Only twelve women have won more than one Best Actress Oscar, and Hilary Swank did it before she turned 30. With that milestone met, she joined an elite group of actresses that includes Jodie Foster and Bette Davis, but even that exceptionally high level of praise from her peers hasn’t given Swank carte blanche to do whatever she wants in Hollywood. Unlike many actresses her age, the 36-year-old Swank is better suited for award-caliber dramas than romantic comedies, and while Hollywood is rough on women already, it’s even less receptive to the idea of building a mid-priced drama around one. Still, Swank has persevered, and her latest entry in what is quickly becoming a niche she owns the hell out of — fact-based dramas about downmarket outsiders overcoming long odds — is Conviction, which comes out today. (Read David Edelstein’s review here.) Can Swank make it back into Oscar’s good graces for a third time, or would she be better served to change things up? We spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If Hilary Swank were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Swank’s career was launched when she won the lead in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid, and though it’s often noted how far she’s come from that early credit, it actually provided an instructive primer on how best to use her: Swank’s mentor-pupil relationship with Pat Morita in the film weirdly foreshadowed the entirety of Million Dollar Baby, and it established Swank’s athleticism and fierce physical commitment to her roles. As would often be the case throughout her career, Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with an actress who was too strong and avid to play the ingenue, and three years after her Karate Kid coming-out party, she was fired off Beverly Hills, 90210. (When Swank would later win her second Academy Award, she said, “I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve this,” and we’d suggest that playing Ian Ziering’s love interest and getting fired for it was more than enough penance to pay for eventual Oscar gold.)
Swank famously rebounded with her searing portrayal of murdered transsexual Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, though her attempts to follow up that Oscar-winning role were uneven: She provided solid support in The Gift and especially Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, but the period piece The Affair of the Necklace sapped her momentum, and the misbegotten sci-fi film The Core squandered Swank’s inner action hero. Since her second Oscar win for Million Dollar Baby, Swank has mostly stuck to fact-based dramas, though they haven’t always served her well (Amelia and The Black Dahlia were two notorious flops); in fact, she had better luck branching out into romantic melodrama with 2007’s P.S. I Love You, which grossed $145 million worldwide).
Peers: Though ahead of actresses like Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Swank’s got stiff competition in her preferred sector of prestige pictures. “She’s behind Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, [and] Reese Witherspoon,” said one top agent we spoke to. “And there aren’t that many commercial, great roles for a female year-to-year as it is. Being lower on the pecking order than those stars makes it that much harder. So, I think she’s picking the best stuff she can, but commercially, it’s all been very flat.”
We ran Swank and her four closest competitors by E-Poll Market Research; intriguingly, while Swank scored better than all but Witherspoon on awareness, the other four actresses had higher appeal ratings (though it should be noted that all five had very low negative numbers in general, and their E-scores were in the top 5 percent of all those surveyed). Most telling is that Swank’s top attribute is “Talented” followed by “Physically Fit,” while the others score highest in categories like “Beautiful,” “Cute,” and “Classy.”
Market Value: Why is Hollywood so afraid of female-led dramas? Swank may provide an important example: Though she’s won two Oscars, she only has a single domestic $100 million grosser to her name, Million Dollar Baby. Most of Swank’s other films range in revenue from $20 to $60 million, though her most recent, Amelia, was a pricey misfire that couldn’t even break $15 million. “She’s a woman without an audience, who’s a very, very good actress,” one manager told us. “But that means she may not have broad mass appeal, even if you put her in the right vehicle. Hilary Swank is not accessible to everyone. She’s not a ‘girl’s girl’ like Sandy [Bullock] or Julia [Roberts]. She doesn’t have the range they do. But P.S. I Love You was actually very profitable, which is why they still cast her as a lead.”
What Hollywood Thinks: “I think she needs to do the kind of roles that Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster have done over the years,” recommended one top agent. “If you look at their careers, the choices they’ve made are slightly more commercial, and don’t require the sexuality of an Angelina [Jolie] or someone like that. The scope of their movies is bigger, too. Look at Contact, or [The] Silence of the Lambs, to pick two of Jodie’s movies: Neither required her to be sexy; in fact, she’s kind of boyish. And both appealed to a male audience.”
One publicist we spoke to wondered whether her most iconic role had Swank’s team overcompensating: “She came onto the scene playing a boy [in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry]. Obviously, that’s still how people think of her, because she shows up on the red carpets with the lowest of low-cut dresses, she’s had Annie Leibovitz shoot her in bathing suits, and she just hasn’t been able to overcome that ‘boyish’ thing. And so I honestly don’t know what I’d do differently for her from a publicity standpoint, because I think they’ve tried to make her ‘sexy’ and help in areas where her image needed it, and it hasn’t worked.”
“It makes one wonder, does that affect what kind of roles she gets, because marketing plans are so impactful on casting decisions,” the publicist continued. “In this market, everyone’s so scared of losing advertising, no one’s taking chances, which is why you see the same five people on magazine covers these days. But she continues to get magazine covers [Swank was on the cover of InStyle last month, and Elle next month] and that means she sells, and that people are interested.”
How interested are they? We checked circulation figures, and while Swank provided InStyle with a slight bump in February of 2007 (in the period after Swank divorced husband Chad Lowe and started dating her agent, John Campisi), her typical magazine sell-through is in line with publication averages. Then again, for all the drama we get from Swank’s onscreen characters, her personal life has been relatively low-profile since the 2007 split; she’s hardly an Us Weekly perennial, and she’d probably prefer it that way.
The Analysis: We know Swank can do drama, but can she be commercial? She may feel that films like Amelia and Conviction are more in her wheelhouse, but she risks a biopic glut — and rut. “Maybe she thinks Amelia Earhart is the most interesting thing in the world, and everyone wants to see it. Frankly, I don’t know,” said the publicist. “But her career doesn’t seem like in such a bad place: She’s won two Oscars, and there are only so many people who are going to have Reese Witherspoon’s career. I do think people think of her as a good actress.”
The question, then, is whether she can parlay that respect into something more. While romantic comedies have never seemed the right fit for Swank, it’s sort of astounding that despite her athleticism, she’s never taken on a go-for-broke action-hero role or a part in a superhero movie. When Jon Favreau was shooting the first Iron Man film, rumors briefly circulated that Swank would cameo as someone from the Marvel canon; though that never transpired, it’s a tantalizing idea. If there’s a villainess yet to be cast in the Marvel mash-up The Avengers, Swank should lobby hard for the role — it might even give her a chance to tussle with Scarlett Johansson, providing welcome catharsis for their nearly career-hobbling turns in The Black Dahlia.
Whatever the case, now is the time for Swank to change it up. “I think she works in that ‘plucky underdog’ thing, but I think she’s weirdly un-versatile,” sniffed one agent, and while we wouldn’t go quite that far — say what you want about her films getting same-y, but when Swank is in the right role, she kills — it’s clear that she is courting a perception problem. Whether or not she accepts a commercial action flick or digs into an utterly different supporting part in someone else’s film, Swank would be best advised to take a vacation from Oscar-baity dramas for a while. (Her perennial awards rival Annette Bening will thank her.)
The Bottom Line: Though Swank is undeniably talented, films like Conviction aren’t going to take her career to a commercial next level. “This new movie is not appealing to a male audience, in part because it just doesn’t feel fresh at all,” said the agent. “We’ve all seen The Verdict; we’ve seen Erin Brockovich. And in Million Dollar Baby, too, the scope felt much bigger. But Conviction? I wouldn’t necessarily want to watch you go through law school. I mean, can I also watch you paint your room? Because making Facebook required guys sitting in a room writing thousands of hours of code, but that’s not what [Aaron] Sorkin made The Social Network be about.”
Buy/Sell/Hold: Hold. Million Dollar Baby proved that Swank can never be counted out, but if she wants to do more than very justifiably rest on the laurels she’s earned from two Oscar wins, she’s going to have to surprise us.