She really does have Bette Davis eyes. Her peepers pop, though not as violently as Davis’s; they’re less penetrating than hungering, like a stray cat’s on a doormat. As frequently and gloriously undressed as Susan Sarandon has been in her film career—to recap, her tatas have known the juice of lemons and the lips of Deneuve—her eyes are always what seem most exposed.
Based on reputation and accomplishment—she’s into her fifth decade as a movie actress and has been nominated for five Academy Awards—Sarandon 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. She’s 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, she’s 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 you’ll miss her third-billed Ralph Bellamy turn in Billy Wilder’s The Front Page (1974), while she’s eclipsed by a 12-year-old Brooke Shields in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978). She’s typecast as a prude-turned-sexpot for the first of many times in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), yet she’s also unexpectedly natural in the role, all gangly arms and fractured singing voice. In Malle’s masterful Atlantic City (1980), she’s 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 Scott’s ridiculous but enrapturing polysexual vampire fantasia, The Hunger (1982), it wasn’t until Bull Durham (1988) that she finally arrived. It’s still the best of all baseball movies, and she’s still a marvel to watch. Her Whitman-quoting, sex-positive Southern belle is the apotheosis of an ever-ripe onscreen sexuality—it may have been forced upon her before, but in Bull Durham, it’s 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 2005’s Romance & Cigarettes). But during her prime, she’s 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 1991’s Thelma & Louise, Sarandon’s grounded Louise enables Thelma’s 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 needed—she’s a blast as a regal, variously orange-attired narcotics supplier in Paul Schrader’s underrated Light Sleeper (1992), and as a witch with Sideshow Bob hair in the Updike-adaptation blockbuster The Witches of Eastwick (1987)—she’s nevertheless best as the calm, not the storm. Perhaps thanks to her belated rise to stardom, she’s got the looks of a leading lady but the instincts of an ensemble player. Our eyes are always drawn to hers, but they’re busy reflecting everyone else’s.