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SUSAN SARANDON - A "STAND-UP" DAME
BY JERRY TALLMER
Susan Sarandon is a straight shooter, as anyone could tell you who saw her whang those tanker-truck tires-not to mention the whole ball of wax - in "Thelma and Louise." But I don't mean movie make-believe. I mean for real.
She is also what in a more unsophisticated time -don't shoot, Louise! - was called a stand-up dame. When right-wing saintly moralists drove Charlie Chaplin out of this country, and Oona O'Neill Chaplin without the blink of an eye went right along with him into permanent exile from her homeland, that was a stand-up dame.
Susan Sarandon obviously stands by her guy, Tim Robbins, and her children, and her work, her art, her career, but she also stands by something beyond that - something impermeable and uncrushable - her beliefs, her ideas.
What's more, she does it without the steel-hard ferocity of some of her ideological sisters. In fact ideology is what she ain't. "This is an honor that is an honor," she said to a packed Avery Fisher Hall a couple of Mondays ago. Then, in a throwaway: "I'm very happy that you didn't cancel . . . "
The joint broke up. The offhand reference had, of course, been to the Baseball Hall of Fame's recent idiotic cancellation of an anniversary showing of the film "Bull Durham" because its stars, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, had been outspokenly against the war in Iraq.
The Avery Fisher event was a gala black-tie "Tribute to Susan Sarandon" by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and every one of the actors and directors (and writer Gore Vidal) who took the mike in between a parade of brilliant clips from 30 years of Sarndon's films used the words "fearlessness" and "courage" and "decency" in speaking of her. Plus, oh yes, extraordinary beauty, knockout sexuality . . .and endless talent.
But maybe it was Tim Robbins who, taking the stage just after a "Bull Durham" clip that showed him stripping naked to the strains of Piaf's "La vie en rose" before Sarandon's approving eyes, paid the finest tribute of all.
"I find it very difficult to talk about Susan," said her tall, tall mate, pokerfaced, scratching his ear. Then, slyly: "I could tell you things." Hmm, hmm. "But I also value peace at my home. I would tire of hearing the phrase: 'Like at Lincoln Center, you son of a bitch!' "
More seriously, no less lightly:
"She's my partner in crime, my best friend . . .admired by waitresses, nuns, and drag queens alike . . . Extremely photogenic when getting arrested [i.e., during a 1999 demonstration against the police killing of Haitian immigrant Amadou Dialo] . . . skilled communicator . . . held in low regard by people who want her to talk only about hair and dress styles . . . Rudy Giuliani actually developed a tic at the mention of her name . . . "
Still, Robbins did approve of her discussion of shoes, particularly when, on TV's "The View," she'd scored "an achievement in broadcasting history" by bringing up the subject of "fuck-me pumps."
Robbins took a breath.
"A fantastic mother," he said, "who's extremely proud of her children" - their two young sons and her teenage daughter, actress Eva Amurri - "and I am proud to be her friend, unmarried, but forever committed to her."
Susan Sarandon is not only all of that, she's a native Manhattanite, even though an Internet bio puts her birthplace as Jackson Heights.
On the phone with this moviegoer, a few days before the Lincoln Center bash ("I hope it's not a midlife-achievement award"), she spoke of how she's "occasionally criticized for being an outsider - 'What right do you have to come here and tell us such and such?' - when in fact I was even born right here, in Lenox Hill Hospital, not in Jackson Heights or anywhere else."
She was, however, baptized, she said, at Saint Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights, "and then, because there were too many of us" -- Susan Abigail Tomalin Sarandon is the oldest of the nine kids of Philip Tomalin and Lenora Marie Criscione Tomalin -"everybody moved into one of those little-bitty houses in Edison, New Jersey, with various members per bedroom."
Her father, an advertising executive - he's gone now - had once been a big-band singer, and his father, Arthur Tomalin, had, she said proudly, been "an editor and an actor and an early member of the Players Club -- you can see his name in some old Playbills."
Arthur Tomalin's granddaughter went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she met and in senior year married fellow acting student Chris Sarandon.
"I couldn't afford to live on campus," she says, "so I lived with my grandparents, my mother's parents, the Crisciones, and supported myself working the switchboard in the drama department, doing ironing, cleaning apartments, and cutting people's hair -very badly - with a pair of irregular scissors."
Her voice rises a bit, not in heat but in emphasis, as she says: "One pro-war Website had me so dumb as not to have graduated, but I certainly did graduate, in 1968" -- a year of national trauma epitomized by the Democratic National Convention in Mayor Daley's Chicago, two cataclysmic assassinations, and, it just so happens, the movie "Joe," which unforgettably bespoke (and 33 years later still bespeaks) the bitter intergenerational wars of the 1960s . . . a motion picture that no less unforgettably put the spotlight of future stardom on the 23-year-old playing its Melissa, unreachable strung-out hippie daughter of nice well-to-do Wasp parents too self-involved to listen.
At Lincoln Center two Monday nights ago you could see the progression and the variety of Sarandon's performances, nuance by nuance, thrust by thrust, growth by growth, through clips all the way from "Joe" (1970) to "Moonlight Mile" (2002), an array contrasting, among much else, that socko declaration of female independence, "Thelma & Louise," against what for my money is one of the tenderest love scenes in all cinema, between grizzled Burt Lancaster and edgy, delectable Susan Sarandon -whose breasts he's espied her wash with lemons, and whose life he's saved -- in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City."
Along the route this lady has raised plenty of hackles almost just by breathing - hey, she opposed not just one war against Iraq, but two -- and the revenge of the Sarandon-haters often takes the form of malicious disinformation about her.
"I had an interview with a man from the Times," she crisply remembers, "who in the middle of it said: 'You lost me when you went to the trial of Jack Henry Abbott just to study up for a role in a movie.' I said: 'Where'd that come from?' He said: 'I read it in the New York Post.'
"'You read it in the New York Post!! What kind of journalist are you?' "
Even over the telephone, as she reconstructs the moment, you can see, you can feel, her eyes flashing fire.
"The fact is, Norman Mailer [a champion of murderer cum author Abbott] had asked me to do a play about Marilyn Monroe; this was while Abbott was on trial [in 1982], and I'd never been to a trial. Norman said: 'Why don't you come with me?' So I went. It was an eye-opener for me, a very interesting experience."
Postscript, without comment: It since hits me between the eyes that the first of her and Tim's two sons is Jack Henry Robbins, born 1989.
No, she doesn't see Mailer much these days. "We had a big argument during the 1991 Iraq War. He was very pro. I said: 'Do you want to send your son there? Your son's the right age.' Norman didn't want to do that. There's no bad blood, but I think that was the last time I saw him. I don't live in Brooklyn. I don't go out much."
She lives, in fact - she and Tim and the two boys- in Chelsea.
"The New York Post printed the address - twice." Her contempt for the Murdoch Post is unlimited, not just for that reason, though that helped.
Pre-Chelsea residences include West 72nd Street ("where Clive Barnes was a neighbor"); West 101st Street ("in Hal Linden's building when Chris was in 'The Rothschilds' with him"); and, for years, University Place at 9th Street ("where my bedroom backed onto Richard Gere's apartment, and I should never have let the place go except that Tim and I were pregnant with our second child").
In Avery Fisher Hall, writer/director Paul Schrader ("Light Sleeper," 1992) is talking about how a great many actors never listen because they're always thinking of their own next lines. Susan Sarandon, he says - she listens. Concentrates.
He tells of something that once happened on the set: "A lamp blew. Glass shattered and fell all over everything. I said: 'Cut!' Susan said: "Why?" I said: 'Susan, there's glass in your hair.' She said: 'Oh.' "
And now David Bowie, a costar with Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in "The Hunger" (1983), is telling of how, at a reading, Ms. Sarandon had bawled him out with: "Stop acting, just say the lines."
She is, in sum, Bowie would have you know, "sharp, sassy, seriously sexy . . . bossy . . . and unbelievably generous in the caring and nurturing of fellow performers" - a human being "with a generosity of spirit and moral fiber that anyone should possess in any walk of life."
"We salute her," Lincoln Center Film Society chairman Ira Resnick had said as he opened the proceedings, "for defying the odds and for always trying to do the right thing."
The last word went to the actress he was talking about.
"I was just lucky to fall into something that was a good fit," she said to the vast assemblage. Then, with a shrug and an oh-what-the-hell smile: "Watching all these films, I'm impressed with myself."
She isn't the only one. [Tallmer]
This article was previously published in The Villager.
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