I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve all this. I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.
Hilary Swank famously said those words when she began her acceptance speech for winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role back in 2005 for the movie Million Dollar Baby. Her overwhelming joy was understandable; for someone who came from humble beginnings, here she was collecting her second Oscar, after winning it in 2000 as well for her lead role in Boys Don’t Cry. Winning an Oscar is a big deal in itself, ask poor Leonardo DiCaprio about it; so winning it twice is quite a phenomenal achievement. It means that you have done one better than Martin Scorsese and are on par with Tom Hanks in terms of Oscar wins. The Oscar wins if nothing else confirm Hilary Swank’s acting talent, which is definitely in abundance if you have happened to see either of those two movies. Then why have we seen so little of her for the better part of the last decade? Time to explore the mystery behind the “disappearance” of Hilary Swank.
Unlike Boys Don’t Cry, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby was a big earner on the box-office and got in more attention from the audience, with the presence of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman definitely helping the cause. Hilary Swank thus was not only coming on the back of her second Oscar win, but also a highly successful movie, critically and commercially. She was very much in the eye of the public now. Usually the immediate project of an Oscar winner attracts quite a lot of attention; the studios utilise the publicity of the Oscars for their benefit and the audience too is enthralled by the “Academy winner” tag. Surprisingly, Hilary Swank had no movie release in the year 2005. In fact, for almost one and a half years since her Oscar win, there was no film that released with the heading “Starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank”.
Her first film after the Oscar win of 2005 was The Black Dahlia which came out in September 2006. Originally planned to be directed by David Fincher, the movie was finally helmed by Brian De Palma. Starring Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett, the movie had been written by James Ellroy, writer of L.A. Confidential. So it did not seem to be a bad project to pick up. Sadly, it was. The movie does not even come close to the quality of L.A. Confidential, and Hilary Swank’s talent was absolutely wasted in the role of the mysterious Madeleine. The movie was largely panned by the critics and performed poorly at the box-office too. The tumble in Swank’s career had begun.
Hilary Swank forayed into the horror genre with The Reaping in 2007, which seemed like a good idea to widen the fan base apart from also trying something new, for how many Oscar winners do we spot in a horror flick! Call it poor movie selection or simply bad luck, The Reaping was another disappointment critically (8% score on Rottentomatoes cannot be good!) and failed to do much at the box-office as well. However, a drama film that released earlier in the year, Freedom Writers, did a little better, but hardly created any waves. It was left to the more publicised P.S. I Love You which also starred Gerard Butler (post 300 fame) to save the year for Swank. Well, it sort of did. The romantic drama earned a bit more than $150 million worldwide as against the production budget of $30 million, but the earnings were largely from the foreign markets as the domestic box-office did not warm up much to the idea of a Butler – Swank partnership.
P.S. I Love You though remains the only film in Hilary Swank’s career in the post-2005 Oscar era to gross more than $100 million worldwide. Another romantic film did achieve the same feat, this one being New Year’s Eve of 2011, but it featured a huge ensemble cast and can hardly be termed as a Hilary Swank film, and even those earnings were considered a major disappointment. Things have hardly turned a bright corner since 2007. In 2009, Hilary Swank tried something that seemed worthy of getting her career back on track, starring in the biopic on the famous pilot Amelia Earhart titled Amelia. Movies of such nature seem to have award-potential, and if things would have gone right, then it could have brought the spotlight back on Swank. She even worked as an executive producer on this one, with Mira Nair directing it. But it all went horribly wrong. The movie was quite severely criticized and was a huge box-office flop. Hilary Swank received little flak for this one, as the fault was largely put on the filmmakers and the “dull” and “bland” narration. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity lost for Hilary Swank.
The legal drama, Conviction, that followed in 2010 received much better reviews, and Hilary Swank even received a nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Award; but the movie never made it to many theatres in the USA, and thus would be largely unknown to many. Things got so bad for Swank’s next movie, the thriller The Resident, that after being shown in a few theatres, it was released directly to DVD! After another short break, Hilary Swank starred in the HBO TV film Mary and Martha (2013), which has been directed by Robert Noyce and written by Richard Curtis. The movie narrates the grief of two mothers who lose their sons to malaria, and Hilary Swank plays one of them. Mary and Martha has largely received strong reviews and if one is optimistic, this could be the sign of the resurgence of Hilary Swank.
So in the past decade, Swank tried her hands in various genres, horror, thriller, romance, biopic, and of course, drama. Hardly anything has brought her anywhere close to the acclaim of Million Dollar Baby. It is easy to see that Swank is at her best in intense drama films; even if those films do not work out too well, her acting is universally praised. Stepping out of that space has not really done her any favours, though better movie selections would have helped even there. In the past too, Swank had never been a big box-office draw, and she seems to have failed to capitalise on her two Oscar wins subsequently through some poor choices. As Swank is about to cross over to her 40s, this would be a pivotal time in her career to start playing to her strengths. Find those roles again that need an actor to play her heart out, where “average” is not good enough, where only powerful acting can elevate the whole movie. Bad scripts and weak directing have let her down in the past, and herein we hope she chooses wisely. Bring out those gloves again, Hilary, and have a go!
Hilary Swank already seems to be working on resurrecting her career. Mary and Martha could be the beginning of a new phase for Swank the actor. Her next two feature films both fall in the category of ‘drama’. The Horseman which is slated for a November 2014 release is in fact a Western drama, directed by Tommy Lee Jones who is also starring in it. The movie also stars a certain Meryl Streep. Big things are expected from this one! You’re Not You is the other movie in which Swank is playing a terminally ill woman, and is the story of how her character and her caregiver give each other a new sense of purpose.
These are promising signs in Hilary Swank’s career, and we would love to see her feature more regularly on the big screen. For talent like hers can only bring more substance to a film and elevate the joy of watching it. Let such prowess be not wasted!