When Sally Potter’s free-wheeling Orlando came to the Sundance film festival in 1993, it didn’t exactly fit the profile of a festival breakout. It wasn’t a regional character drama like Gas Food Lodging or Mississippi Masala. It wasn’t handmade and idiosyncratic like sex, lies, and videotape or Slacker. It wasn’t a blood-spattered action picture, like Reservoir Dogs—or a micro-budget Cinderella story like the movie that would make the biggest splash at the fest of ‘93, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi.
That year, Orlando must have seemed awfully Merchant Ivory-ish. A costume pageant at Sundance? Based on a minor book by dorm-room staple Virginia Woolf? Gender politics and bewigged British noblemen prancing around in tights?
To rewatch Orlando 17 years later—it’s being re-released this week—is to marvel at just how sui generis the movie was, and what a miracle it was that it captured the film-going public’s imagination. (The movie took in more than $5 million at the box office and garnered two Oscar nominations.) Its influence is still being felt—not only because its mix of the ornate and the offhand has become so prevalent an aesthetic in the indie world, but because its behind-the-scenes artists, all of them veterans of Britain’s 1980s experimental-film scene, have filtered into the mainstream.
And, of course, there’s Tilda Swinton, whose genre-bending performance as the gender-bending Orlando set her on a unique path as one of the major actresses of her generation, and a patient collaborator whose ability to nurture long-simmering projects is responsible for some of the most nongeneric movies of the last few years, like the current arthouse hit I Am Love.
Swinton’s performance in Orlando combines emotional acting and “nonperformance,” as Swinton calls it in a terrific interview this week with David Schwartz at Moving Image Source. Swinton, having spent years working with the experimental auteur Derek Jarman less as an actress than as an intuitive performer—posing silently and improvising dances on-screen—seized upon Orlando as an opportunity “to really examine this thing of not acting at all, and being in front of the camera in a variety of shapes and sizes, but with contact with the audience, through the prism of the lens.” Indeed, time and again, Swinton’s Orlando looks straight into our eyes—not unlike Jim on The Office—bemused by the chaos of centuries surrounding her.
But it’s not just Swinton’s performances—first as a nobleman, then as a woman, then as a lover, then as a mother—that drive the film. Orlando is a movie deeply fascinated by performance, and so over and over again, we see characters putting on shows. Orlando recites poetry to Queen Elizabeth, who is herself played, in drag, by gay icon Quentin Crisp. Orlando stumbles across actors playing Othello’s death scene. (“Terrific play,” she tells us.) During the Great Frost of 1603, Orlando visits the Russian ambassador on the frozen Thames, and a serpentine of ice-skating waiters deliver victuals in a kind of dance interlude.
In the movie’s centerpiece, Orlando—now a woman—faces off with the great wits of 1750 in a competing set of oratory performances. Swift, Pope, and Addison all pronounce upon the uselessness of women—”Present company excepted, of course,” Addison simpers—and Orlando, powdered and wigged, steels her courage and fights back. “Gentlemen, I find it strange,” she says, her face flushed. “You are poets, each one of you, and speak of your muse in the feminine. And yet you appear to feel neither tenderness nor respect towards your wives or towards females in general.”
But Orlando isn’t actually much of a gender-studies text; in fact, thinking of it that way takes most of the fun out of a playful movie. Orlando skips forward in time unexpectedly, beginning in 1600 and ending in contemporary London. It allows Swinton to play against not just Crisp’s Queen Elizabeth but also, hilariously, Billy Zane as the dashing American adventurer Shelmerdine. With long locks and flouncy shirt, Zane, looking for all the world like Fabio, seduces Orlando. Swinton, always the gracious host, pitches her acting down a couple of notches so she doesn’t outclass the big hunk of beef. And the movie is bookended with glorious falsetto songs from Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville, first as a castrato singing an ode to Elizabeth, and then as a golden disco angel serenading Orlando, and us, as the movie comes to an end.
Potter, Orlando’s director, has remained resolutely focused on her own idiosyncratic projects. Her movie Yes, released in 2004,was a romance performed completely in blank verse, and 2009’s Ragetold the story of a fashion-industry murder entirely through direct-address monologues. But other artists from Orlando have found their way into the mainstream; take, for example, the amazing Sandy Powell, who began her career designing costumes for Peter Greenaway and is now part of Martin Scorsese’s stable of collaborators. She received her first Oscar nomination for Orlando’s costume design; since then, she’s been nominated eight more times, and won thrice (for The Aviator, Shakespeare in Love, and The Young Victoria).
Swinton has followed her odd muse, collaborating with other independent-minded directors in much the same way as she did with Potter for Orlando. She’s helped shepherd any number of difficult films into theaters: for instance, last year’s enervating Julia, directed by Erick Zonca; this year’s gorgeous I Am Love, directed by Luca Guadagnino; and next year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, the long-awaited new film by Lynne Ramsay ( Morvern Callar). Oh, and of course she won an Oscar for playing sweat-drenched corporate lawyer Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton, another role that turns on the art of performance. (“She’s a mediocre actress, badly cast,” Swinton says of Crowder.)
These days, the indie world is international, not exclusively American, and plenty of visionary directors have taken a shot at shaking up the stately period drama. But Orlando’s influence goes beyond just indie auteurs feeling comfortable in petticoats. In many ways, it helped to bring art back to the art house, so that today’s quality-film landscape doesn’t just include gritty, low-budget dramas of social import but movies that mix high art and high camp in challenging and pleasurable ways. You can see the impeccably-designed vignettes of Orlando in Wes Anderson’s filmed dioramas, or in Sofia Coppola’s new-wave Marie Antoinette. Without Orlando, would Todd Haynes have been able to make his arch, stylized masterpieces Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine? (Costumes, natch, by Sandy Powell.)
Near the beginning of Orlando, the young nobleman is called in for an audience with Queen Elizabeth. He gives the camera one wry look before he enters the queen’s bedchamber, where he’s presented with the daunting view of Quentin Crisp, in puffy-sleeved nightgown, lounging on a four-poster bed before a roaring fire. The queen takes Orlando to her—his?—breast, and whispers in his—her?—ear: “Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old.” For 400 years, Orlando, the person, never does. Seventeen years along, Orlando, the movie—a silly and serious work of art that isn’t afraid to entertain—is doing pretty well too.