Remembered mainly as the cinematic backdrop for Natalie Portman’s thespian crowning achievement, Black Swan is Aronofsky’s successful attempt at bestowing an Icarus twist on a classic tale, as he depicts the dark and twisted journey of an artist in the pursuit of perfection. However, nobody can mentally revisit this film without remembering the haunting performance from seasoned actress Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers, Nina’s mother.
Hershey’s acting skill and her character’s impact on the film is supported by the fact that, despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, she completely steals the show (one may argue even Portman’s limelight) in every instance she appears portraying the helicopter-mom from Hell. The character’s bottled-up ambition and envy of her own daughter’s success, counter-pointed by an intense maternal love are perfectly acted by Hershey, whose range allows her to explore the different facets of Erica Sayers.
From the outset there is no doubting Hershey’s abilities, as she’s exercised her acting muscle under the guidance of directors with notably different styles, from Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters) to Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ) and Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady). But the combination between Aronofsky’s unique directorial vision and Mark Hayman’s script make Hershey’s performance even more potent.
She is introduced to the audience as a shadow that sweeps through the frame during a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the first ten minutes of the film, when we are supposed to be paying attention to Nina’s meticulous morning ballet routine. This instance alone sets the tone for Erica’s entire role within the movie: she is her daughter’s shadow, an ubiquitous and over-protective maternal entity that goes unnoticed in the movie’s microcosm, but who is always lurking in the shadows.
We notice early on that Erica and Nina share an almost symbiotic mother-daughter bond. They co-exist in the claustrophobic space of their home, in which they engage in almost ritualistic moments in which Erica is carefully exerting her control over her daughter in minor details. The scene in which she helps Nina disrobe after the Ballet Gala is a perfect example of this, as Erica removes each item of her daughter’s clothing and jewellery with near-medical precision.
Looking back at the director’s body of work, we can deduce that Hershey had some big archetypal shoes to fill, since the “mother” is a significant character in Aronofsky productions. Her main role is to embody a very specific abstract idea. Previous to Hershey, this feat was achieved by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream as a mother representing the scars of poverty, madness, drug abuse and unattainable hopes. Here, Erica Sayers illustrates the idea of unfulfilled ambition. We discover that she was herself a corps ballerina, who gave up her artistic endeavors when she became pregnant with her daughter. Erica still (somewhat pathetically) basks in the light of her by-gone potential in order to subliminally compete with Nina’s more successful present career.
The reality is that Erica Sayers is far from the image she is trying desperately to project – a retired ballerina who left a company with grace, while still at the height of her success, in order to selflessly secure her daughter’s future. She is a relic of the past, a forgotten memory that only exists in the confines of her own home. There is no world for her outside those walls, which is why she displays varying degrees of envy towards her daughter, independent and visible in the outside world.
The realization that Nina is in fact an individual, as opposed to an extension of her own ambitions is best illustrated during the aftermath of a particularly violent argument in which Nina has enough of her mother’s interventions and slams the door over her fingers. The scene shows Nina leaving the house in an atypically determined manner, while Erica sits on the sofa in the distance, speechless, helpless and trapped.
Another director may have chosen to allow the camera to linger on Hershey for a few more moments, perhaps in a close-up of her face, so as to further emphasize her solitude. However, Aronofsky is confident enough that the audience has registered the message loud and clear, without any further camera work. Hershey’s excellent performance serves as a beautiful counterpoint to that of Portman; but the subtle and frightening tonal crescendo of Hershey’s character demonstrates the quality and power of her individual performance as well.