Which queen will reign triumphant in the end?
Otherwordly and luminous, these two fierce, statuesque contenders have brought to life the archangel Gabriel, the norse Goddess of Death, a romantic vampire, a 1500-year-old elf queen, an ancient wizard, a few varieties of witches, and Queen Elizabeth I. They have both played rock stars. And men. Commanding the room, just radiating gravitas all over the place and possibly also actual magic, these two titans are, finally, going head to head.
Swinton stepped into the ring first. Fresh out of college, living that theater life as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, her first film appearance was in 1986’s Caravaggio, created by celebrated experimental genius, Derek Jarman. It was love. Swinton would appear in Jarman’s next 6 movies, right up until his last feature, Blue, in 1993, and along the way would establish herself as a major force who would move fluidly from the arthouse to the megaplex, from long collaborations with establish Hollywood auteurs to passion projects with emerging innovators from all over the world, for the next 35 years. Critical to this journey was Swinton’s titular role in Sally Potter’s landmark 1992 film, Orlando, in which she plays a 16th century nobleman who stops aging at the command of Queen Elizabeth I and then traverses centuries of British history experiencing many different lives and loves in the most nonbinary, gender fluid way possible. It’s the most Tilda Swinton role ever.
The Virgin Queen had a major influence on Blanchett’s journey as well. She also cut her teeth in the theater, though on the other side of the world, in sunny Sydney, Australia – where she graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1992, and immediately began winning acting awards. She did some Australian TV and small films to pay the bills while lighting up the stage for a few years, and in 1997 her performance in the small-budget gem Oscar and Lucinda caught the attention of Shekhar Kapur, director of the international soon-to-be juggernaut, Elizabeth. Blanchett’s performance in this, her first major big-budget feature film, earned her her first Best Actress nomination. And the gloves were OFF.
Both have won tons of awards, both have made so many interesting films, and between them, they have played ALL the best parts. Both lend immediate credibility to a film and are adored by Directors and audiences alike. So who is better? Someone needs to decide, and it feels pretty much impossible to figure out. This photo is a great example of this dilemma, actually:
So in this picture, Tilda Swinton is receiving the Golden Lion for career achievement at the Venice Film Festival, one of the film industry’s coolest, most distinguished, and most prestigious honors (prior recipients include Stanley Kubrick, Hayao Miyazaki, and Luis Bunuel). But Cate Blanchett is giving her the award because she is the PRESIDENT of the Venice Film Festival Jury. Basically, she’s the boss of picking the award winners. So WHO ACTUALLY WINS?
Friends, I have good news. I know how to figure it out. Read on.
Round 1: Popularity
In round 1, contenders face off in two dimensions: lifetime box office draw and appearance in popular blockbusters and/or franchises.
Tilda has had supporting roles in two franchises: she played The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia films and The Ancient One in two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (Doctor Strange and Avengers: Endgame). She also played a Brad Pitt love interest in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, perhaps the oddest prestige blockbuster ever.
Over her lifetime, Swinton’s films have grossed over $6.4 billion dollars worldwide, which promotes her to the solid rank of #172 in lifetime box office draw for all actors.
|Blockbuster Score||4 / 5|
|Box Office Score||4 / 5|
Blanchett cranked her star power up to 11 as Galadriel, Lady of Light, one of the most memorable supporting characters in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. She also played the villain in Thor: Ragnarok, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Cinderella AND she played Brad Pitt’s main love interest in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this showdown’s one intersection. There’s a few more films worth mentioning in this category… but we can’t stay here all day, we have things to do. Geez Cate.
So it’s no surprise that Blanchett is the 4th-highest-earning woman working in movies: her films have raked in more than $11.8 billion, earning her the astounding rank of #22 for lifetime box office earnings (all actors).
|Blockbuster Score||5 / 5|
|Box Office Score||5 / 5|
And the most beloved mysterious sparkle-witch is…
Round 2: Coolness
In this round, we’ll look beyond base audience opinion and rate how cool each contender is based on the number of critically acclaimed (Metascore >65), small-budget (<$20M) films they have starred/appeared in, and the relative coolness of their regular collaborators.
Watch out – we’re on Tilda’s home turf now. The actor has appeared in a staggering 21 (!) films in this category – more than any other showdown contender to date. From her starring roles in films like Young Adam, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Bigger Splash and 2021’s Memoria to smaller parts in gems like Broken Flowers, Moonrise Kingdom, Adaptation, Thumbsucker and The Souvenir (both parts) – plus 10 more – Swinton is undoubtedly the small budget auteur filmmaker’s go-to gal.
Her enduring collaborations also blow every other contender clear out of the water – even Ethan Hawke has to bow down. Tilda has had longstanding collaborations with 6 ultra-cool directors: 7 films with Derek Jarman, 4 each with Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Luca Guadagnino, and 3 each with filmmaker/artists Lynn Hershman-Leeson and John Maybury. She has frequently worked with 8 different actors, many of whom are also favorites of the Directors listed above: 7 films with Bill Murray, 5 with Frances McDormand, and 3 films each with Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, John Hurt, George Clooney, and Jeffrey Wright. Not too shabby.
|Cool Films Score||5 / 5|
|Cool Collaborators Score||5 / 5|
Cate is NOT intimidated, however. She has starred in 7 cool films, with smaller parts in an additional four. She led the cast in her breakout film, Oscar and Lucinda, as well as prestige dramas Notes on a Scandal, Blue Jasmine, Carol, and Truth, the experimental/arthouse film Manifesto, and the greatest rockstar biopic ever, I’m Not There. She helped out in the comedy An Ideal Husband and the anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes, she narrated a documentary – and she appeared in an uncredited (and hilariously camouflaged) cameo in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Blanchett’s only enduring collaboration with a Director is with Peter Jackson, king of middle earth, with whom she made 6 films. She has had longstanding collaborations with 4 actors, however, making three films each with Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, and Christian Bale.
|Cool Films Score||5 / 5|
|Cool Collaborators Score||4 / 5|
The COOLEST is….
Tilda Swinton, with a smile that is so nonchalant it is almost undetectable.
Round 3: Importance
In round three, contenders will be scored on the films they’ve starred in that have A) won important awards for best picture, acting, directing, or writing, and B) made an impact on the film industry. This second rating measures how much money each film made relative to its budget, influencing the types of movies that get made, distributed and promoted.
Tilda has appeared in 9 award-winning films. Her 2006 indie Stephanie Daley won a screenwriting award; Thumbsucker, Adaptation, and Uncut Gems all won prestigious acting or directing awards; The Souvenir won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; and both Broken Flowers and Memoria won Jury Prizes at Cannes. But it was Swinton’s sneaky-good performance as a polished but ruthless corporate lawyer in 2007’s Michael Clayton that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Swinton is far from the studios’ go-to leading lady for box office draw, however. On average, the films she stars in make a profit, but just barely – and none of them are big budget films to begin with.
|Prestige Score||5 / 5|
|Moneymaker Score||0 / 5|
Widely celebrated as one of the greatest actors of her generation, Cate has been nominated for 7 (!) Oscars and has won two – first for her supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and a few years later for her unshakeable lead role in Blue Jasmine. She has done 4 other award-winning films: Carol and Babel, which both won awards at Cannes; I’m Not There for which she herself won the award for Best Supporting Female Actor award at the Independent Spirits; and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won all the Academy Awards that year (ok, 11, but they were big ones).
Blanchett’s cred with the holders of the Hollywood pursestrings has been going up in the last ten years or so, but given the artsy and prestige cinema she prefers, she’s not a silver bullet for moneymaking success. On average, films she stars in make back about 1.6x their cost in profit.
|Prestige Score||5 / 5|
|Moneymaker Score||3 / 5|
And the woman making the biggest wave is….
Round 4: Artistic Merit
In this round, we’ll put aside whether the films they’ve made are cool or popular or important and examine whether they’re actually any good… and will consider each contender’s range. Sure, anyone can do drama or comedy – but can you do a great horror movie? A historical period piece? A musical?
Lady Swinton does it all. Unsurprisingly, Fantasy/SciFi is like a second language to her – she has appeared in 9 films in the genre, from Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer to Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, with many a comic/fantasy/vampire/time travel story in between. But she can also do RomCom (Trainwreck), Historical/Period film (Orlando, A Personal History of David Copperfield), Horror (Suspiria, The Dead Don’t Die), Thriller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) – and she has done voice work on two documentaries: Letters from Baghdad and Strange Culture.
Not only that, the films she chooses to star in are astoundingly good overall. Only one of these, 2003’s The Statement, was panned by critics (metascore = 45). Her most critically celebrated film, Memoria, just came out last year and earned a very high metascore of 91. Critics also loved 2020’s Last and First Men (80), Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (79) and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (79). In fact, Tilda Swinton has the highest average metascore of any showdown contender to date BY FAR; the closest the the others get to her 74.78 average is Leonardo DiCaprio’s 68.65. Pretty dominant.
|Artistic Range Score||5 / 5|
|Critical Darling Score||5 / 5|
Fantasy/SciFi is, unsurprisingly, also Blanchett’s genre of choice. She has appeared in 10 decent films in the genre – mostly films we’ve talked about already: Thor, Cinderella, Benjamin Button, all her work in Middle Earth, etc etc. She also loves a Historical/Period film – from her early work in Elizabeth to later films like the medieval Robin Hood and western The Missing. She supported in one Thriller (Hanna), was the sole voice and face of the experimental film Manifesto, did voicework on the documentary The Galapagos Affair, and of course – she played Bob Dylan. No great comedy or horror films here really, but Cate has certainly branched out.
Although she’s not posting shocking Swinton-like numbers, Blanchett’s average metascore of 68.47 is right up there with the top contenders. Critics were not kind to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (45) or the WWII drama Charlotte Gray (48), but they were gobsmacked by Carol (94), Ponyo (86) and Blue Jasmine (78) – and overall her average remains incredibly strong.
|Artistic Range Score||3 / 5|
|Critical Darling Score||5 / 5|
And the superior artist is… SWINTON.
Round 5: Let’s Get Personal
And now…. the all-important big final round question: who is a better person? You shouldn’t win the showdown if you’re a creep. That just wouldn’t be right.
Though she grew up in London and her father was a British military officer, Tilda’s family lineage can be traced back to medieval Scottish nobility. She spent most of her childhood and adolescence being bullied at boarding school, which sounds like a terrible experience. She considers herself part of the queer community and has had two long-term partners, both artists. She had twins with the first and didn’t marry either.
Tilda is a communist and Scottish socialist, advocate for Scottish independence, participant in all kinds of art-making, and she started a film festival. Other than that, she’s not super politically or philanthropically active, although she unfortunately decided to sign a petition in support of Roman Polanski (eek). Why Tilda? Gosh I wish I didn’t know that. Here’s Tilda on zoom:
|Good Person Score||3 / 5|
Cate grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne in a middle class family. She dropped out of college after a year and then eventually found her way to theater. Live performance is clearly Cate’s first love and she’s still close to it; in fact, she became co-CEO of the Sydney Theater Company in 2008 with her husband, Andrew Upton, to whom she has been married for 25 years. They have 4 kids.
Cate is very involved in climate change collective action work and advocating for refugees and displaced people around the world, so much so that she has won prestigious national and international awards for her efforts in each. Despite her worldwide celebrity, she remains a passionate supporter of and participant in the arts in her native Australia. Here’s Cate on zoom:
|Good Person Score||4.5 / 5|
And the person who gets my vote for class president is…..
So who won?
|Popularity||8 / 10|
|Coolness||10 / 10|
|Importance||5 / 10|
|Artistic Merit||10 / 10|
|Good Person||3 / 5|
|TOTAL||36 / 45|
|AVERAGE||4 / 5|
|Popularity||10 / 10|
|Coolness||9 / 10|
|Importance||8 / 10|
|Artistic Merit||8 / 10|
|Good Person||4.5 / 5|
|TOTAL||39.5 / 45|
|AVERAGE||4.4 / 5|
And with the HIGHEST score of any showdown contender to date…..
Cate Blanchett WINS!
She’s a treasure. Check out her newest films, both of which were Best Picture nominees in 2021: Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. This year, she’s starring in a cool-sounding biopic about German composer/conductor Lydia Tár and has a role in Eli Roth’s Borderlands film. A little something for everyone, it seems!
And… Tilda Swinton is GREAT too, as we know. She appears next opposite Idris Elba in George Miller’s highly anticipated Three Thousand Years of Longing, which debuts at Cannes next month.
not to pile on Tilda, BUT – Cate’s Documentary Now! episode Waiting for the Artist def bumps her coolness a lil higher, ehh?
Oooh I haven’t seen it!
In spirit, for sure. But I haven’t yet figured out how to integrate TV/episodic work into the criteria…