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03.30.11

Natalie Portman, Black Swan, and the Death of the ‘Triple Threat’

Movies were once full of performers who could sing, dance, and act—not any more, as the Natalie Portman dance-double scandal illustrates. Plus, a gallery of 12 body doubles.

The recent revelation that Natalie Portman didn’t actually dance every single frame of her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan has ignited a debate about whether her golden statue was somehow less deserved—and has, depressingly, turned into a tedious mathematical analysis of how much was the real Portman and how much was a CGI stand-in. (For those keeping score at home: director Darren Aronofsky says it was 75 percent Portman, her beau says 85 percent, while the ballerina double Sarah Lane says Portman’s danced only only 5 percent of the movie. Math is hard!)

But is it possible that everyone is missing the point? The issue isn’t whether an actress didn’t do all the ballet in her movie, but rather why did they have to use CGI or a body double for the majority of the dancing at all? Why don’t they use someone who could already can dance, sing, and act?

In other words, what happened to the much-vaunted Triple Threat?

We used to have them in abundance: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand—even Clark Gable—sang and danced in their roles. If they resorted to doubles, it was acknowledged, not downplayed. For instance, until the recent restoration, My Fair Lady dubbed over Hepburn’s singing, and it was well known that Natalie Wood had her singing dubbed in West Side Story.

Still, it seems like you had to be a well-rounded performer to be a star with a long-running career. Mark McLaughlin, an executive producer and director of a PBS documentary program about the history of Hollywood musicals, Hollywood Singing and Dancing: A Musical History, said, “In the 40’s, if a girl wanted to come to Hollywood to be a star, she’d better know how to dance.”

Perhaps that’s some misplaced nostalgia—a back-in-day-they-had-real-movie stars complaint.

And yet. Think of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when Marilyn Monroe, definitely someone who could have gotten by on her good looks alone, danced and sang in her own particular way. She wasn’t necessarily the best, but it fit her character. Or, think of Judy Garland traipsing up and down the Yellow Brick Road, stopping to give one of the most memorable musical performances recorded on film.

Of course, they had some help. The old studio system—in which stars were signed to long-term contracts to work with one major studio—helped cultivate a well-rounded performer.

McLaughlin says that then, “they all had musical departments—a staff that would teach people how to sing, how to hoof, how to tap.” Budding actors would then enter a training camp of sorts.

Debbie Reynolds signed up to MGM and quickly learned what she was in for: “They told her, ‘You are going to be in this movie and dance with Gene Kelly,’ and she was floored,” said McLaughlin. “She was like ‘How can I do that?’”

While not everyone has the talent to learn, says McLaughlin, “If you keep practicing long enough and you’re getting paid to do it, you’re going to become a dancer.”

Since the golden era, cultural shifts have allowed the Triple Threat to disappear. For one thing, the advent of method acting has meant scrapping a more Las Vegas-like “showbiz” performing style in favor of gritty realism.

“Maybe it’s not as cool as it used to be,” said McLaughlin of being a Triple Threat. Today’s role models are more Johnny Depp, less Fred Astaire. “If kids are wanting to become actors, they are the cool figures to model themselves after. There are not a lot of Triple Threats to model themselves after.”

But the biggest reason the Triple Threat has disappeared is because their main vehicle—the musical—has also faltered. One massive musical once every few years—a Chicago, a Dreamgirls—doesn’t make up for what used to be a thriving genre.

“Very few musical films are made nowadays, so Triple Threats are hardly needed there. Burlesque was practically the only musical of the whole year,” said Michael Musto, the Village Voice gossip columnist. “But until musicals come back in full swing, and not just a few a year, like the upcoming Rock of Ages and Gypsy, the situation will stay the same.”

There is good news for people who want a little singing and dancing with their acting. “The Triple Threats are now on TV,” said Musto: “They’re all on Glee.”

As the film business has become cursed by action movies and their interminable sequels, the need for someone who can sing and dance, and even, you could argue, act, has become less necessary. Vin Diesel may never have made it past the first audition in Old Hollywood. Musto and McLaughlin both say that Hollywood has always been a mix of the all-arounders and the less-talented, but-beautiful types. For every Debbie Reynolds, who could do it all, there was a Bette Davis, who did one thing very well.

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Still, you have to wonder, why didn’t the director and producers of Black Swan just find someone who could dance believably, and who exhibited acting ability? Is it really easier to use computer effects to put a face on a body double than to find someone with true charisma who can also pirouette on the screen?

There are practical matters to consider, says San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick La Salle, whose book Complicated Women covered the dames of Old Hollywood.

“To me, it’s obvious why you’d get Natalie Portman. She’s Natalie Portman. She’s a movie star and maybe can sell tickets, and she’s lovely, and she’s a good actress,” said LaSalle. “Finding a ballet dancer who is as charming and talented as Portman would be difficult, and even if you could, then you’d have to sell her to your financiers, and then, maybe hardest of all, to the public.”

(Fact: Penelope Cruz was actually a ballerina for nine years.)

Of course, Black Swan isn’t the first movie to use a body double. Perhaps the most egregious use of a dancing double was Flashdance, in which Jennifer Beals, a woman with a lithe, lean body, and loose, layered curls, was transformed into a taut, stocky gymnast with rock-hard thighs, and an immovable Afro. Beals used two doubles, Sharon Shapiro, a gymnast, and Marine Jahan, a French actress. And though it was obvious to anyone with eyes that Beals was not doing her own dancing, the reveal also inspired controversy.

Indeed, dancing doubles always seem to cause minor spurts of outrage. A rumor that Paula Abdul, longtime choreographer for Janet Jackson, served as double for part of the “Pleasure Principle” video caused a gasp amongst devotees; and Britney Spears, an accomplished dancer, has been accused of resorting to a double.

There are, however, a few Triple Threats who walk among we mortals. Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, the cast of Glee—even J-Lo—fall into the category of Triple Threat. Justin Timberlake is dangerously good at all three but has not been able to showcase it in one vehicle.

Others, like Madonna, and her pal, Gwyneth Paltrow, have strived to become Triple Threats—with mixed results. Perhaps they try so hard because there is an air of legitimacy conferred on someone who does all three well—or because a Triple Threat is like an exotic animal, now rarely seen in nature. Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, is receiving praise for his recent stage appearances in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. An article in The New York Times noted that Radcliffe has gone out of his way to train to become a Triple Threat, taking singing and dancing lessons so that he could carry a Broadway show.

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And as Musto notes, when stars like Catherine Zeta Jones and Jennifer Hudson “are allowed to do their stuff in a movie, they generally win the Oscar.”

Sometimes, it seems Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with the super talented— What, exactly, was the point of hiring Anne Hathaway to co-host the Oscars if you weren’t going to put her in some dance numbers, and make her sing?

Indeed, that brief moment when she did a little song and dance was perhaps the only instance in the excruciating, cringe-inducing hours-long telecast when Hathaway seemed remotely comfortable in her own skin. We’ll note ruefully that her costar James Franco’s attempts to sing or dance were less-than-successful. A rendition of Cher’s “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” was scrapped because Franco couldn’t pull it off, only serving to highlight the gaping maw between the all-around entertainer and the naturally charismatic actor.

It’s a gap that someone like John Travolta understood very clearly. During the filming of Saturday Night Fever, Mark McLaughlin says that the director John Badham told him a story about the nascent movie star. “With Fred Astaire—who John Travolta loved—and Jimmy Cagney—who John Travolta loved— they never would cut away, they would always be in the full shots,” he said. “You could see that it was Fred Astaire dancing and not some double doing the tap dancing.”

During the star-making solo dance scene in Saturday Night Fever, McLaughlin said, there were few close ups of fancy footwork or cutaway edits. Travolta had a request: “He insisted that you see his entire body, so you knew it was him.”

No CGI necessary.