Marisa Tomei The Wrestler

Marisa Tomei as Cassidy in “The Wrestler” (2008)
Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “My Cousin Vinny” may have been the subject of maybe the meanest of Awards rumors (the thoroughly debunked speculation that Jack Palance called out her name in error, and the Academy covered up the gaffe), she has made good on the award retroactively in films like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” But she’s probably never been better than here, playing the perfect foil to Mickey Rourke’s showier, central role, but holding her own and imbuing her character, Cassidy, with such hard-won wisdom that she’s a much realer, more rounded and oddly dignified character than the “aging stripper” tag might suggest. Of course the parallels between her profession and that of the pro-wrestler are very clearly drawn, but both actors are so completely at home in their characters that none of it feels contrived, especially not the tenderness that underlies their mutual, tentative reaching out to one another.  And it never strays too far into full-on love affair either; there’s always a hard streak of pragmatism to Cassidy’s relationship with Randy, that reinforces the idea that she is the stronger of the two, or perhaps she’s just not quite as calcified into old, self-destructive patterns. Which is not to say that Tomei’s experience on the film was not extremely gruelling too, with Aronofsky’s fondness for exploring different ways into a scene resulting in many multiple takes. “... even just the dance alone was 26 takes and that’s like two minutes of dancing on a pole. That’s really a lot. And that was not one day, that was part of a day. It was a very, very physically challenging shoot,” said the actress in an interview. But with this film, claims Tomei, Aronofsky “intended to make an actor's piece and he cherished us and we're very grateful to him,” and its vérité, lo-fi feel does make it seem like something of an outlier in the director’s output, even as it’s a highlight for the actress. She gained a third Best Supporting Actress nomination for the role, and safe to say had her name and not Penelope Cruz’s (for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") been called that year, no one would have suggested there’d been a mistake.

Black Swan
"Black Swan"

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan” (2010)
Time and time again, Aronofsky has transformed the actors in his films. The cast of “Requiem For A Dream” lost weight to a terrifying degree, Hugh Jackman went from Spanish explorer to bald-headed mystic astronaut, Mickey Rourke bared his soul. But nothing in his films has been as literally transformative, on a number of levels, as Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in “Black Swan,” the film that proved, unexpectedly, to be the biggest critical (a Best Picture nomination) and commercial ($300 million worldwide) success of the director’s career. Portman had been an enormously promising actress since her breakthrough in “Léon,” but for every turn that fulfilled that promise, there’d be another with flat line readings or ill-advised choices. But “Black Swan” put any doubt to rest, with Portman perfectly cast as the demure ballerina with a dark side. Her downtrodden, naive little girl in the film’s opening scenes plays nicely into her child star background, and the actress sketches out Nina, and her white swan side, deftly and economically. But very gradually, she lets the black swan out too (Aronofsky often described the film as a werewolf movie in all but name), and we see the cold ambition, the repressed sexuality, and the near-feral darkness that Nina appears to have been hiding for so long. It’s very unlike anything that Portman has done before or since, and all the more terrifying for it: the way she moves in the final dance sequence, regal and withering and monstrous, more reptile than bird, chills the blood. And yet Portman doesn’t let it slip into pure genre either, as the hint of the girl she used to be returns as Nina dances her last number. Some complained when she won the Oscar that a dancing double had been used for some scenes, but few could doubt that this is Portman’s performance through and through.

Barbara Hershey in "Black Swan"
Barbara Hershey in "Black Swan"

Barbara Hershey as Erica in “Black Swan” (2010)
One of the critiques most frequently levelled against Aronofsky as a filmmaker is that his films can lack subtlety and/or subtext. We’re not sure how much we agree with that assessment (or rather, we’re not sure how much of a criticism it is, and how much it’s simply part of his style) but one performance which undercuts it, to a degree at least, is Barbara Hershey in “Black Swan,” playing the controlling mother of Natalie Portman’s overachieving ballerina. The film essentially utilizes an unreliable narrator in the form of Nina herself, so the view we get of her mother does become progressively more demonic as the film progresses and as whatever psychotic break with reality Nina is experiencing takes further hold. But Hershey walks the ambiguity of the role brilliantly, playing the demon that Nina sees (and sometimes hallucinates) with just enough flashes of what is perhaps the real woman to leave that relationship open to a myriad of other interpretations. Is she the ultimate stage mother, mercilessly manipulating her daughter into living out her own thwarted ambitions? Is she a lonely, aging woman whose overprotectiveness is triggered by a recognition that her daughter is unwell and is only interpreted as monstrous by her Nina’s fracturing mind? Or has she, as some of the more outre theories have it, actually caused Nina’s condition by years of psychological and possibly even physical molestation? Hershey’s performance captures so many polar opposites, love and hatred, admiration and disdain, scorn and envy that it can be read in any of these ways and still feel complete. Hershey herself credits a great deal of this to Aronofsky’s directorial process, claiming he was totally open to any idea on set, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it. “You felt peacefully used up when you came home at night,” said the actress, “which was a great feeling.”

Honorable Mentions: It’s rare to find a bad performance in an Aronofsky film, and we could also have included Sean Gullette in “Pi,” though it’s rougher round the edges, any of the “Requiem For A Dream” ensemble, namely Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly or Marlon Wayans, Rachel Weisz in “The Fountain,” Evan Rachel Wood in “The Wrestler,” or Mila Kunis in “Black Swan.” And though we haven't seen it yet, early word is that Russell Crowe delivers one of his best performances in years in “Noah,” while Logan Lerman is said to be a standout too. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang