Barbara Hershey Is Riveting in 'Black Swan' as Natalie Portman's Dark, Controlling Mother

Photo: Barbara Hersey Is Riveting in Black Swan as Natalie Portmans Dark Controlling MotherPlayCourtesy Fox Searchlight
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Watch your back, Faye Dunaway. There's a new "Mommie Dearest" figure in town, and she's going to give you a run for your money.

Veteran actress Barbara Hershey -- she starred in "Hannah and Her Sisters," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Beaches" -- has a pivotal role in "Black Swan." She's the big screen's newly christened mother-from-hell -- menacing, controlling and, for good measure, downright creepy.

Most of the recent media focus on "Black Swan," which opens Friday, has been on Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballerina on the rise. But without Nina's mom, Erica, there would be no story.

"Erica loves Nina, but Erica is not balanced or mentally healthy herself," Hershey told "Without Erica's control, could Nina even function as a ballerina or take care of herself?"

"I was fascinated by all the contradictions in Erica," said Hershey. "She lives vicariously through Nina, is competitive with her, yet worries about her and tries to protect her. They need each other. Nina needs Erica to function and to be a ballerina; Erica needs Nina to live. It's a symbiotic relationship." Immediately after the movie's ravishing opening, signs of impending disaster are quick to manifest.

Nina, a young adult, addresses Erica as "Mommy." The daughter's bedroom is still full of plush toys. Mom swoops down -- a brilliant mashup of fussiness, anger and solicitude -- after noticing that Nina has been aggressively and self-destructively scratching herself.

There are also unmistakable sexual innuendos. "At times, Erica is very male with Nina," said Hershey. "There's ownership in having your hands on someone. Erica undresses Nina, removes her earrings, clips her nails and is always stroking her hair. When someone loses control over the person they're controlling, they often lose control over themselves."

Barbara Hershey and Natalie Portman.

At one point, Mom offers – on her finger – the icing on a celebratory cake for Nina to lick.

Barbara Hershey in 'Black Swan'

"The cake scene shows Erica's contradictions," said Hershey. "Erica is initially thrilled for her daughter [having been chosen as the lead dancer in the ballet], but buying cake is a perverse thing to give a ballerina. After Erica tries to dump the cake, and her daughter relents, Erica convinces Nina to have a taste."

When you also see how Erica relentlessly keeps tabs on her daughter's schedule and underscores her physical weaknesses, you've got a cauldron of simmering mother issues that will complicate Nina's life at a most critical time.

Nina's at a crossroads professionally. She's up for the dual role in her ballet company's "Swan Lake." Although she's got the white swan Odette down pat, the ballet master isn't entirely convinced she can pull off the part of the scheming, sensual black swan Odile.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Lily (Mila Kunis), a more uninhibited dancer whose seductive nature makes her a more natural choice to play Odile.

Will Nina, who does get the part, succeed at portraying both swans convincingly? Will Hershey's character hinder Nina from embracing and integrating the darker force, represented by Odile, into her personal life? And, most importantly, will Nina's psyche disintegrate in the process?

"It never occurs to Erica to get outside help for Nina," said Hershey. "Everything she imposes on Nina, she imposes on herself."

"In fairy tales, the daughter must integrate the witch in herself, in order to overthrow the witchy mother," said Laurie Schapira, a Jungian analyst in private practice in New York who is also a filmmaker. Schapira noted that in "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy had to secure the witch's broom in order to continue her own development.

"In 'Black Swan,' Nina must free herself from the dark energy personified by her mother, which has kept Nina from developing her own feminine power that includes sexuality," said Schapira.

The movie handily allows Nina to project all these liberating sexual possibilities on to Mila Kunis's Lily, much to the dismay of Hershey's Erica.

'Black Swan': Barbara Hershey and Natalie Portman

"By keeping the daughter a child even into adulthood, the mother is able to maintain power," said Schapira.

A little girl's ballet world hardly discourages this mother-and-daughter coupling, suggests Margaret Klenck, a Jungian analyst in private practice in New York and a former actress.

"Mothers become integral to the whole process of ballet training, through scheduling and transporting the girls to daily classes," said Klenck who, as a child, studied classical ballet for seven years."A mother is almost like the daughter's servant, and the two may become enmeshed in each other's lives."

In "Black Swan," Hershey's Erica does behave supportively to Nina. But, said Klenck, envy on the part of the mother may play a huge part in the process, especially in view of the fact that Erica, who was also a budding ballerina, never made it to soloist status.

In the end, the balletic mother-and-daughter dance can explode into a tug-of-war. "Even Nina's scratching is a reversal of the soothing gesture," said Klenck. "It's a way for Nina to disfigure what the mother loves, what makes the daughter so perfect."

Perfection, it turns out in "Black Swan," is a two-edged sword, and hardly as neat a virtue as Nina once thought. And, unfortunately, Erica doesn't help things along.

"Integrating light and dark can be a complicated and dangerous endeavor," said Klenck. "The ideal of perfection is always a disaster, because it eliminates its opposite. "What you're aiming for is wholeness, never perfection."