Even before Natalie Portman won her Best Actress Oscar for her role in Black Swan, critics and audiences alike were buzzing about her disturbing performance as a dedicated-but-delusional prima ballerina. Recently, however, the discussion of Portman’s performance has taken a turn towards the controversial, as Sarah Lane — an American Ballet Theater soloist and one of Portman’s Black Swan dance doubles — has emerged with allegations that Portman did just 5% of the full body dance shots seen in the finished film.
Lane claims she is the victim of a “cover-up” by the filmmakers. Although she commends Portman for trying “to go method” and losing “a lot of weight” for the film, Lane blasts her single’s dancing (if Lane is Portman’s double, doesn’t that make Portman Lane’s single?), saying Portman didn’t look “at all” like a professional dancer and couldn’t even dance in pointe shoes. Lane’s comments came just days after Portman’s choreographer-slash-baby-daddy Benjamin Millepied boasted to the Los Angeles Times that Lane did only a very minimal amount of dancing in the film and that “Honestly, 85 percent of that movie is Natalie.” Since Lane made her “5%” claim, however, the film’s producers, director and co-stars have come to Portman’s defense, with director Darren Aronofsky issuing a statement yesterday saying that of the 139 dance shots in the film, 111 — or, 80% — are Portman untouched, and when you consider screen time, 90% of the dancing is Portman.
Even if all the “did she or didn’t she” discussion surrounding Portman’s Oscar and dance performance misses the real issue — namely, that this should have been Annette Benning’s year — it did get me thinking about the use of doubles in film, and what potential legal claims actors and their doubles might have when situations like this arise.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time that the use of a film double has stirred up controversy around the artistic merit of an Oscar-nominated performance. Back in 1973, when Linda Blair was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Exorcist, well-known radio actress (or as well known as a radio actress can be) Mercedes McCambridge sued Warner Bros. and director William Friedkin for failing to give the actress screen credit for providing Blair’s character’s iconic post-possession demonic voice. (I wonder whether she also delivered the TV edit of the demon’s most famous line — in comically TV-censored form, “You mother sews socks that smell, Karras, you faithless slime.”) Anyone who’s seen The Exorcistknows how crucial the character’s vocal transformation is to the overall feel of the film, and McCambridge reportedly chain-smoked, swallowed raw eggs, and had herself tied to a chair to produce the effect. Ultimately, McCambridge — a Best Supporting Actress winner in her own right for 1949’s All the King’s Men — recruited the Screen Actors Guild to help pressure Warner Bros. into giving her the credit she said she had been promised. By then, however, the damage to Blair’s Oscar chances had already been done — perhaps rightly so — and many believe that McCambridge cost Blair the Oscar.
Although The Exorcist may be the only time use of a film double led to a lawsuit, many other beloved performances of cinema history have been clouded by the stigma that use of a double can bring. The singing voices of both Natalie Wood’s Maria in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn’s Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady were provided by little-known vocalist Marni Nixon. Jennifer Beals’ spandex-clad dancing in Flashdance was done primarily by a woman named Marine Jahan, while an unfortunately-named male break dancer named Crazy Legs shaved his legs — but not, apparently, his upper lip — to provide Beals’ climactic break dance. (The one-shouldered sweater thing was all Beals, though.) And of course, men everywhere were disappointed to learn that the body of “Hollywood’s [self-described] most famous body double” Shelley Michelle, not Julia Roberts, was used in certain crucial “action” shots throughout Pretty Woman.
Given the prominence of Portman’s dance performance in the film and in her subsequent Oscar campaign, as well as the financial success of Black Swan, Sarah Lane may try to scrounge together a right of publicity claim against the filmmakers for using her image in a misleading way and without her informed consent. But given that Lane admits she was never promised a specific credit in the film, and almost certainly signed a release absolving Black Swan’s producers from any possible liability (and probably granting them an option on her first-born child), it’s no surprise that Lane hasn’t followed The Exorcist’s Mercedes McCambridge to the courthouse.
After yesterday’s statement by Aronofsky, however — which he claims can be corroborated by the film’s editor — the initial casting of Lane as our plaintiff may have to be reconsidered. Perhaps it is Portman who has a claim against Lane (dum dum DUM!). If Aronofsky is right and it’s Portman we see dancing in 80% of the film, Lane’s 5% claim sounds a lot like a publicly-made false statement attacking Portman’s professional character as an actress — or, what we lawyers like to call, defamation.