Revisiting Tilda Swinton's legendary "nonperformance" in Orlando.

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July 21 2010 12:16 PM

Orlando Does Not Fade

Revisiting Tilda Swinton's legendary "nonperformance."

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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).

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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.

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