If you’ re like us and enjoyed the delirium of your Thanksgiving food coma in a movie theater, you almost certainly saw a trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller, Black Swan, which opens this Friday. It looks highly creepy (what is that barbed thing Natalie Portman pulls out of her shoulder?) and totally engrossing. But Aronofsky’s not the first director to mine the ballet world’s psychological depths. To achieve prima status, dancers must endure years of rigorous training, personal scrutiny, and ruthless competition. This creates lots of shades of crazy, many of which have been documented on film. After the jump,we provide a field guide to cinema’s various (and fascinating) ballet bitches.
The Stubborn Bitch (Center Stage, 2000)
Before Zoe Saldana frolicked through the lush landscape of Pandora, she pissed off every teacher at the fictional American Ballet Academy in Center Stage. In a cheesy teen movie filled with kiddie-pool-deep characters, Saldana does a respectable job as the brassy rebel, Eva Rodriguez. Eva shows up to class late — gum snapping, hair unslicked (quelle horreur!). And during a memorable outburst (at ~8:45), Eva yells at a teacher who’ s been harping on her classmate. “Jesus! She heard you! She heard you. We all heard you! You don’t have to speak to her like that. Anyone can see she’s working her ass off!” You tell her, Eva.
The Brilliant Bitch (The Company, 2003)
True to style, Robert Altman’s penultimate film is a character-driven ensemble piece depicting the vagaries of life as a professional ballet dancer. Malcolm McDowell plays the company’s artistic director, Alberto Antonelli, a loving, warts-and-all homage to Joffrey Ballet artistic director and co-founder Gerald Arpino. Antonelli is an inspired and intrepid choreographer (as was Arpino, whose works are featured in the film), who calls his dancers “babies” and acts on his each and every whim. It doesn’t matter that Antonelli is fickle; some peon always follows close behind to clean up his mess.
The Jealous Bitch (The Turning Point, 1977)
If you watch just one scene from any ballet movie, it must be the bitch fight between Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point. The ladies play two aging dancers, one (MacLaine) who abandoned her career before its peak when she became pregnant, the other (Bancroft) in the twilight of her professional ballet years. At the movie’s climax, they vent their decades-old resentments in a delicious public tantrum on the Lincoln Center plaza. There’s purse-throwing, hair-grabbing and plenty of slapping. Amazing.
The Nosy Bitch (Suspiria, 1977)
Something seems amiss when American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at a prestigious German ballet school. Perhaps it’s the teeming rainstorm. Or the petrified girl fleeing the school. Or it could be the unsettling synth/keyboard/vocal-wailing score courtesy of the aptly named Italian prog band, Goblin. (Or maybe it’s that clumsy stumbling the students pass off as dancing). Regardless, Suzy is determined to figure out what’s going on, even if she has to peek behind every rich velvet curtain and ornate wall hanging. In the end, much to our dismay (spoiler), Suzy barely escapes death at the decrepit hand of an evil witch. Though it doesn’t really matter, because this surreal Dario Argento horror film isn’t about plot or character development. It’s about mood, dahling, mood. PS: Rumor has it there’s a remake in the works.
The Rich Bitch (Fame, 1980)
This classic high school flick features all the archetypes: a shy, repressed actress, a desperate-for-attention comedian, a closeted gay guy with mother issues and, of course, a rich snob with an evil stepmother. Hilary van Doren (played by Antonia Franceschi, who would later dance with the New York City Ballet) arrives during her sophomore year and trains her eye (at 3:15 in this clip) on Leroy, a lustful, knife-toting dancer — with a girlfriend. Why not? What Hilary wants, Hilary gets. (Why are all rich bitches named Hilary? We’re looking at you, Hilary Banks.) Later, you feel a twinge of sympathy when she gives a lengthy monologue explaining her decision to accept an offer from the San Francisco Ballet; turns out, she’s in the lobby of an abortion clinic. The receptionist responds, “Will this be Master Charge or American Express, honey?” Cold.
The Mad Bitch (The Red Shoes, 1948)
Early on, Boris Lermontov, a ballet impresario, asks Victoria Page, an aspiring ballerina, “Why do you want to dance?” She responds: “Why do you want to live?” This exchange gets to the heart of the movie, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale about a pair of red shoes that drive their wearer to dance to her death. In the film, the fable plays out onstage, mirroring Victoria’s life. Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) demands complete commitment from his dancers — particularly his new star, Victoria (Moira Shearer). When she falls in love with and marries the company’s composer, Lermontov fires them both for their treachery. But Victoria can’t keep from returning to the stage. She’s mad, we tell you, mad! Needless to say, things don’t end well for Victoria.
The Broken Bitch (Save the Last Dance, 2001)
Poor Sara. She’s lost her mother and her dream of becoming a professional ballerina. After her mom dies in a car accident on the way to see Sara (Julia Stiles) audition for Juilliard, Sara, plagued with guilt, stops dancing. She’s also forced to move to Chicago’s South Side to live with her deadbeat jazz musician dad. (MTV Films produced this movie — betcha couldn’t tell.) Sara struggles to fit in at her new “hood” school. Blah, blah, blah… a hot black classmate reignites her love of dance… blah, blah, blah… Sara re-auditions for Juilliard with a hip-hop-inspired ballet routine. Happily ever after, tada!