12.01.10

The Looming Oscar Smackdown

Can Natalie Portman’s psycho Black Swan ballerina snag the Best Actress Oscar from Annette Bening, a veteran nominee who caused audiences to swoon in The Kids Are All Right?

It may only be December, but the Best Actress race is already shaping up to be the most competitive in years, with everyone from back-from-obscurity Nicole Kidman to indie darling Tilda Swinton to newcomer Jennifer Lawrence causing a stir. It’s a pity that the race has already boiled down to a smackdown between just two of the divas: Annette Bening, for her role as an uptight lesbian in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, and Natalie Portman, the star of Darren Aronofsky’s nightmarish ballet drama, Black Swan, which opens this weekend.

It causes déjà vu, of course—last year, the elder stateswoman versus ingénue-y battle lines were drawn between Meryl Streep ( Julie & Julia) and Sandra Bullock ( The Blind Side). And the same arguments that were made on behalf of those actresses are being repurposed, almost verbatim, this season: that the older Bening has been nominated thrice before (for The Grifters, American Beauty, and Being Julia), and thus “deserves” to win. That Portman has, Bullock-like, “surprised” us by playing a part no one knew she was capable of.

In Black Swan, the 29-year-old Portman graduates from turns in cute indie movies ( Garden State) and unapologetic blockbusters (the Star Wars prequels) to play a Type AAA professional ballerina who wins the lead role in Swan Lake and becomes embroiled in an All About Eve-like war with a brazen new arrival (Mila Kunis) to the dance company.

Like Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance in The Accused, the role demonstrates a new range and maturity for Portman, who trades in her saccharine cuteness for a quiet intensity that teeters on the brink of hysteria. Like a glass doll perched on a precarious ledge, she seems always this close to falling over the edge and self-destructing. Even her rail-thin body has a severity to it, the result of a year-long, daily training regimen of five to eight hours of ballet work, swimming a mile, and eating next to nothing. The process, Portman recently told the New York Times, sent her into “complete physical distress.”

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The academy, and the acting branch in particular, which votes on Best Actress, adores such admissions of self-inflicted torture for the sake of Art, and under normal circumstances, it would be time for Portman to start thinking about her acceptance speech. Also in her favor is that over the past decade, youth has been rewarded in the Best Actress category—with the exception of 2006 winner Helen Mirren and Bullock, who was 45, all of the winners have been in their late 20s or 30s.

“One pattern that has been clear in the Best Actress category in recent years with the old boys in the academy is that they treat it like a beauty pageant,” Tom O’Neil, who runs the awards website GoldDerby.com, told The Daily Beast. “When you look at the parade of lovelies that have won, it’s Charlize, Julia, Nicole, Halle… This year the babe of the year is Natalie Portman.”

Oscar pundit Tom O’Neil said, “When you look at the parade of lovelies that have won, it’s Charlize, Julia, Nicole, Halle… This year the babe of the year is Natalie Portman.”

But 52-year-old Bening, who has twice been denied an Oscar by the same starlet (Hilary Swank, who won for Boys Don’t Cry when Bening was nominated for American Beauty and for Million Dollar Baby the year of Being Julia), is not about to step aside and let another whippersnapper steal the spotlight. If anything, she is using her age and experience as a weapon. At Q&A screenings of Kids for guild members, she has made a point to remind fellow thespians that she is an actor’s actor, one with a long body of work both on the stage and screen. It’s also been made clear that playing a middle-aged mom required its own kind of suffering. Portman may have starved herself, but Bening was willing to do something that in Hollywood is considered far more unthinkable: not wear makeup. It’s maybe not as extreme as Oscar-winner Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but it still falls under the “going ugly” category, which has always been Oscar catnip. And it’s sure to strike a chord with female voters of a certain age.

Something else Bening is doing is working it. During these all-important weeks of non-stop schmoozing before Oscar ballots are due, Bening has been a red-carpet regular. In August, she was honored at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association luncheon (the HFPA votes on the Golden Globes). In October, she was given the absurdly titled “Hollywood Actress Award” at the Hollywood Film Festival, one of the most ridiculed awards ceremonies in a land of dubious festivals and awards shows. And in January, she’s set to receive the American Riviera Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival—another thinly veiled opportunity to hobnob with Oscar voters. (Last year, Bullock took home the Riviera Award.)

Another one of Bening’s weapons is husband Warren Beatty, a Hollywood dean who knows a thing or two about Oscar campaigning (he’s been nominated 14 times and won Best Director for Reds) and is one of the town’s most well-connected citizens.

“Warren can call [Jack] Nicholson up and start having screenings in living rooms, dinner with their friends—that’s how they’re going to get her the nomination and win,” noted another Oscar consultant, referring to a less formal, more insidery schmoozing tactic known as the Bel Air circuit.

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But observers add that however aggressive Bening is being, she’s ultimately waging a graceful battle. “She campaigns as classy as anyone I know,” said the consultant. “She handles herself in an exemplary manner. There are people who campaign in such a way that it makes many of us feel uncomfortable, but it’s a very thin line to walk.”

As for Portman, her lesser visibility is in part due to the fact that Black Swan has not yet been released and is only now starting to be screened for Academy members. Fox Searchlight has kept the film and its stars under tight wraps since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. There have been the obligatory spreads in major newspapers and magazines in recent weeks, and Portman and the rest of the cast were on hand last month when Aronofsky presented Black Swan at the AFI Festival in L.A., but otherwise the film has been relying more on buzz (which has been intense, and largely rapturous) than showboating.

Though on the eve of its release, the reins are loosening. On Wednesday night, Searchlight threw a lavish Oscar party on the rooftop of the trendy Thompson hotel in Beverly Hills, attended by Portman et al. Expect more such rollouts—and Portman face-time ops—in the coming weeks from Searchlight, which has a reputation as a big spender this time of year. (In contrast, Focus Features, Kids’ distributor, tends to rely more on a grassroots approach and savvy, as opposed to extravagant marketing.)

Something else that will tip the scales in either Portman or Bening’s favor is how Black Swan is received by Oscar voters. Unlike Kids, which, though it deals with tough issues, is ultimately a warm-hearted crowd pleaser, Black Swan is dark to the point of being a quasi-horror film, and includes an incredibly graphic sex scene between Portman and Kunis. At this stage, the reaction from the academy has been “divisive,” the Oscar consultant said. “I’ve heard people say it’s amazing, and others have hated it.”

But whatever’s going on behind the scenes, in public, everyone is being graciously judicious. When I asked Black Swan producer Mike Medavoy about the Bening-Portman rivalry, he said, “They both give great performances, and they should be proud of their work. I would say to both of them, ‘Good luck.’ They’re both great actresses. We’ll see how it all goes.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.