Explicitly playing with gender and gender performance has been foundational to Swinton’s career and identity as a performer. Swinton’s queer identity emerges from a person who is both presumptively heterosexual and who has largely chosen presumptively heterosexual roles. So what makes her a queer cult figure? This is the 3rd feature in our special A Bigger Splash week.
Regal, alien, alone, Orlando looks into the mirror at their reflection, takes their hand, briefly feeling their face, moving slowly downwards. Then Orlando’s eyes shift, looking directly at the audience. We are transfixed. The titular immortal noble Orlando, in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, spends the first half of the film as male and then transitions to female overnight, navigating their identity and place in an ever-changing world. As Orlando explores their new gender, the mystical, queer appeal of Tilda Swinton bursts through the screen.
Though Orlando is Swinton’s most famous queer role, her appeal as an icon lies in how she deliberately “queers” even conventional cinema. There are no performers like the otherworldly, genre- and gender-bending Swinton. As writer and activist Shon Faye puts it, queerness is “a question. It is a side eye and a challenge back to mainstream politics. It says, ‘I don’t know the answer, but why are you asking the question?’”