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'Black Swan': Moviedom's most unlikely hit ever?

January 17, 2011 |  6:52 pm


Sure, "Little Miss Sunshine," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Juno" were quirky movies that came out of nowhere to become mainstream conversation pieces. But these were films about the American suburbs and comedies to boot.

For true indie sleeper status, you need look at Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," which as of Monday crossed the improbable $75-million mark in domestic box office. As my colleague Ben Fritz and I note in a Times print story, not only is it not a comedy, it's about the behind-the-scenes machinations at an elite ballet, a world as far from most Americans' everyday experience as Tchaikovsky's Russia.

If you're shopping for comparisons, "Slumdog Millionaire" may come to mind. That movie got Middle America to embrace the conventions of Bollywood, just as "Black Swan" has gotten older Americans to see a horror film filled with young stars (though the Danny Boyle movie had a decidedly happier and less ambiguous ending).

The best corollary might actually be "Brokeback Mountain," another drama and a period cowboy romance as equally removed from our lives as "Black Swan."

But that film took in much of its $83 million on the back of topical relevance — not that many newspaper op-eds written yet, and it also rode an awards train. "Black Swan" is different: It's become a cultural phenomenon on the strength of Twitter recommendations, YouTube clips and general word-of-mouth buzz.

That's the hows of its popularity. For the whys, people have theories. There may be the simple fact of the film's intensity. (As one executive said, Aronofsky has "made melodrama cool again.") There's the lesbian scene. And the horror elements. (Certainly that it plays as both an art-house character study and a scream-inducing horror flick has helped broaden its appeal.)

But the best assessment may come from Aronofsky himself, who told us he was as flummoxed as anyone. "I get the teenage-girl part of the audience because it's a coming-of-age story about a girl becoming a woman. But older people are seeing it too," he said. "I don't know if even I understand it."



Black Swan's risks pay off

 Black Swan's passionate dance

Are Americans ready for dramas again?

— Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Black Swan" poster. Credit: Fox Searchlight.