A cinematic shapeshifter who never feels like she’s wearing a disguise, Tilda Swinton is one of the greatest chameleons the movies have ever known, and yet even her most extreme performances are rooted in an elemental sense of reality. She’s always equal parts natural and unnatural; intractably human, but always ready to be reborn. Revisiting her best roles almost feels like watching someone perform “Cloud Atlas” as a one-woman show.
To date, the characters Swinton has played include a vampire, a rock god, an angel, an alcoholic, an inter-dimensional monk, a gender-bending English nobleman, a post-apocalyptic Sarah Sanders, a literal ice queen, and now — in a bold new reimagining of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” — a witchy ballet teacher, a male Holocaust survivor, and a monster who viewers will have to meet for themselves. It doesn’t matter if Swinton is starring in a Marvel movie, coldly seducing Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Beach,” or bringing the patriarchy to its knees as a high-powered lawyer in Susan Streitfield’s “Female Perversions,” she’s always as rooted to the Earth as she is alien to it, alive on the screen but almost impossible to picture anywhere else.
Needless to say, Swinton’s talents are tough to put into words. On the other hand, they’re even tougher to ignore, and tougher still to whittle down. From her early collaborations with Derek Jarman, to her ongoing work with Luca Guadagnino, Swinton has been one of the world’s most compelling actors for more than 30 years. Choosing her best performances has been something of a fool’s errand, but it sure was fun to try. Here are the eight best turns from an actress who utterly refuses to stay in place.
8. “Edward II” (dir. Derek Jarman, 1991)
The Role: Queen Isabella
It’s not as if Derek Jarman discovered Tilda Swinton, per se — she was already a member of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company before the auteur cast her in 1986’s “Caravaggio” — but it was Jarman who first saw how her face could paralyze a movie screen, and how her blank features exuded the same temporal uncertainty that he expressed through his foundational contributions to the New Queer Cinema movement. Swinton made eight movies with Jarman before he died in 1994, but none of them highlighted her talents better than “Edward II,” in which she played the sexually frustrated wife of the eponymous king (and sported a handful of incredible Sandy Powell costumes in the process, including a suit and sunglasses combo that made her look like Grace Kelly striding through a gay orgy).
Desperate for attention and deadly with a crossbow, Swinton’s Isabella is like a fire without the oxygen it needs to keep burning — red hot and starving. Even with limited screen time, this was the performance that illustrated just how combustible Swinton could be.
7. “Suspiria” (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2018)
The Role(s): Madame Blanc, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, and [spoiler alert]
Not to take anything away from Swinton’s ravenous performance in “I Am Love” — a pivotal turn that helped to cement her stardom — or her nameless turn in the little-seen 1999 film, “The Protagonists,” but there’s only room for two Luca Guadagnino collaborations on this list, and “Suspiria” takes the first spot for sheer virtuosity alone. Swinton plays no fewer than three different roles in this operatic reimagining of Dario Argento’s horror classic, and all of them are unforgettable in their own right.
First up is Madame Blanc, the stern but unsteady company director of Berlin’s famous Markos Dance Academy. Channeling Marina Abramovic’s obsidian intensity to almost the same extent as her performance in “A Bigger Splash” channeled David Bowie’s alien mystique, Swinton endows Madame Blanc with enough dark mystery to be a domineering maternal presence, but is also vulnerable in a way that bleeds into paranoia.
Buried under pounds of latex as the tormented and grieving Dr. Lutz Ebersdorf (and supposedly packing a weighty set of prop genitals), Swinton also provides the emotional heart of the movie, mining love from a deep place of misery. It’s a magnificent feat of stunt casting that allows Guadagnino to reconcile the story’s power with its pain.
And then, last but most disgusting, Swinton also plays… someone else. You might not even recognize her when you see her, but keep an eye out for a character who looks like a cross between your grandmother and the pungently terrifying blob monster from “Slither.” However wrong the whole thing looks, Swinton makes it feel so right.
6. “Okja” (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2017)
The Role(s): Lucy and Nancy Mirando
If Luca Guadagnino encourages Tilda Swinton to embrace her sensuality (and all of the carnage that sometimes comes with it), then Bong Joon-ho invites the actress to indulge in her inner cartoon fascist. Swinton was a brilliant stooge in “Snowpiercer,” fashioning her post-apocalyptic train commandant after ornithologist Roxie Collie Laybourne, and creating a truly sinister villain who felt like a cross between a school librarian and Josef Mengele.
Swinton was even better — and more demented — in “Okja,” bringing a warped sense of humanity to power-mad CEO Lucy Mirando. Again exploring the pernicious absurdity that percolates inside history’s greatest monsters, Swinton took her inspiration from Ivanka Trump, drawing from the First Daughter’s false piety to create a stunted sociopath who’s been driven insane by nepotistic privilege and the pressures that come with it. Rocking a shiny pair of braces and dressed for her first day of middle school as she delivers ominous slogans like “Pigs deserve happy dreams,” Lucy is an unforgettably disarming harbinger of doom. And she’s not the only lunatic in the family; Swinton was just as sharp as Lucy’s no-nonsense twin sister, the dual performance forcing us to consider if we prefer our plutocratic overlords to be kooky or clinical.
5. “Michael Clayton” (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007)
The Role: Karen Crowder
Karen Crowder is not a good person. The general counsel for a corporation that knowingly produced a carcinogenic weed killer, she has blood on her hands, and she isn’t afraid to wipe it off on the first patsy she can find. In a film with few innocent bystanders, Karen is still the ultimate bad guy; she isn’t the most powerful of the story’s many corporate stooges, but she’s the most willing to pass the buck, and the most determined to survive. Karen is a sniveling personification of the profit motive, and Tony Gilroy’s smart financial thriller never lets her off the hook for that. And yet, in Tilda Swinton’s hands — in the most snake-like performance of her chameleonic career — she’s also perversely the most sympathetic character on-screen. You can’t wait to see her burn, but you still hold out hope that she might slither away.
Part Condoleezza Rice, part Clarice Starling, and part Michael Cohen, Karen Crowder is the only one of Swinton’s villains who isn’t defanged by fantastical genre elements. She’s as real as the cancer that she’s trying to sweep under the rug. From the first time we meet her, sweating in a bathroom as she feverishly rehearses her own life, she’s desperate to keep her humanity a secret from all the men who orbit around her. Even Karen’s scorching climactic showdown with George Clooney supports the impression that she’s crawled through a crack in the glass ceiling and is petrified that even the slightest move might cause the whole thing to shatter under her feet. She’s addicted to the system that poisoned her, to the culture that curdled her ambition into cruelty, and Swinton’s exquisite performance makes us wish that we could root for her recovery as much as we do her destruction.
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