Plenty of actresses have tried their hands at portraying the gruntier side of gender. Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, Gwyneth Paltrow played a cross-dressing actor in Shakespeare In Love, even Glenn Close was secretly a male buccaneer in Hook. And now, once again trying her hand at gender-bending is Tilda Swinton in Suspiria. "But doesn't she play a woman in Suspiria?" You might ask. And the answer to that is no. She also plays a woman in Suspiria.
Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento's 1977 Italian giallo film, is a weird kind of horror movie. It tells the disturbing story of American Susie Bannion, who travels to Cold War Berlin to join a dance academy, only to find it's a front for a coven of freaky witches governed by a mysterious matron played by Swinton. The movie deals heavily in themes of female power dynamics and community. The only male main character is the very old psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemp -- who is credited as being played by an unknown actor named Lutz Ebersdorf. But if you do recognize Ebersdorf from somewhere, you either have a very keen eye or need a psychiatrist yourself, because Ebersdorf is in fact not real.
Dr. Klemp is actually played by Swinton ... playing Ebersdorf playing Klemp. Swinton is virtually unrecognizable, and much of the props should go to legendary makeup artist Mark Coulier, who spent four hours each day gluing such props to Swinton's face in order to transform her special kind of "haunted mannequin doll" beauty into a crusty old male academic. That's not to say Swinton didn't go the whole hog trying portraying this character -- literally. Not only did the actress write up Ebersdorf's entire IMDb page (complete with a detailed biography), but she also walked around set with "weighty" prosthetic genitals tucked into her costume for maximum verisimilitude. And before you ask, yes, there is octogenarian nudity in this movie.
Strangely, Swinton's transformation into Dr. Klemp isn't part of any big plots twist. Director Luca Guadagnino simply thought that casting a woman in the only male role would make sure that "there will always be this element of femininity at its core." But Swinton's motivation to say yes to having to sit in a makeup chair every day for four hours and stuff her underpants with a floppy noodle was a lot less complicated: She just wanted to see if she could get away with it. "Frankly, my long-held dream was that we would never have addressed this question at all." Maybe that's because Swinton wanted to keep her options open, because she knows it's usually easier to land roles in Hollywood as an unknown German pensioner than as a middle-aged actress.
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