Susan Sarandon (born 1946) is an American actress who has appeared in almost 50 films. Ben Yagoda, in American Film, suggests "Sarandon is a character actor, in the best sense of the word, with attributes that don't necessarily translate into the traditional notion of stardom." As an actress and a political activist, Sarandon presents an important side of American cinema.
Born to Phillip, an advertising executive, and Lenora Marie Crisicione Tomalin, Sarandon was the eldest of the couple's nine children. Growing up in a Welsh/Italian household she was raised Catholic. As a teenager in the 1960s Sarandon was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements and was arrested in high school for participating in protests.
After graduating from high school, she attended Catholic University in Washington D.C. She graduated from college with a degree in Drama in 1969. While in college she met Chris Sarandon who shared her love of acting. They were married on September 16, 1967. Following graduation, Chris Sarandon went to a casting call and asked Susan along to read scenes with him. Both Sarandons ended up with parts in Joe. With this debut, Susan Sarandon began a long career in film.
The Film World
Chris Baker, on his webpage, suggests Sarandon "is an intelligent and versatile actress having built a reputation for portraying strong, independent women on the screen." Yet many critics define her early films as her 'ingenue' period. Following her debut in Joe, Sarandon appeared in a number of soap operas, some television episodes, movies and mini-series. From 1970 through 1978, many of Sarandon's roles were minor parts. In 1975 she starred as Janet in the great classic cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is quite possibly her most watched film.
Following her divorce from Chris Sarandon in 1979, Susan Sarandon went on to work with director Louis Malle in Pretty Baby and Atlantic City. She received critical acclaim for both films and was nominated for an Oscar for Atlantic City. In an interview with Eleanor Blau, for the New York Times, Sarandon said "I try for parts that frighten me or seem impossible. So to survive, I will have to learn something and overcome it." She is well known for taking acting risks as illustrated by these two films. In Pretty Baby Sarandon plays a prostitute whose child (played by Brooke Shields) also grows up to be a prostitute. She took another risk in one of the opening scenes of Atlantic City by bathing her bare breasts with lemons in front of an open window. In The Hunger, 1993, Sarandon has a same-sex love scene with Catherine Deneuve.
A Theatrical Detour
Another risk Sarandon took in the early eighties was to work in theater. She formed an improvisational company with friends. In 1981 she appeared off-Broadway in A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, with Eileen Brennan and received favorable reviews. She followed this with a well-received performance in Extremities. The play deals with an attempted rape and what occurs when in a surprising twist the intended victim captures her would-be rapist. As Sarandon explained to Blau, "Extremities is a metaphor about the animal in you. And it's about power. Not sex-that's not what rape is about; it's the rage a rapist feels and the power he is exercising. She's learning from him about power. The play is about the contagion of violence."
In an interview with Christian Williams, for the Washington Post, she compared theater to film. "Movies don't provide any instant gratification at all. Making them is very slow, and there's a lot of waiting around. But on a stage it's overwhelming. You and the audience become completely involved, laughing and crying together and if when it's over they applaud, there's no way to avoid believing that you contributed to it."
During this time Sarandon gave birth to her daughter Eva Maria Livia Amurri. Eva's father is writer-director Franco Amurri, Sarandon's partner at the time, but the relationship did not last.
Gloria Jacobs in Ms. magazine claims that for Sarandon "political activism is not a pastime but an inherent part of her life-part of her soul." As she told Clarke Taylor, in the Chicago Tribune, "It's a matter of extending one's sense of responsibility to others, and to the rest of the world. It's not altruism, it's understanding that we really are all connected. We're not isolated. We are the world. And understanding this is the basis of hope for the world."
As Baker noted, "she remains one of Hollywood's most visible activists, lending her name, time and presence to many political, cultural and health organizations." She was an early supporter of AIDS activism, particularly working with ACT UP. In 1984 she went to Nicaragua on behalf of MADRE, an organization which provides aid to war victims there and in El Salvador. She has been a longtime supporter of women's reproductive rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, as evidenced by her participation at numerous marches, rallies, and a stint as a guest columnist for USA Today on April 10, 1989. She has worked on issues facing the homeless and mentally ill. She also works closely with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Throughout the years she has continued to oppose violence, supporting efforts towards nuclear disarmament. She was publicly opposed to the Persian Gulf war, which many others viewed as a risky professional stance. Her anti-violence work stems from her desire to teach her children that violence is an inappropriate way to accomplish goals. When Claudia Dreifus asked Sarandon about the impact on her career, in The Progressive, Sarandon replied "whenever anybody asks me that, I always say 'It's a little like worrying whether your slip is showing while you flee a burning building.' I don't know. I can't dwell on it. Maybe it has. Maybe being outspoken can cost you work. It's a very subjective business."
Where possible Sarandon has incorporated the issues into her work. In 1984 she narrated Talking Nicaragua, a documentary discussing U.S. involvement with Nicaragua. She has produced Public Service Announcements on the First Amendment. In 1995 she participated in the film, The Celluloid Closet, which discussed Hollywood's treatment of gays and lesbians in the movies. In 1995 she narrated two documentaries, Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press and School of Assassins a one hour documentary on the School of the Americas.
Since 1988 she has participated in many of these activities with her partner, actor/writer/director Tim Robbins. She and Robbins became involved following their work together in Bull Durham. Later, the pair had two children, Jack Henry and Miles. Both share a commitment to activism, perhaps best illustrated in their 1996 film Dead Man Walking. Sarandon persuaded Robbins to write and direct the film, based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean. The film is a commentary on the use of capital punishment. Sarandon won an Academy Award for Best Actress for this role, and continues to work on this issue with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Sarandon once told Nancy Mills in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, "I may not have control over whether my films are good or bad, but I certainly can turn down those with excessive violence, those that link sex and violence or those that propagate certain cliches about women. I think you can make a difference if you bring your own values to your work."
Feminism, Sarandon and Film
In an interview with Claudia Dreifus, for New Woman Sarandon noted, "People just don't know how to write stories about women. If you're an actress who cares about playing characters with some dimension, finding scripts is a problem." As Sarandon has moved into more starring roles she has had the opportunity to select roles which reflect the diversity of women's experiences. In addition to the parts noted above, she has played a journalist, Compromising Positions and Bob Roberts; prisoner of war, Women of Valor; medical researcher, The Hunger; fortuneteller, King of the Gypsies; music teacher, The Witches of Eastwick; college professor, Bull Durham; waitress, White Palace and Thelma & Louise; attorney, The Client; linguist, Lorenzo's Oil; mother, Little Women and Safe Passage; and a wife, Sweet Hearts Dance.
Vincent Canby, in a New York Times piece suggested Sarandon was an example of the new breed of "women's" movies. "These women are active forces in the environments that contain them. They aren't passive little creatures who accept their fates without question. They play roles more often associated by movies with men. They do things." This seemed evident in Thelma & Louise. At the time of its release the movie sparked a national debate over violence, women, and feminism. Some saw the film as a feminist manifesto, others claimed the film gloried male-bashing, and still others saw the film somewhere between these extremes. Sarandon noted in an on-line interview she "was surprised that the film struck such a primal nerve. I knew when we were filming that it would be different, unusual and hopefully entertaining. But shocking? I guess giving women the option of violence was hard for a lot of people to accept."
Sarandon clearly connects with the roles she has chosen. As she told Nina Darnton, of the New York Times, "There are really two kinds of actresses. Either you play essentially the same part over and over, playing whatever it is that endears you to the public as an actress, or you lose yourself in the character and let the character dictate the part. It's easier to be a star the first way. But it's also easier to become a caricature of yourself. To me, the whole point of acting is to experiment and learn-it's like living hundreds of lives in one lifetime."
Further Reading on Susan Sarandon
American Film, May, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1987.
Editor & Publisher, November 12, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1988.
Mother Jones, February, 1989.
Ms., January/February, 1996.
National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 1996.
New York Times, January 14, 1983; September 1, 1985; November 10, 1985.
New Woman, September, 1988.
Progressive, October, 1989.
Washington Post, April 20, 1981.
"Chris Baker's Susan Sarandon Site, " http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills (March 30, 1998).
Gerosa, Melina, "A Woman of Substance, " Ladies Home Journal, http://lhj.com (March 30, 1998).
Glickman, Simon, "Susan Sarandon, " Contemporary Newsmakers, http://galenet.gale.com (March 24, 1998).
Internet Movie Database, "Biographical Information for Susan Sarandon, " http://us.imdb.com (March 30, 1998).
"Susan Sarandon Fact Sheet, " E! Online, http://e1.eonline.com (March 30, 1998).