Drama, queens

NBC’s hyped ‘Smash’ wants one thing: To be the next ‘Glee.’ It succeeds

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HELLO NORMA JEAN | The making of a stage musical about Marilyn Monroe creates a competition between two actresses (Katharine McPhee, Meg Hilty) in the aptly-named ‘Smash.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Smash has one goal in mind: To out-gay Glee.

The much-hyped hour-long drama series (NBC is hawking it by tying in to the Super Bowl, even though the real singing competition The Voice airs after the game; Smash is on Monday) has musical performances interwoven with a melodramatic storyline about the next Broadway star. Forget competing against other teens at regionals: This is the whole enchilada. (Although no one in the cast looks like they have ever eaten an enchilada. Too many carbs.)

A musical theater team — gay composer Tom (Christian Borle) and fag-hag lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) — get suddenly inspired to turn Marilyn Monroe’s life into a Broadway musical. That’s usually a years-long enterprise, only hot stage producer Eileen (Angelica Huston) needs a new show to replace one tanked because of her divorce. Marilyn sounds perfect. The key, though, will be getting the right star.

It’s instantly a showdown between two women: Veteran belter Ivy (Meg Hilty) and fresh newcomer Karen (Katharine McPhee). The sleazy British director Derek (Jack Davenport) wants to sleep with one, which may skew the vote, but the thing is, you really want both to get it. This isn’t Black Swan, it’s A Chorus Line.

Creator Theresa Rebeck is an old hand at New York theater, and Smash oozes insider knowledge gussied up for TV: The catty personality conflicts, the references to other shows and composers, the cumbersome, do-we-know-what-we’re-doing rehearsal process. These routines sometimes devolve into cliché (episode 2 is less deliciously addictive than the pilot, but still entertaining), but the style of the series — with rehearsals magically transforming into idealized fantasy stagings of what the show can be — works, keeping the show visually interesting.

Rebeck also knows her market: Theater queens. When Derek snipes that he doesn’t like gay people, Eileen shoots back that he picked the wrong profession; every assistant and chorus boy seems like a friend of Dorothy, and Tom gets his princess attitude going. Smash is less over-the-top than Glee, as if these characters are the same high schoolers a few years after graduation. Add American Idol runner-up McPhee into the mix (she’s a good actress) and fallen-from-Grace Messing, and Smash has everything a gay boy could want.

Break out the Playbill and grab an orchestra seat — Smash is in for a long run.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

On his toes

IMG_0467From ‘Black Swan’ to ‘Billy Elliot,’ Fort Worth’s Kurt Froman lives to dance

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

When you step into a room with Kurt Froman, you’re so struck just by this gay man’s boyishly handsome face, it crosses your mind the only thing better than chatting with him is if there were two of him. And, to an extent, there are.

Froman, a Fort Worth native, is an accomplished dancer and choreographer. And so is his twin brother. They even pursued the same dream: Leaving Cowtown as teenagers to attend the School of American Ballet in New York.

DANCE 10 LOOKS… 10 | Fort Worth native Kurt Froman, above at the Winspear, has the daunting task of keeping the ever-pubescing cast of Billys, left, in tip-top dance form. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

 

But for this Froman at least, the similarities end there. Even though they used to dance together, Froman has never felt competition with his twin  —“I always think we are so obviously different,” he says — though he admits having a doppelganger who was equally proficient at the same endeavor put him through “a delayed adolescence. We did everything together.”

At least until 2002. That’s when Kurt “left school to do Movin’ Out on Broadway.”

The dance musical, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, was a huge hit and helped Froman establish his break out. Since then, he’s done more Broadway (Pal Joey), TV (Saturday Night Live — he played a Versace boy) and, most notably, the film Black Swan, in which he played the male dancer’s understudy and served, behind the scenes, as associate choreographer. His principal responsibility: Teaching Oscar winner Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis how to move like ballerinas.

“I am a huge fan of Darren Aronofsky,” he says of Black Swan’s director. “To get to work alongside him and [Portman and Kunis] was an amazing undertaking.” (He even had input into the script, developing a dancer who is losing their grip.)

But Billy Elliot, which opens next week at the Winspear as part of the Lexus Broadway Series, represents something new for him: His first national tour.

“When I heard it was coming to Broadway, I sent [them] a reel,” Froman says. “I said, ‘This is a show I definitely want to be a part of.’”

Based on the 2000 film, it tells the story of a working-class British boy who, at the height of unease during the Thatcher regime, makes the unpopular decision to study ballet — something that does not sit well with the men in his community, and gets him labeled a sissy. Elton John co-wrote the songs, including “Expressing Yourself,” an anthem to individuality. The show won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including the first-ever threefer, with all the boys who alternated playing Billy sharing the best actor trophy.

As resident choreographer, Froman’s job is a daunting one. Most people who travel with shows as a director or choreographer merely keep the vision accurate and help replace the occasional actor whose contract ends. (Froman also understudies the Older Billy role.) But this Billy has five Billys. It’s not just that the role is physically demanding; it’s that all of the boys are at incipient puberty and grow out of the role quickly. Still, teaching the kids is sometimes easier than the adults.

“There’s no ego there,” he says. “They have everything to learn and nothing to unlearn. They need me to make them look the best they can.”

Even if the kids are easier to work with, Froman is still tickled to be touring with Broadway diva Faith Prince in a featured role.

The one-two punch of Billy and Swan this year, though, has been eye-opening for Froman. He sees the depth to both, from “the neverending mindfuck of being a great dancer always subject to being replaced by someone younger [in Swan]” to the passion that drives Billy, Froman can personally relate to what’s being portrayed. Now that he’s in his 30s, many dancers younger than he are coming up the ranks. So, his work with Billy aside, he’s looking forward.

There’s still a lot more he’d like to do: “I’m excited for the next phase of my life, what’s next on the horizon,” he says. “I’d like to have kids.”

And maybe, like Billy, they’d be as interested in dance as Dad.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Oscar recap

The gayest film in this year’s Oscar race, The Kids Are All Right, went home empty-handed, but lesbian-themed Black Swan — with Natalie Portman as a sexually confused ballerina — took best actress and at least two openly gay winners ascended to the podium during Sunday’s incredibly dull ceremony.

Lora Hirschberg, co-winner of best sound mixing for Inception, sent a shout out to her wife, and Iain Canning, lead producer on best picture winner The King’s Speech, thanked his boyfriend during the three-hour-plus telecast that saw James Franco seeming as bored as the rest of us … although looking smoking hot in a white leotard at one point.

My own predictions proved fairly accurate, including the best live action short God of Love with a gay gag.

The only standing ovation I saw was for Billy Crystal, who hosted eight times. That was a signal: Let’s rise for the guy who actually did a good job hosting this show.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Oscars not exactly gay heaven, but we’ll take it

Many gays are still smarting from the upset victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars five years ago, but somehow, the lack of a clear frontrunner among many of the gay-content pictures this time around doesn’t feel as dramatic. Still, here would be the ideal queer surprises at the awards (they air Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on ABC).

Best picture, best original screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family film The Kids Are All Right, is up for four awards, including best picture, which it won’t win. But Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg have an outside shot at a writing award. They are up against the favorite, David Seidler for The King’s Speech (which also has the momentum for best picture). Then again, Seidler’s other screen credits include several animated films and a made for TV movie with Liz Taylor. It’s not like giving it to the lesbian would insult his art. And if King’s Speech does beat The Kids … well, everyone can root for a queen, and there are several in that movie. And gay uber-producer Scott Rudin is twice nominated, for The Social Network and True Grit. Pretty good odds.

Best actress: For a time, Annette Bening, pictured above, seemed a strong sentimental favorite to win as the totally gay half of the complex relationship in Kids, but Natalie Portman has come on strong with her SAG and Globe wins for Black Swan. Still, Portman’s character has same-sex fantasies about her dance rival Mila Kunis, so the LGBT community can claim a victory if either wins.

Best supporting actor: Mark Ruffalo as the straight dad in Kids is a longshot, as is Jeremy Renner, the villain in The Town (and, if Perez Hilton is to be believed, gay himself). They’ll probably lose to Christian Bale in The Fighter, but any would add a little hottie beefcake to the acceptance podium.

Live action short: Here’s an office pool tie-breaker you can get behind. Among the largely un-gay short film nominees is God of Love, pictured, a Jim Jarmusch-esque comedy about a homely man who acquires the power of Cupid. He uses it to seduce women … and at least one man. It’s quirky and fun, and among a perfectly fine slate of nominees, the stand-out.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition.

—  John Wright

Oscar noms: What’s gay about ‘em

The King’s Speech led the field with 12 Oscar nominations this morning, followed by True Grit, The Social Network and Inception. There weren’t all that many surprises. But here’s what gay audiences might be interested in:

The Kids Are All Right, by lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko, got four nominations, including one for Cholodenko’s screenplay, one for Annette Bening’s performance as a lesbian mom, as well as best picture.

• Several industry insiders were nominated for more than one award, but only gay producer Scott Rudin, pictured, is competing with himself for best picture: He was nominated for both The Social Network and True Grit. (One of the founders of Facebook is openly gay, though his character is given short shrift in the film.)

Black Swan received five nominations, including best picture, best director and for actress Natalie Portman, who plays what could be a lesbian … or maybe bisexual… or maybe just insane … dancer.

• Best foreign language film Dogtooth involves a lesbian subplot, which foreign language and best actor nominee Biutiful contains a same-sex kiss.

• Best costume nominee I Am Love stars Tilda Swinton as the mother of a lesbian daughter.

• And perhaps most surprising of all, Diane Warren, who just won a Golden Globe for her Cher song “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from Burlesque, was passed over for an Oscar nomination. So was the film for best picture. And in every other category. Go figure.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Model confesses to castrating, murdering gay Portugese TV journalist

Renato Seabra, 20

From wire reports

NEW YORK — A male model has confessed to torturing, castrating and bludgeoning to death his “sugar daddy” — a celebrity Portugese TV journalist — at a Times Square hotel on Friday, Jan. 7

Renato Seabra, 20, told police he killed 65-year-old Carlos Castro “to get rid of demons, to get rid of the virus,” The New York Post reports.

“I’m not gay anymore!” Seabra reportedly told Castro before the attack, in which he castrated him with a wine corkscrew. Seabra was taken into custody a few hours after the attack and is now charged with second-degree murder.

Castro had arrived in the U.S. in late December in the company of Seabra to see some Broadway shows and spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square, according to a family friend.

There had been some friction between the two men toward the end of the trip, but nothing to suggest that anything horrible was about to happen, said the friend, Luis Pires, the editor of the Portuguese language newspaper Luso-Americano.

“I think that they were a little bit upset with each other, for jealousy reasons,” Pires told The Associated Press.

The couple saw the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and took in the movie The Black Swan. But when it was time to meet Pires’ daughter for dinner Friday night, Jan. 7, Seabra suddenly emerged in the lobby of the InterContinental New York Times Square hotel acting strangely, Pires said.

“He told my daughter, ‘Carlos will never leave the hotel again,’” Pires said.

He said his daughter, distraught, fetched a hotel manager. Security guards opened the door to the room and found the body at about 7 p.m.

By then, Seabra had left the hotel but was detained by police hours later after he sought care at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, not far from the hotel. He was being evaluated Saturday at Bellevue Hospital Center, across town.

Police said the victim suffered serious head trauma. The medical examiner’s office will determine the cause of death.

Seabra was a contestant last year on a Portuguese TV show called A Procura Do Sonho, or Pursuit of a Dream, which hunts for modeling talent.

He didn’t win the show but did get a modeling contract with an agency founded by fashion designer Fatima Lopes, who developed the show and was a judge on it.

Lopes expressed her shock to Portugal’s Correio da Manha’s newspaper on Sunday.

“He never talked about his private life, he was a quiet boy and perhaps the shyest of all contestants in In Search of the Dream. He was very calm and polite, she said. “This whole thing seems surreal to me.”

Seabra had always been interested in fashion, he told the Independente de Cantanhede newspaper in September.

“I have entered this world, and I don’t want to leave it because I see I can be successful,” he said.

Castro, who also was a columnist in Portugal, was admired there for his bravery in coming out as a gay man and “revealing the feminine side of his personality,” said Rui Pedro Tendinha, a film critic who knew Castro.

He was a high-profile public figure as a TV personality, Tendinha said.

“The way he died is causing a big commotion in Portugal,” he said.

The organizer of Lisbon Fashion Week, Eduarda Abbondanza, said she knew Castro from his coverage of Fashion Week. Abbondanza said that when she fell seriously ill, Castro “was always there for me, calling me every time, checking up on me.”

On a trip to Rome, Castro even bought Abbondanza a rosary that the pope had blessed. Abbondanza said that when she heard about Castro’s death, she took the rosary to a church to pray.

“I only wish I could have helped him the way he helped me,” Abbondanza said. “He had a huge heart. Only a human being with a heart like that could have done what he did for me.”

Designer Ana Salazar, considered a fashion pioneer in Portugal, recalled Castro’s role as one of the country’s first social columnists.

“I was both in his best- and worst-dressed lists in the ’80s,” she said.

She said she was shocked by his death.

“It’s like something out of a horror movie,” she added.

A guest at the InterContinental, Suzanne Divilly, 40, told the Daily News she heard the two men arguing in their room during the day Friday.

“There was a lot of noise, talking,” she said. “You could hear them arguing in the corridor and even in our room.”

Pires described Castro as having “kind of a Liberace style. Eccentric, but very well-known.” He said he had been on Portuguese TV since he was a teenager, had written several books and was friends with the former president of Portugal, Mario Soares.

The young model and older journalist had been dating each other for a few months, he said.

“My wife and my daughter were with him for the past three or four days,” Pires said. “My wife told me that he was a very nice kid. Very polite. I think this must have been a crime of the heart.”

“This was a 21-year-old kid, looking for fame. He (Carlos) probably saw him watching girls, or something.”

News of the murder rattled the town of Cantanhede, population 38,000, in the central Portuguese district of Coimbra, where Seabra was born and where his family lives.

His sister, Joana Seabra, is a doctor and chairwoman of the local political committee of the Social Democratic Youth of Cantanhede. Calls to her home and surgery went unanswered Sunday, and no one was picking up the phone at the number listed as belonging to the family where the suspect’s mother, Odilia Seabra is believed to live.

Seabra’s childhood friend Lurdes Silva told the local Diario de Coimbra newspaper in Sunday’s editions that she was stunned by the allegations.

“He entered the fashion world in the hope of changing his life. Dreams are easy at our age,” she said. “He was looking for a dream and found a nightmare” She said the two shared an interest in racing pigeons.

“The news has hit Cantanhede like a bomb,” Casas de Melo, an organizer of the Cantanhede racing pigeon association. He told Diario de Coimbra Seabra was “a spectacular young man.

The death is the second recent slaying in an upscale New York City hotel room.

Swimsuit designer Sylvie Cachay, 33, was found strangled and drowned in a bathtub at the trendy Soho House hotel on Dec. 9. Her boyfriend Nicholas Brooks has pleaded not guilty in her death.

Brooks, the 24-year-old son of You Light Up My Life writer and Oscar winner Joseph Brooks, has been held without bail since his arrest.

And in February last year, prosecutors say multimillionaire Gigi Jordan killed her 8-year-old autistic boy at the the posh Peninsula Hotel. Jordan pleaded not guilty to murder. She wrote a letter saying she planned to kill herself and her son, but prosecutors have said she may have faked the suicide attempt. Her lawyer says the claim is baseless.

—  John Wright

‘The Fighter:’ ‘Rocky 2.0’

With all the homoeroticism (and lesbian subplot) in The Wrestler two years back, I was hoping The Fighter — with an always-buff Mark Wahlberg, above left, as an aspiring welterweight — might, Rocky III-esque, idealize the male form for gay audiences. No such luck. We have to settle, instead, for a gritty and highly watchable character study set in the world of boxing. I’ll adjust.

In many ways, The Fighter is the obverse of Black Swan: One is about a girl in the arts that lures you in with cliches about ballet films, then turns out the be something totally different; the other is about man in sports that avoids a lot of cliches until, about three-quarters through, turns out to be Rocky in disguise. (Both films also have the hand of Darren Aronofsky in them, who also directed The Wrestler.)

Such misdirection works in the film’s favor, because it allows the story to unfold with the immediacy of a family drama, and this family is full of drama. Mom (a fabulous Melissa Leo) coddles her seven useless harpy daughters while offering up her son Micky (Wahlberg, more heartfelt than ever), the only one with potential, in a series of bad bouts.

Even worse: The entire town of Lowell, Mass., idolizes Micky’s crack-addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a has-been who spends more time getting high than helping his little brother achieve what he couldn’t.

That may sound like a familiar plot, and it is familiar — you think of On the Waterfront, and are tempted to call it Rocky 2.0 — but the approach is cattywampus, almost disorienting. You think you know where it’s headed, but it surprises you.

With its cinema verite look and painfully authentic performances — especially by Leo and Bale, who’s gaunt and scary as a tweaked-out loser — conjure up everything that’s frightening about poisonous relationships of all kinds. It’s the season’s most unexpected crowd-pleaser.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Three stars
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Movie Monday: ‘Black Swan’ in limited release

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness.

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Four stars. For the complete review, click here.

DEETS: Black Swan. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel. Rated R. 105 mins. Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

—  Rich Lopez

The 5 most famous lesbian scenes on film

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in ‘Black Swan.’

CHRISTY LEMIRE | AP Movie Critic

LOS ANGELES — Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis play bitter ballet rivals in Darren Aronofsky’s trippy Black Swan. But the heightened emotion they feel for each other ends up bubbling over into a passionate sex scene that’s had people talking for months before the film’s release.

Well, now Black Swan is finally here, so it’s a great opportunity — and not gratuitous at all, really — to take a look at the five most famous lesbian scenes on film. A side note: Showgirls might have been a serious contender, but it appeared last week among the five most irresistible guilty-pleasure movies. It is tempting to find a reason to talk about Showgirls every week, though …

Mulholland Dr. (2001): The first intimate encounter between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring is soft and sweet … but because this is a David Lynch movie, naturally the relationship between these two women becomes darker and more complicated. Watts, as aspiring starlet Betty Elms (at this point in the film, at least), gets tangled up with Harring’s gorgeous amnesiac Rita. As the two embark on an adventure, playing girl-detective to solve the mystery of Rita’s past, their fear and loneliness lead to a kiss which leads to one of the loveliest lesbian scenes ever filmed. In a movie full of twists, this is a rare moment of pure, instinctive emotion.

Wild Things (1998): It starts out as a face-slapping, hair-pulling cat fight in a swimming pool and ends up in a make-out session, complete with bikinis and T-shirts being tossed aside with sultry music in the background. Denise Richards plays the naughty rich girl and Neve Campbell plays the naughty poor girl; despite coming from opposite sides of the tracks, they manage to get together to concoct some rape accusations against their high school guidance counselor (Matt Dillon). The fact that this takes place in South Florida makes the whole movie feel even more steamy and tawdry. Wild Things easily could have made last week’s guilty-pleasure list, too. It’s so multipurpose.

• Bound (1996): Before The Wachowski Brothers entered the Matrix, the writing-directing duo made their debut with this funny, tense and sexy neo-noir. Jennifer Tilly plays Violet, the seemingly ditzy girlfriend of a mobster; Gina Gershon plays Corky, the maintenance woman in their apartment building who just got out of prison. Violet’s attraction to Corky is instantaneous, and eventually the two cook up a scheme to steal $2 million in stashed cash from Violet’s boyfriend. A ridiculous amount of contrived meetings and flirting leads to an intense — but artfully photographed — love scene between the two women.

D.E.B.S. (2004): As if it weren’t enough to have a bunch of beautiful, teenage spies dressed in naughty schoolgirl outfits, their leader (Sara Foster) ends up secretly falling for the deadly criminal (Jordana Brewster) who is their primary target. Writer-director Angela Robinson’s film isn’t exactly great cinema but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and features plenty of fun, cheeky moments. (Its tagline: “They’re crime-fighting hotties with killer bodies.”) That’s indeed true of Foster and Brewster, who share a few kisses and teasing moments before their eventual playful and passionate hook-up.

Cruel Intentions (1999): The most chaste of the five on this list, but it did earn Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair the highly coveted “Best Kiss” prize at the MTV Movie Awards. In this prep-school version of Dangerous Liaisons, Gellar functions in the Glenn Close role as a conniving and manipulative rich girl who dominates Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Blair is in the Uma Thurman role as a malleable innocent. Since Blair’s character has never kissed a boy before, Gellar’s teaches her what to do during a picnic in Central Park: “I’m gonna stick my tongue in your mouth, and when I do that I want you to massage my tongue with yours.” It all sounds pretty straightforward.

—  John Wright

There will be blood

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness. Wow

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

MIRROR, MIRROR | Nina (Natalie Portman) sees a lot of strange things looking back at her in mirrors, but none stranger than the movie itself.

4 out of 5 stars
BLACK SWAN

Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis,
Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel.
Rated R. 105 mins.
Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

…………………………..

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Natalie Portman has rarely impressed me onscreen. The Star Wars films didn’t challenge her (and she didn’t disappoint, never rising above the ho-hum scripts and stodgy dialogue), and her stripper in Closer struck me as entirely false.

But here, as Nina — the tic-filled prima donna desperate for success but too repressed to explore the part of her that will allow her to triumph — Portman seems to fit like a foot in a ballet shoe.

Nina craves center stage, and she’s got talent, but she’s also troubled. Her mother (Barbara Hershey), once a dance hopeful, smothers her with expectations; Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the company’s leader, intimidates her; competition from the other girls is fierce, and Nina wants for confidence.

IT ISN’T ROMANTIC | Vincent Cassel’s predictable performance doesn’t clip this ‘Swan.’

But there’s something deeper holding her back, too: She’s paranoid (or is it just overly sensitive?), sensing every overheard titter is cruel mockery aimed at her; she’s obsessed with her body and a rash (or is she self-mutilating?); she sees dangers around every corner, including the fading diva (Winona Ryder), whom she’s in line to replace. And what of Lily (Mila Kunis), the newcomer who acts like her friend and possible lover, but could be pulling an Eve Harrington on her?

It’s difficult to tell what to believe in the world Aronofsky creates; maybe that’s why he echoes so many dance-movie clichés, to get us relaxed in the familiar before he turns out the lights. (Surprisingly, there are some standout special effects.) Like Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant — and more recently, Jacob’s Ladder — what we know is filtered through Nina’s mind. It’s never clear what we should trust. Does her mother even exist? Minor things become ominous: He turns the acts of hand-washing and fingernail-clipping into moments of intense terror, with too many bloody digits for my taste.

But to what end? Black Swan is difficult to parse. It’s creepy — a true thriller — that stays self-contained in the world of ballet.

Cassel delivers the film’s most predictable performance (he’s completely uninteresting), but Kunis reveals strength as an actress with a layered turn, and it’s nice seeing Hershey given a juicy role. (If Carrie ever tried to dance, her mom might look like Hershey’s, who elevates passive-aggression to high art.)

But, aside from Aronofsky, the film belongs to Portman. She’s brilliantly unbalanced, portraying a descent into insanity that is horrifying and unnerving but also rooted in humanity and frailty.

The disconnect between the predictability of the dance-driven aspects and the horror of what follows may cause Black Swan to struggle to find an audience. It’s not really a chick flick, but its esoteric discussion of ballet won’t exactly pull teen males into the multiplex. All the more reason to check it out during the crowded holidays — the gays can have the auditorium to ourselves.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens