physical performer goes on to be a real actor.

Then come the cases where the filmmakers are aiming for more than a niche audience. They stick an actor in there, put out the stories about the training regimen, hire a stunt double, and hope it works. Quick cuts and close-ups create the impression of something physically exceptional, even if the aficionados gnash their teeth. For all that talk about training, Black Swan’s tight, hysterical framing meant that Natalie Portman really only had to impersonate a dancer from her collarbones on up.

Enter the metastory. The makers of dance and kung fu movies want to convey, above all, that what you’re seeing has a reality that transcends the screen. The actress turned dancer lost 20 pounds. The actor got a bloody nose in the big fight.

Is it art? Dancing, as constituted in film, corresponds exactly to an artistic activity that people do in the real world. The very best dance movies are



Martial arts on film, contrarily, has nothing to do with actual combat. It is its own native genre of movie activity—not fighting, but a stylized representation of a fight, in which each move and countermove has been predetermined. The people who design the action are called ”

fight choreographers


Yet Bruce Lee became a movie star because people believed they were seeing the authentic Bruce Lee—even as he ran around

fighting against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

or a one-handed villain with a choice of claw prostheses. It was impossible, but its impossibility made it seem honest. Natalie Portman was nowhere near as convincing.