'Is what Natalie Portman is doing in Black Sawn great acting? It’s certainly spectacular, whatever it is, and audiences have been eating it as they used to eat up the sight of Pete Townsend smashing up his Rickenbacker during Who concerts. Here, of course, the Rickenbacker is Portman herself, laying siege to her physical frame, nicking, cutting, snipping and plucking, until she stands before us transformed, her eyes a devilish red, her back puckered with dart-like feathers, her pale white face contorted into a snarling death mask. A few telltale signs of cgi augmentations here and there ought not to distract us from Portman’s achievement in the film, which is essentially to have turned herself into her own species of special effect. She doesn’t act so much as morph. During last year’s debate over whether the blue people in James Cameron’s Avatar were delivering actual performances or not, it was a commonly heard opinion from the acting community that “acting is the best special effect.” They meant it as a way of pulling rank, but what if it were actually true? What if what lay behind our current fad for physical transformation in our actors were a desire to keep up, not with the illustrious example set by Marlon Brando, but with that set by Industrial Light and Magic? You’ve read the statistics, proudly trumpeted by the stars’ publicists during the run-up to awards season. How Hanks lost 55 pounds for Castaway. How Clooney put on 30 pounds for Syriana. Crowe putting on 63 pounds for Body of Lies. Bale losing 70 llbs for The Machinist… Think of the language critics use to praise these performances — “immersive”, “transformative” “revelatory” — and you realize how much it echoes the way we talk about special effects.
Or think back to the Godfather of these performances, as Bale himself made clear with his shout-out to De Niro at the Golden Globe last month: de Niro’s turn as Jack La Motta in Raging Bull. De Niro went from his usual 140 pounds to 160 to play La Motta as a young man, then up to 215 to play him in decline, sunk in the rolls of fat around his neck as he hammily declaims Brando’s monologue from On The Waterfront to a green-room mirror in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. “By the end it became evident that much of Raging Bull exists because of the possibilities if offers de Niro to display his own explosive art,” wrote Richard Corliss in Time, although precisely what explosive art he was displaying was another question. “What De Niro does in this film isn’t acting, exactly,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, “Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable.” The key word here is “awesome,” for the real creative progenitor of De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull, arguably, was not Brando but Star Wars, released just three years earlier, obliterating all in its path at the box office with the ruthlessness of one of Lucas’s imperial star destroyers. “Star Wars was in, Spielberg was in,” Scorsese told author Peter Biskind. “We were finished.” Were they? In many ways, Raging Bull feels like Scorsese and de Niro’s response to Lucas’s space epic, an anti-blockbuster built to resist the gravitational pull of the death star by means of a spectacle no less visceral or intense: you gives us exploding stars, we give you a ballooning Robert De Niro...' — from my article for Slate about acting special effects