Rewatching Black Swan this week, I was surprised all over again that somehow it managed to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Not surprised in the sense I couldn’t believe anybody would think it the Best Picture of the year – after all, when recapping 2010, I thought it the Best Film of 2010. Rather, I was surprised because the film is such a daring and outré choice for such a historically conservative body to even think about giving Best Picture to.
After all, Black Swan is a film so unrelentingly dark, and the drama so built on fragile psychology and overt sexuality – hetero, homo and incestual – that it seems like the kind of film the Academy would normally run away from like their hair was on fire. Don’t forget, this is the same body of milquetoasts that routinely gives Stephen Daldry nominations for films that are generally regarded as being lousy and chose the insipid Crash over the game-changing Brokeback Mountain.
(At this moment I suspect you’re probably asking yourself, how can Black Swan really be all that surprising a choice, when this is the same Academy that gave plenty of love to the gay-cowboy drama, Brokeback Mountain? The answer, in a word: pedigree. Stop for a moment and think about where both projects came from. One was directed by a man who had already been nominated for Best Director; who’d won an award for Best Foreign Language Film; and was based on a story by a Pulitzer Prize winning author that was adapted into a screenplay by another Pulitzer Prize winning author. The other was made by the man who directed such films Pi and Requiem for a Dream.)
The strangest thing, though, is its inclusion in the category does not seem due to some sort of fluke or luck. In some cases an edgy film might sneak into the Best Picture race simply because there is a vocal enough minority of the full Academy membership to get the thing on the final ballot – remember, the full Academy nominates for Best Picture, whereas the individual branches have the say over the various other awards. See, e.g., Jaws. While also nominated for its editing, score and sound, it’s only major nom was for Best Picture, making its inclusion in that race seem like an accident.
And given the expansion of the Best Picture race beyond the traditional five, the accidental Best Picture nominee has all the more chance of happening.
But Black Swan’s nomination is clearly not some fluke, evidenced by the fact the director, Darren Aronofsky, found himself in the Best Director race as well. Sure, David Lynch has snuck into that category a time or two, usually buoyed by a small, edgy contingent of the Directors branch. But when you have enough people in the full Academy to get the film nominated, and enough in the Director’s branch to get it a nomination, and enough actors out there to put Natalie Portman in the Best Actress race, it’s clear that Black Swan being nominated for Best Picture was not some accident, but was clear evidence of more widespread support.
In short, it was intentional, because Black Swan is one of the best films of the year.
And that, if nothing else, is what makes truly it a strange choice. Not only because it was edgy, but also because an actual good movie got into the race.