Attending this year’s Ebertfest was tremendously moving for a multitude of reasons. I loved experiencing an uncompromising artwork with a thousand cinephiles eager to take the plunge. I loved observing the exquisite care with which Roger selected each title, including his last-second addition, 1958’s “Ballad of Narayama,” which explored a 70-year-old’s resistance and acceptance of her bleak fate. And I especially loved the mutual warmth and bittersweet jubilation shared by artists and audiences alike. And none shone as a beacon of exuberant gratitude quite like Tilda Swinton.
It’s clear to see why Tilda was one of Ebert’s favorite actresses. She’s one of the great chameleons of modern cinema, as versatile as she is fearless. I first remember encountering Tilda in Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky.” She only had one scene, but she still managed to make an indelible impression, spooking the viewer with her icily ethereal stare. She went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her excellent work in Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” but that pitiful villain hardly ranks as her greatest achievement. Her filmography easily rivals that of her most accomplished peers, and that includes Meryl Streep.
During last week’s Ebertfest screening of Swinton’s 2008 gem, “Julia,” I happily gave the actress not one but three standing ovations. She was so witty and eloquent during her post-film Q&A that it was difficult to believe this was the same person that gave such a ferocious performance onscreen (her onstage persona resembled that of fellow Brit Julie Andrews). She fondly recalled the phone call she received from lookalike David Bowie, asking her to star in his new music video, and gushed about the approval she received from MoMA to bring her performance art piece, “The Maybe,” to the museum anytime she wishes. The piece consists of Tilda “sleeping” in a glass box for seven hours in full view of onlookers. When asked if she eavesdrops on the words of visitors, Tilda replied, “I never discuss my experience in the box.” The next day, she led a conga line through aisles of the Virginia Theatre, dancing to Barry White’s “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything,” as a “spiritual service” to the late critic.
In his review of “Julia,” Ebert marveled at the actress’s ability to burrow herself so deeply within her character’s heart and soul. “We have not seen this Tilda before,” Ebert wrote, “but then, we haven’t seen most of the Tildas before.” Here are ten of them…
Nurse in “War Requiem” (1989)
Toward the end of her Q&A, Swinton fondly recalled her audacious collaborations with Derek Jarman, the trailblazing, openly gay British director who died of AIDS in 1994. A year before he fell ill, he helmed what may be his finest feature, a wordless poem about the atrocity of war scored to Benjamin Britten’s titular composition (his music was later featured prominently in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” co-starring Swinton). The film is also notable for including the final screen performance of Laurence Olivier.
Orlando in “Orlando” (1992)
Perhaps only Swinton could seamlessly pull off the role of a young nobleman who is granted eternal youth and eventually decides to change his sex. Virginia Woolf’s sprawling, mind-bending fantasy is given newfound vitality by filmmaker Sally Potter, a director as unafraid of taking risks as Swinton herself. As Orlando lives through several centuries without aging a day, her embracement of androgyny mirrors Swinton’s own personal style, which cheerfully goes against the grain of what normally constitutes gender-appropriate attire.
Mum in “The War Zone” (1999)
Tim Roth has only directed one movie, and that’s a damned shame. His debut effort is one of the most shattering films I’ve ever seen, following a troubled teen as he comes to terms with his family’s abusive history. The usual walls of privacy and decency are obliterated by this family, headed by a frightening Ray Winstone and Swinton at her most ravaged.
Margaret Hall in “The Deep End” (2001)
Going to extreme lengths to protect the reputation of her son, Swinton’s increasingly desperate caregiver scorches the screen in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s crime drama.
Ella Gault in “Young Adam” (2003)
In David Mackenzie’s NC-17-rated erotic mystery, Swinton proves to be every bit as uninhibited as her famously nude co-star, Ewan McGregor.
Lydie Crane in “Stephanie Daley” (2006)
Hilary Brougher’s fact-based drama nearly slipped through the cracks entirely, but I’ll never forget the galvanizing impact that it had on me (it would certainly earn a place at my own Overlooked Film Festival). Swinton is riveting as a forensic psychologist who conducts revealing sessions with a 16-year-old girl (brilliantly played by Amber Tamblyn) accused of murdering her infant child. Was this an act of shame on the part of the religiously devout girl or an extraordinary biological oversight? It’s to the credit of Brougher’s script that many tantalizing questions are provoked but none are answered.
Julia in “Julia” (2008)
Erick Zonca’s adrenaline-charged riff on John Cassavetes’s “Gloria” amps up the tension tenfold, while providing its star with perhaps her juiciest role to date. She’s a self-absorbed alcoholic who tries extorting money by participating in a kidnapping plot, and ends up developing maternal feelings for her pint-sized victim. Though the film runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, Swinton makes every instant profoundly taut, while refusing to let her character become an over-the-top cartoon. The ways in which Julia manages to pile on the lies and outwit predators at every turn is exhilarating to behold. Since the trailer couldn’t be embedded (view it here), I’ve included an interview with Swinton below…
The Blonde in “The Limits of Control” (2009)
Four years after playing Bill Murray’s most volatile ex in “Broken Flowers,” Swinton re-teamed with Jim Jarmusch for his polarizing, abstract yarn about a loner assigned to perform a lawless task. The episodic structure requires him to have encounters with a star-studded array of weirdoes, including Swinton’s gleaming white phantom. During their giddily bizarre conversation, Swinton tells the loner about how she loves films where the characters sit in silence, and then proceeds to do just that. If the rest of the film consisted of Swinton and the loner sitting in silence, I wouldn’t have minded at all.
Emma Recchi in “I Am Love” (2009)
The primal thrill of evolving eras and changing hearts reaches explosive heights in Luca Guadagnino’s glorious ode to Italian masters such as Luchino Visconti. Swinton is at her most ravishing as a Russian woman who marries into a wealthy Milanese family only to fall for a poor yet seductive chef. Yorick La Saux’s spellbinding cinematography captures the entrancing power of Swinton’s consuming lust in the midst of a sexual reawakening. John Adams’s score also builds to a memorable crescendo during the deliriously intoxicating final sequence.
Eva Khatchadourian in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011)
There’s no question that Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s devastating novel is nowhere near as disturbing as it could’ve been. Since it views the action solely through the skewered perspective of its anti-heroine, the other characters register as two-dimensional, thus diminishing the impact of their ultimate fate. Yet who needs other characters when your central figure is Swinton bristling with monstrous self-loathing and crippling heartache? Her character is the sort of female rarely featured in American cinema. She’s a woman who detests her new role as mother, and that degree of embittered disinterest threatens to turn her son, an eerie doppelganger, into a hardened sociopath. Or not. It’s up to the viewer to decide. Yet there’s no arguing the towering magnificence of Swinton’s performance, which manages to be both wrenching and darkly funny…
If you’re itching to see what the next Tildas have in store for you, check them out in Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem,” Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film, “Only Lovers Left Alive.”