4. “Orlando” (dir. Sally Potter, 1992)
The Role: Orlando
Swinton had been working in film for almost a decade before she landed the title role in “Orlando,” but Sally Potter’s sweeping Virginia Woolf adaptation — in which she played a young nobleman who obeys her queen’s order to never grow old, and then abruptly transforms into a woman a couple hundred years later — was the movie that forever crystallized her screen presence. Allowing her star to take a step back from the story (and speak directly to the audience) while also leading it with her heart, Potter found a way to weaponize the elemental quality that Swinton had expressed in her collaborations with Derek Jarman.
“Androgynous” is the adjective that has stuck to the actress ever since, but it doesn’t capture the full duality that Swinton displayed here. Sexual, but never objectified. Hungry, but also immortal. Deep inside the marrow of her characters, but also deflecting away from them as well, so that she can draw our attention to the unknowable crevices that continue to vex people about themselves and each other. Swinton is an incredible conduit of emotion, but always disaffected enough to leave some room for mysteries that even she might not be able to solve. As much as Orlando changes, they ultimately stay the same (“no difference at all,” they say to the camera,” just a different sex”). It doesn’t matter if she’s learning how to ice skate in the 17th century, or having sex with Billy Zane 200 years later, Swinton remains gloriously static in the face of history — at least until she becomes the face of history. Unlike Woolf’s novel, the film offers an explanation for why Orlando doesn’t age, but thanks to Swinton’s balanced performance that extra context almost feels like a waste of time.
3. “Only Lovers Left Alive” (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
The Role: Eve
Eve is old, but she’s not that old. And yet, watching Swinton’s earthy and omnisciently cool performance as an ancient vampire who’s outlived everything except the love she has for her husband, it’s so tempting to think of her as the first woman there ever was. Perhaps — to channel Reynolds Woodcock for a moment — the only woman there has ever been. Eve has seen it all and done it all. She’s good friends with Christopher Marlowe, but also familiar with Jack White. Her knowledge of the universe is only eclipsed by her enduring curiosity for its mysteries.
Eve is pretty benign for a bloodsucker, and yet she vibrates with the primal hunger that writer-director Jim Jarmusch has always seen in Swinton (“It’s her physicality, and the way that she moves,” he once said. “Like a vestigial predator; like a wolf”). The beating heart of a film that takes place in a paralytic stupor — “laconic” is the word that many critics used to describe “Only Lovers Left Alive” — Eve allowed Swinton to literalize her unparalleled ability to be exposed and invincible all at once. Even when her character is slurping a blood popsicle or dumping a body in a vat of acid, Swinton’s performance is so human that you can feel every twinge of desire, and so natural that you almost don’t see it happening; if not for the fangs and Eve’s frazzled shock of white hair, it’d be tempting to think she was just playing herself.
2. “A Bigger Splash” (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2015)
The Role: Marianne Lane
Teasing our collective fantasy of seeing her play David Bowie in the inevitable biopic, Swinton anchored Luca Guadagnino’s sun-kissed Jacques Deray remake as Marianne Lane, a world-famous rock star whom the actress has described as being equal parts Bowie, Chrissie Hynde, and P.J. Harvey. When the film begins, Marianne is recuperating from a risky surgery to repair her vocal chords, and has retreated to the idyllic Mediterranean island of Pantelleria for some much-needed rest. She can’t speak, but her hunky lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) finds plenty of ways to keep her mouth busy. Paradise is only lost when Marianne’s old flame (Ralph Fiennes) shows up with his temptress of a daughter (Dakota Johnson), a devious agenda, and some absolutely ferocious dance moves.
The story goes that Swinton, grieving over the death of her mother, was going to pass on the movie until she struck upon the idea of denying a singer her voice. It’s a bold choice that few people would dare to suggest, and even fewer could manage to pull off, but Swinton does more with silence than most actors could with Shakespeare. Creating a distance between the convalescing superstar and the men in her life — and emphasizing the hyper-expressive physicality that has always allowed Swinton to set the temperature of a given scene — the character’s unwillingness to speak allows the actress to take control of the movie from the inside out; she’s as dangerous with a pair of reflective sunglasses and an iota of detachment as Magneto is with a sliver of metal.
Swinton’s performance makes it perfectly clear why someone would kill to be with Marianne, and even clearer why doing that would be a pointless crime of passion. Likewise, her sensual indifference allows us to enjoy the hedonism of this island holiday, while also keeping tabs on the privileged myopia that’s making it possible. Inevitably, all of the erotic tension explodes into a full-blown tempest, but no other actress is so good at letting us see through the eye of a storm.
1. “Julia” (dir. Erick Zonca, 2008)
The Role: Julia
Channeling Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence” while also ironing out any of that character’s hope for a better (and less drunken) tomorrow, Swinton plays the title role in Erick Zonca’s “Julia” like a swing-for-the-fences rebuttal to the poise of her previous work. Forget the eternalness of Orlando; Julia takes her life in her hands every time she walks into a bar. Forget the wisdom of Eve, or the perseverance of Queen Isabella, or even the strange lovability of Lucy Mirando; Julia is a splotchy and out-of-control suicidal alcoholic who turns everything she touches into shit, and she doesn’t seem to have even the slightest of reservations about doing that over and over again.
“I like to make people’s dreams come true,” she says early on, falling over herself and onto whatever (married) guy wants to have sex with her in their car that night, but the truth is that she’s a human tornado, and she’ll do anything — even murdering a man, kidnapping a child, and abducting him to Mexico — just to keep on spinning.
Swinton has a way of making big performances seem almost life-sized, but she’s never been quite as big as she was here. Julia is a terrible liar, because she’s always exuding her own desperation; you can smell it wafting off her through the screen (and not just because she’s always damp and anxiously rubbing her armpits). At one point she has a freakout scene that rivals Julianne Moore’s pharmacy breakdown in “Magnolia,” and that’s before she becomes an international felon being chased by police helicopters.
But the crazier things get, and the further Julia starts to unravel, the deeper Swinton sinks into the character. She never winks at us or asks for our sympathy, and she absolutely never plays things for laughs (even if we can’t help but chortle when she promises that she’s “gonna pull myself together”). On the contrary, she displays such a profound commitment to this broken woman as she careens off the rails that — towards the end of this gripping and under-appreciated film — it finally snaps into focus that this is Julia trying to pull herself together.