Seeing her in the Oscars telecast reminded me of what might be the quintessential Swinton role, that of Orlando, in Sally Potter’s eponymous 1992 film. Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando spans four hundred years as it tells the story of a young man born into wealth in Renaissance England. Yes, that was four hundred years, and yes, Swinton plays a man. But, if you’re keeping track, sometime around 1700, Orlando turns into a woman.
Potter’s casting of Swinton is an inspired choice. No one else could possibly have played the role (except, again, David Bowie--but Bowie’s acting chops are a bit below Swinton’s level). Even though Potter’s film is far from naturalistic—Swinton’s performance includes a handful of moments when she twitches her head imperceptibly towards the camera and delivers a one-line commentary on the action—Swinton deserves enormous credit for so thoroughly seeming to inhabit the skin of both a male and a female character. When Orlando is a young man, Swinton’s walk and movements—even the way she holds her head—are somehow clearly male. When Orlando is a woman, everything changes, softening, becoming somehow fuller. Swinton doesn’t simply reproduce stereotypes; this is the same individual rendered in two genders.
Potter plays around with gender—as she must, if she is to adapt Woolf’s novel for film—through the film. Quentin Crisp is creepily good as a long-haired Queen Elizabeth. Later, during the nineteenth-century portion of the story, Potter tweaks the Victorian trope of the injured female to be rescued by the man. She anticipates Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility by three years, as Orlando rescues Shelmerdine (easily the strangest name in all of literature) from his broken ankle. Billy Zane’s hair is almost as long as Kate Winslet’s Marianne’s.
But see for yourself. And read Woolf’s odd 1928 book. Though I first read Orlando more than twenty-five years ago, Woolf’s description of the Little Ice Age that allowed for festivals on the Thames during the Renaissance has remained vivid in my memory. Potter does a nice job recreating the scenes on film, though Woolf’s evocation wins the competition.
Orlando is indeed a writer’s movie. Orlando’s final incarnation is as a single woman, a single mother, and a writer. Taking the manuscript of her life’s story into the steel-and-glass office of a publisher, she runs into the characteristic writer’s experience: rejection. As the editor puts it:
“It’s very, very good. Written from the heart. I think it’ll sell. Provided you rewrite it. You know: increase the love interest, give it a happy ending. By the way, how long did this draft take you?”
Orlando’s reaction? Another one of those glances at the camera. The next shot shows her kick-starting her motorcycle and driving away with her child. Revision be damned!