Pale fire 

Translucent-skinned, ethereal, unearthly, chameleonlike, intriguingly gender-bending and beautifully androgynous — these are just a few of the adjectives that have been used to describe actress Tilda Swinton.

Born in London in 1961 into an upper-class family of Scottish origin, Swinton attended Cambridge University where she earned a degree in social and political science. Upon graduating, she embarked upon a career in the theater, performing with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In the mid-’80s, Swinton entered into an intense collaboration with the “gay bad-boy of British cinema,” Derek Jarman. Poet, painter, designer, writer, gay-rights activist and independent filmmaker, Jarman is best known for a series of films which explore and reclaim aspects of gay history, including Sebastiane (1979), Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1992) and Wittgenstein (1993). Beginning with Caravaggio, Swinton appeared in all of Jarman’s films until his death from AIDS in 1994, including Blue (1993), a pensive, spoken-text meditation on mortality recited to the visual accompaniment of a pure blue screen.

If Swinton can be said to have a credo, it is probably “live in peace and quiet, but be savage and revolutionary in what you create.” Drawn to uncompromising and challenging projects, she has taken on a kaleidoscopic panoply of roles that question and subvert established beliefs and perceptions, particularly when it comes to gender. In reference to certain of her role choices, Swinton has said, “There are deeply ingrained ways of seeing. I am very interested in images of women, in getting to the root of them, and I believe that iconoclasm — if it is valuable at all, as I believe that it is — must recognize iconography: It must recognize what it is going to subvert.”

Swinton first achieved widespread recognition playing the lead role in Sally Potter’s opulent and lavish epic Orlando (1992), based on the 1928 novel that Virginia Woolf wrote as a valentine to her lover, the androgynous Vita Sackville-West. We first meet Orlando as a young man around 1600 when he appears before Queen Elizabeth (played in full regalia by the flamboyantly gay British writer Quentin Crisp) and is presented with an estate on condition that he not grow old. From there he attends an extravagant banquet staged on a frozen lake, where he spurns his uptight English fiancee in favor of a Russian ice princess, who spurns him in turn.

Midway through the film and 200 years later, in a scene bathed in fluttering gold motes, Orlando metamorphoses into a woman. “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex,” quips Swinton while examining her new physique after the miraculous transformation. We next see her attempting to maneuver her way through a house in a voluminous dress wider than she is tall. As a woman, Orlando loses her inheritance rights, turns down a marriage of convenience, finds her true love and finally lands in the ’90s as a free-spirited, motorcycle-riding single mother.

While Orlando was all spectacle and nimble wit, a fairy tale about transcending gender, Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996) is another matter entirely. For this dark exploration of female subjectivity, Swinton plays Eve Stephens. A highly successful lawyer on the verge of being appointed to a judgeship, Eve appears cool and controlled, obsessively maintaining a perfectly polished feminine appearance while simultaneously pursuing power. But inside she seethes with self-doubt and self-hatred, her psychic demons personified by a menacing man who derides and humiliates her.

In this film based on a psychological text by Louise J. Kaplan, the rest of the cast includes Eve’s self-destructive sister, Madelyn, a Ph.D. candidate who compulsively shoplifts; as well as Emma, the classic “woman who loves too much”; the hard-boiled stripper Annunciata who uses sex as a tool of manipulation; and the teenage tomboy Ed, who externalizes her pain by cutting into her own flesh with a razor. All exaggerations of pathological female stereotypes, these characters personify the insidious compulsions to enact these self-defeating roles, while the conclusion offers an intimation of a way out.

In 1997, Swinton portrayed Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s feature Conceiving Ada. Ada, the daughter of Lord Byron, was a mathematical genius who had the misfortune of being born during the Victorian era. Though largely forgotten, she deserves credit for being the first computer programmer, based on her work with Charles Babbage and his “analytic engine.”

Leeson’s film begins in the present with Emmy, a computer scientist who is able to use the computer to transcend time and access Ada’s consciousness. Though the first part of the film (which dwells on Emmy’s tedious domestic squabbles with her boyfriend) is weak, the second half is redeemed by Swinton’s luminous portrayal of a brilliant woman struggling to express her gifts in a time when being a woman meant being restricted to the roles of wife and mother.

For a taste of what this riveting and enigmatic actress is capable of, Swinton can currently be seen in the noirish psychological drama The Deep End (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), where she plays a mother driven to commit unthinkable acts in an effort to protect her son. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times describes her work here as nothing less than magnificent, declaring it her most memorable performance to date.

Deborah Hochberg writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at

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