"That's it! The best actress race is already over!" gasped a notable Oscar-tracking journo after witnessing Natalie Portman's dazzling diva turn in Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller, "Black Swan," at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I was equally wowed and tempted to agree with that Oscar assessment except for one cautious reminder. At this point on last year's calendar we didn't know that the eventual winners of the last Academy Awards for best actress and actor -- Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side") and Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") -- were even in the running.
That said, it's still fun to make fierce pronouncements, so let's leap as boldly as Portman does on screen while she performs "Swan Lake": Yes, she's out front. Yes, Portman will be very hard to beat because she's got many strong advantages.
1) DIVA APPEAL: In "Black Swan," Portman gives in dance what many past winners did in song -- the full-throttle diva performance: Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl"), Liza Minnelli ("Cabaret") and Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"). Unfortunately, ballet has played only a minor role at Oscars past, so it's hard to look backward for guidance to what will happen ahead. "The Turning Point" spawned two best actress nominees (who probably canceled each other out in the voting), Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, but they played dancers past their prime, not bouncing ferociously and constantly on stage.
2) GET PHYSICAL: Throughout the two hours of "Black Swan," Portman gives an even more athletic performance than Hilary Swank did when boxing her way to an Oscar victory for "Million Dollar Baby."
3) THE BABE FACTOR: Those notoriously frisky good ol' boys in the motion picture academy have clearly turned the best actress competition into a beauty contest in recent years: Sandra Bullock ("Blind Side"), Charlize Theron ("Monster"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours"), Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovich"), Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shakespeare in Love") plus many more examples in between and earlier. Portman is knockout gorgeous in "Black Swan."
4) THE SEX FACTOR: Overt eroticism used to be a turnoff at the Oscars in more prudish times, but nowadays we're seeing those academy gents get excited by sexy roles. Some cynics say Kate Winslet ("The Reader") and Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball") wouldn't have won without their brazen sex scenes. In "Black Swan," Portman has steamy masturbation and lesbian scenes.
5) THE INGENUE FACTOR: One of the great, false Oscar myths is that voters always reward veteran grande dames such as Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. In fact, Streep hasn't won in 28 years, and voters actually like to crown hot new emerging stars such as Cotilliard, Theron, Berry and Swank.
6) STARRING IN A BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: "Black Swan" is so artistically daring and thrilling that it's guaranteed a spot among the 10 nominees for best picture. Over the last decade, 60% of winners appeared in films up for the top Academy Award. Many Oscarologists believe that starring in a best picture contender was one of the key elements in Bullock's victory last year.
7) THE COMPETITION: At this early point in the best actress race, Portman has more buzz than any of her chief rivals: Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right"), Anne Hathaway ("Love and Other Drugs"), Diane Lane ("Secretariat"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter’s Bone"), Lesley Manville ("Another Year"), Carey Mulligan ("Never Let Me Go"), Michelle Williams ("Blue Valentine") and Swank ("Conviction"). But that may change quickly if any of those rivals start winning the film critics' awards in December.
Photo: A poster for "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight