Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling: Black Swan and the Governator

The new Entertainment Weekly has a couple of hilarious reminders that the entertainment business — including most of the publications that cover it — is primarily a publicist-driven hype machine. Join me for the first installment of a potentially semi-regular feature, Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling. (And yes, I still get Entertainment Weekly. I also watch movies on a circa-2003 CRT TV.)

Natalie Portman did the Black Swan dancing :: Tom Cruise did his own stunts :: Avril Lavigne wrote her own songs

One of my favorite show-business lies is the “[big star X] did [obviously untrue feat Y]” claim, used to establish a star’s talent, grit, or authenticity.

Via EW, I see that we have a new entry in this storied marketing approach: the “Natalie Portman did basically all the dancing in Black Swan” claim. Apparently Portman’s body double Sarah Lane is causing problems for this strategy, pointing out that Lane — a professional ballet dancer rather than a dilettante actor — did the dancing:

“Of the full body shots, I would say 5 percent are Natalie,” says Sarah Lane, 27, an American Ballet Theatre soloist who performed many of the film’s complicated dance sequences, allowing Portman’s face to be digitally grafted onto her body. “All the other shots are me.” …

“They wanted to create this idea in people’s minds that Natalie was some kind of prodigy or so gifted in dance and really worked so hard to make herself a ballerina in a year and a half for the movie, basically because of the Oscar,” says Lane.

I haven’t seen Black Swan and don’t really care whether Portman did the dancing. But despite Darren Aronofsky’s defense of Portman, I would bet a lot of money that Lane is telling the truth. This is just how the entertainment hype machine works.

My favorite example of the phenomenon was the mid-aughts hyping of then-teenager Avril Lavigne as a totally real pop star who totally wrote her own songs!!! (Even though professional songwriting teams and session musicians clearly wrote the songs and played the music.) Edward Jay Epstein describes another example in The Big Picture, his terrific 2005 book detailing the marketing-and-publicist-driven reality of today’s Hollywood. It’s worth quoting at length:

The studio begins its marketing effort as soon as a project receives a green light. … The principal awareness instrument that the publicists have at their disposal, obviously, is the public reputation of the film’s stars. As part of their arrangement with the studios, the stars effectively allow the studios to use their reputations to publicize their films. To this end, the studios script “back stories” that merge the stars’ activities, real or invented, with those of the characters they play in the films. …

Consider Mission: Impossible II. … A back story was … scripted in which [Tom] Cruise was seen to be indistinguishable from Ethan Hunt, the acrobatic hero he played, via the claim that he, and not a stunt double, had done the free falls, fire walks, motorcycle leaps, and other perilous stunts that Hunt did in the movie.

This back story was keynoted in a publicity short, Mission Incredible, shown on MTV and other cable channels owned by Paramount’s corporate parent. Made in the style of a documentary in which the crew and cast of Mission Impossible are interviewed, it has the director, John Woo, expressing great fear that Tom Cruise would plunge to his death in leaps across mountaintops or be incinerated in fire scenes. Woo states, at one point, “Tom has no fear. I prayed for him.” In another publicity short, Woo says, “Tom Cruise does most of his own stunts, so we did not need a stunt double.”

In the actual production, there were at least six stunt doubles for Tom Cruise’s part. Even if Cruise had possessed the skills and training to the stunts himself, and even if the studio was not to object to the delays in shooting this conceit might cause, the insurance company, which insured Cruise as an “essential element” of the production, would not have allowed him to risk so much as an ankle sprain, much less his life. As far as this publicity script diverged from reality, however, it served its purpose by providing a plausible story for the entertainment meda — “Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt,” and a tag line, “Expect the impossible again.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Surefire Comic Book Hit!!!

The Black Swan tale doesn’t reflect on EW as a publication. Alas, their cover-story exclusive on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s post-governor plans is a bit more embarrassing.

The big news is that Schwarzenegger is teaming up with comics legend Stan Lee to develop the Governator, “a sunglasses-wearing superhero with an Austrian accent who’ll be at the center of an ambitious, kid-friendly multimedia comic-book and animated TV series codeveloped by no less a hero maker than Stan Lee.”

If this story were more than a publicist-hatched marketing plan, it might have pointed out that:

  • Stan Lee’s main contributions to comics and pop culture came in the 1960s and ’70s. His later career does not inspire breathless fandom.
  • The pinup drawing of the Governator — featured on a fold-out cover — is straight out of the Rob Liefeld school of bad ’90s comics art:

  • This photo of Schwarzenegger and Lee couldn’t be more staged:

  • The idea is terrible! Here’s Stan Lee: “We’re using all the personal elements of Arnold’s life. We’re using his wife [Maria Shriver]. We’re using his kids. We’re using the fact that he used to be governor. Only after he leaves the governor’s office, Arnold decides to become a crime fighter and builds a secret high-tech crimefighting control center under his house in Brentwood.” Um, have they focus-grouped this? Do they really think Maria Shriver and gubernatorial experience resonate with kids?

I’m happy to be proven wrong; kids have made successes out of far worse artwork and concepts. But Schwarzenegger’s publicist deserves a huge bonus for getting an EW cover out of this lame plan.

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