I was in the third grade when Center Stage came out in 2000. My best friend at the time was a dancer, so naturally she became totally obsessed with the movie; as a result of her being enamored with the film, I did, too. While I did not necessarily relate on a dance-based level–I took multiple classes, but I was consistently abysmal at movement, rhythm and balance, so it didn’t really work out–I did fall in love with the characters and the music (oh hai, Jamiroquai). For some reason, I felt a particular camaraderie with Eva, a dancer played by a 22-year-old Zoe Saldana in what I still feel was her best (and perhaps only decent) role.
The quick rundown for those who haven’t seen the film but are reading this anyway: Center Stage is about a bunch of young, ambitious dancers in New York City at the fictional American Ballet Academy. There’s the sweet, naive protagonist from the suburbs, Jody (Amanda Schull); the competitive perfectionist Maureen (Susan May Pratt); the hottie with a body jerk superstar Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), the underrated-yet-so-hot-and-talented Charlie Sascha Radetsky); and finally, the gifted dancer from Queens with a bad attitude, Eva.
Spoiler alert: Maureen is supposed to dance the lead in “Swan Lake,” which makes sense because–
If that’s not your favorite line of the entire movie, I don’t think we can be friends, or even friendly e-acquaintances. (The “nobody” guy, by the way, was a med student, so…I feel like Maureen’s definition of “nobody” was pretty fast and loose.)
Anyway, so Maureen is supposed to dance the lead in “Swan Lake,” despite the fact that she is unhappy doing dance and is in fact suffering from an eating disorder as a result of the pressure to be “perfect” from the Academy as well as her unsympathetic stage momzilla of a mother. Meanwhile, Eva is supposed to be dancing in the chorus of “Swan Lake”–a role that essentially means nobody will see her, and she will likely get zero job offers. At the last moment prior to the performance, Maureen backs out and we are all surprised to see Eva come from behind the curtain, then dance the lead to perfection.
It is beautiful, it is wonderful, and it still makes me cry. To be fair, I cry at everything from falling in front of people on the subway to seeing families (played by strangers) hold hands in fast food commercials, but regardless, I love the moment so very much.
But what also makes me a little teary? The fact that Zoe Saldana will probably never have another solid role again–after all, it’s been 14 years since Center Stage was made (holy crap I’m old) and she hasn’t really done much since. Good work? Maybe. Popular work? Definitely. But good and popular and a decent showcase of some talent? Nope.
While I have been feeling somewhat entertained by Saldana in the moderately anticipated two-part television movie remake of Rosemary’s Baby, and though I enjoyed the original film quite a bit, the fact of the matter is that Saldana has not had a decent role since Center Stage. She was on Law & Order a few times, but everyone knows that no celebrity guest appearance on Law & Order has ever really been that great. Vantage Point was a failure; Star Trek was entertaining but didn’t utilize Saldana very well at all; Crossroads was…well, Crossroads. Most of her IMDb consists of films that didn’t put much of a spotlight on her acting so much as either her costar or the movie’s special effects.
And then there was the mess of Avatar which was awful and cliche at its core in spite of its massive budget and highly advanced effects work. And Saldana playing Neytiri just wasn’t very good either, though it’s difficult to tell if that was her own fault or the fact that the script blew.
The unfortunate thing is that it is not as though Saldana is so bad at acting, she’s incapable of getting a good, interesting role again. It is that she’s been cast repeatedly in pretty terrible movies, so now we have little to gauge on whether or not she is even a decent actress anymore. She played the part of Eva so well, perhaps because the two are very similar–both she and the character are from New York, both grew up dancing, both have a sharp tongue when provoked, take plenty of fashion risks, and are lovely enough that coworkers/fellow students look out for them. It was the perfect role for her, and she fulfilled it well.
Of course, playing a part in a cult hit results in one’s acting not being quite as scrutinized as it might’ve been in a film that has been declared great. For example, while myself and bajillions (rough estimate) of other kids who grew up in the 90s absolutely love Hocus Pocus, we never really find ourselves critiquing the mediocre performances by half the cast (not including the witches, o’course). Cult movies are fun, quotable and nostalgia-inducing; they’re not Chinatown, they’re not Antichrist. Still, even though Center Stage wasn’t the most well-acted film, Saldana was able to capture her character better than just about anybody else in the film (tied only with Pratt, I think), so while the standard was lower, she did raise the caliber of acting in a film that predominantly cast dancers.
While I am not exactly holding my breath for Saldana to be cast in an Oscar-winning role, I do think she deserves better than, say, Avatar or Avatar 2, 3 and 4. Or rather, I hope she does–it’s just a shame we haven’t gotten much of a chance yet to see. So to all you casting directors out there who totally read The Gloss, take note: if you cast Madame Saldana and it actually works out, I will totally be in the theater and cheering you on. I’ll even send a thank you card with little sassy ballerinas on them who all wear their hair like this:
At the very least, we’ll enjoy her on the red carpet forever.