"I draw a blank on the divisions of age or gender or any sense of identity."
This week Scottish actor Tilda Swinton is in Italy for the Venice Film Festival to accept a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award.
Swinton was one of two recipients this year, along with Hong Kong New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui. The Snowpiercer actor accepted the award at the socially distanced ceremony on Wednesday night, with a speech that included tributes to recently deceased Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman and to Swinton's late friend and collaborator David Bowie.
Swinton, who stars in acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's short film The Human Voice—premiering Thursday at the Venice Film Festival—has said that she doesn't think of herself as an actor. Despite a long career of "saying 'Yes, I'll dress up and be in your film,'" she says that "when I hear proper actors talking about their lives and how they approach their work, I feel like I'm up another tree."
Venezia 77: il discorso di Tilda Swinton Leone d'Oro alla Carriera www.youtube.com
Swinton opened her acceptance speech for the prestigious award with similar humility, noting what a challenge it was "to accept this overwhelming honor with a straight face." She went on to thank the event's organizers for holding the festival amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to "inevitable ch-ch-changes" (a reference to David Bowie's "changes"), and closed with the statement, "Wakanda Forever. Nothing but love."
You might think that Swinton would have settled into the reality of her talent as a performer when she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Michael Clayton, but perhaps her resistance to accept the title of "actor" has more to do with a general resistance to labels of any kind.
In a masterclass session as part of the festival on Thursday morning, Swinton praised the Berlin Film Festival's recent decision to drop gendered awards from their 2021 schedule, saying, "It just makes me sad to call yourself definitively heterosexual, definitively homosexual, definitively male, definitively female. It makes me want to go to sleep. So bravo, Berlin."
Swinton, who has played a number of characters who do not conform to heteronormative standards—including her breakout role was as the androgynous lead in 1992's Orlando—added that "the whole idea of being fixed in any way, it just makes me claustrophobic."
The organizers of Berlin International Film Festival, one of the "Big Five" festivals along with Venice, Cannes, Sundance, and TIFF, announced in late August that they would be opting for neutral "Best Leading Performance" and "Best Supporting Performance" awards in 2021. The decision won praise from actor Cate Blanchett and French director Claire Denis earlier this week.
The Australian actor—who played a version of Bob Dylan in 2007's I'm Not There, said on Wednesday, "I am of the generation where the word actress was used almost always in a pejorative sense. So I claim the other space." While Denis noted that the gendered awards preclude people who do not identify as either gender.
Blanchett as Jude in "I'm Not There"
Still, the decision is not without its critics. As has been noted, the film industry still has substantial gender gaps in both casting and pay, with only about a third of speaking roles in the top 100 grossing films of 2018 belonging to women.
The disparity is even more striking when it comes to pay, with top female stars frequently being paid less than half what their male counterparts earn. Some see gendered awards as a way to correct these imbalances—bringing recognition and prestige to female performers.
But, considering the fact that those gaps have persisted through more than 90 years of Best Actor and Best Actress awards at the Oscars, it's understandable that Swinton, Blanchett, and others are looking to the gender-neutral option as a next step in progress. As Swinton put it, "I think it's pretty much inevitable that everybody will follow. It's just obvious to me."