March 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Orlando: Gender Transcended

Forgive me, reader: I forgot how good Tilda Swinton is.

I don't feel like I'm totally to blame for this -- over the past five years, Ms. Swinton has done a marvelous job of either not being memorable in mainstream films or appearing in indie films that fail to inspire. I mean, I heard great things about The Deep End, and there was nothing offensive about her small roles in Adaptation and Vanilla Sky, but it's not easy to instill awe in the typical jaded viewer. Even one who, like myself, likes Tilda Swinton quite a bit.

When I went to see Constantine, though, I was quite dazzled. She's simply amazing as the angel Gabriel, ethereal and impenetrable and a little bit crazy. And I was watching her play a man, do it effortlessly, make gender a thing without value, below mentioning. And I realized it was time to read -- and see -- Orlando again.

The novel and film Orlando can be summarized together, so close they are to each other. Orlando, a young nobleman in the year 1600, receives an odd request from an aged Queen Elizabeth I: "Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old." Orlando proceeds to do just that over the next four hundred years, serving his majesty and his own interests. But his role in society shifts drastically when he wakes up one morning transformed into a woman -- "Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex."

The word I want to use in the discussion of Orlando is queer -- not just because of the skewed view of gender and sexuality Woolf presents, but because of the way the book defies genre and expectation. Subtitled "A Biography," crafted out of the fantastical notion of a person living many centuries beyond a normal lifetime, written with a playful wink to convention of all kinds. It's too much fun to be literature, too grand and metaphorical to be fun, too literal to be written off as mere symbology. Orlando, much like its titular protagonist, stands alone and unique.

This is not to say the concept itself is unique -- man as immortal is a story old as the Bible. But what makes Orlando so damn fun is that the setup is secondary to the irreverent exploration of gender throughout the ages. Orlando as a young man lives in an age where feminine qualities were often associated with the male gender, and his legs are so admired that they help him to secure an ambassadorship; later, as a woman of fashion near the end of the eighteenth century, she regularly dresses in man's clothes to access the courts and the outside world otherwise unavailable to an unmarried woman. Orlando thinks fondly upon the women she loved as a man, and the man she loves as a woman -- she cavorts with prostitutes, dines with poets, fights wars, fathers children, and gives birth to a son. The blending of human experience into one individual's lifetime makes this a biography of a character beyond scope. There's almost too much to hold into one lifetime; fortunately, Orlando lives several.

Orlando could potentially be more polished as a film, more coherent as a novel, but the two of them in tandem are striking well-paired, all those qualities you'd think would be impossible to translate from the book matched with some element entirely unique in film. What you lose in Virginia Woolf's wry narration, you gain in the playful voice-over that often spills into fourth-wall-rupturing quips to the camera. Orlando's internal musings over the strangeness of a new gender finds its complement in the amusing visual of Orlando struggling to maneuver a room full of furniture wearing a dress wider than she is tall. The beauty of Woolf's description is matched by the beauty of the art direction and costumes. The seamless switch from male to female pronouns in the prose is echoed in the simplest of costume and acting choices, the smooth transition between genders emphasizing the basic humanity of the story.

What the film brings to the story is something Virginia Woolf probably never had to consider; an additional fifty years, a man behind a desk, wanting more sex and a happy ending. But the happy ending is simply the acknowledgment of time passing, Orlando giving up the house she'd known all her life, and finding happiness in that decision. It's not the strongest of character changes overall, but to expect a Hollywood ending for such an odd film doesn't feel quite fair.

And what of Tilda Swinton, in her androgynous glory? One might perhaps wonder if a man could play the same role, spending the latter half of the film in drag; would this compromise the feminist message of the work? I'd hope not. But it hardly seems to matter, because male or female, Swinton is simply perfect.

And I'd forgotten, until a little Keanu Reeves movie that came out recently. So perhaps Constantine is a pale and shallow translation of a great comic; but damn, Tilda Swinton is great in it. And yes, she plays a man.

Same person. No difference. Just a different sex.