Peeping at Susan Sarandon's Peepers at BAM
She really does have Bette Davis eyes. Her peepers pop, though not as violently as Daviss; theyre less penetrating than hungering, like a stray cats on a doormat. As frequently and gloriously undressed as Susan Sarandon has been in her film careerto recap, her tatas have known the juice of lemons and the lips of Deneuveher eyes are always what seem most exposed.
Based on reputation and accomplishmentshes into her fifth decade as a movie actress and has been nominated for five Academy AwardsSarandon is more than worthy of a career retrospective. Yet judging from the 13 films in The Susan Sarandon Picture Show, which starts at BAM on Thursday, main veins can be hard to locate in her body of work. Shes been central in our cultural consciousness, helped along by her political activism and famously unmarried romance with Tim Robbins, but unlike contemporaries Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton, shes just as familiar with the margins as she is with center stage. There have been great Sarandon performances, but even during her early-90s heyday, there were comparatively few Sarandon-driven films.
Distracted as they were by her physical assets, it took a while for filmmakers to utilize her artistic talents. Blink and youll miss her third-billed Ralph Bellamy turn in Billy Wilders The Front Page (1974), while shes eclipsed by a 12-year-old Brooke Shields in Louis Malles Pretty Baby (1978). Shes typecast as a prude-turned-sexpot for the first of many times in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), yet shes also unexpectedly natural in the role, all gangly arms and fractured singing voice. In Malles masterful Atlantic City (1980), shes shirtless before she even has a name, but her desire to be ogled is granted dignity and power; gradually and unassumingly, she upstages a terrific Burt Lancaster. But after a sapphic sojourn with Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scotts ridiculous but enrapturing polysexual vampire fantasia, The Hunger (1982), it wasnt until Bull Durham (1988) that she finally arrived. Its still the best of all baseball movies, and shes still a marvel to watch. Her Whitman-quoting, sex-positive Southern belle is the apotheosis of an ever-ripe onscreen sexualityit may have been forced upon her before, but in Bull Durham, its totally owned.
She was well into her 30s before she turned the corner in Atlantic City, and since winning her Oscar 15 years later (for Dead Man Walking, 1995), she has been mostly relegated to shrill mom roles (BAM wisely steers clear of horrors like Igby Goes Down and represents late Sarandon with larks like 2005s Romance & Cigarettes). But during her prime, shes a consistently generous performer, creating space for actors to do their best work in her presence, be it Kevin Costner (never better than in Bull Durham), Geena Davis (in 1991s Thelma & Louise, Sarandons grounded Louise enables Thelmas transformative arc), and even Sean Penn (for whom her fixed, teary-eyed gaze apparently served as a de-histrionic tranquilizing beam in Dead Man Walking). Though adept at hamming it up when neededshes a blast as a regal, variously orange-attired narcotics supplier in Paul Schraders underrated Light Sleeper (1992), and as a witch with Sideshow Bob hair in the Updike-adaptation blockbuster The Witches of Eastwick (1987)shes nevertheless best as the calm, not the storm. Perhaps thanks to her belated rise to stardom, shes got the looks of a leading lady but the instincts of an ensemble player. Our eyes are always drawn to hers, but theyre busy reflecting everyone elses.
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