SARANDON, SUSAN (Susan Abigail Tomalin) (1946– ) Actress
Known for depicting complex, independent, and sensual women, film star Susan Sarandon was born Susan Abigail Tomalin on October 4, 1946, in Metuchen, New Jersey. The eldest of nine children, she left home to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in drama. While still in college, she married her first love, actor Chris Sarandon. During this time, she also became politically active. As a student, she was arrested several times for participating in civil rights and antiwar rallies. Susan Sarandon won her first movie role when she accompanied her husband to a casting call for Joe (1970). She was given the female lead, playing an ill-fated young hippie. Soon Sarandon was being offered an array of ingenue roles. As she later admitted, she at first had trouble taking acting seriously, which led her to accept insubstantial parts that showcased her beauty more than her talent. Her best early role came in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the cult horror movie spoof that gave Sarandon a rare chance to sing on screen. Sarandon found her breakout roles in two films directed by Louis Malle, with whom she was romantically linked after her 1979 divorce from Chris Sarandon. In Pretty Baby (1978), she played a prostitute in early 20th-century New Orleans, and in Atlantic City (1980), she depicted a croupier longing for a more glamorous life.
Her appearance in these ambitious, offbeat films showed Sarandon’s growing interest in unconventional parts. One of her most daring choices was to star in The Hunger (1983), a moody horror film in which she played a love scene with French star Catherine Deneuve. In Compromising Positions (1985), a slight comic murder mystery, Sarandon proved that she could carry a movie on her own. Still, she had to lobby hard to earn the part of Annie Savoy, a passionate baseball fanatic, in the romantic comedy Bull Durham (1988). At 42, Sarandon was initially thought to be too old to play the role. She changed the mind of director Ron Sheldon by coming to a meeting in a tight red-and-white dress. “It was fabulous. It was like something Sophia Loren would have worn,” Sheldon later remembered. With the success of Bull Durham, Sarandon challenged the Hollywood assumption that the public wanted to see only young women in sexy roles.
On the set of Bull Durham, Sarandon met costar Tim Robbins, who became her long-term partner. The couple has had two children, Jack Henry and Miles. Their family also includes Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Maria Livia Amurri, from an earlier relationship with director Franco Amurri. Sarandon and Robbins have worked together on several projects, including Bob Roberts (1992) and The Cradle Will Rock (1999), both written and directed by Robbins. They also share an interest in social causes, such as women’s rights, homelessness, and help for people with AIDS. They angered many film industry insiders by speaking out against the United States’s immigration restrictions on Haitians while presenting an award at the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony. Sarandon’s political activism, however, seemed to have no ill effect on her career. At an age when many actresses have trouble finding work, she was offered some of her most interesting roles. In 1991, she costarred with Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise, a story of two friends on the lam from the police that sparked a national debate on the state of American feminism. Other notable parts included a frantic mother of a dying child in Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), a sympathetic drug dealer in Light Sleeper (1992), and a struggling lawyer in The Client (1994).
Perhaps Sarandon’s most powerful performance of the 1990s was in Dead Man Walking (1995). Written and directed by Robbins, the film told the true story of a nun who befriended a killer on death row. After four Oscar nominations, Sarandon’s deft handling of the challenging and unglamorous lead role finally won her the Academy Award for best actress. Sarandon has since earned critical acclaim in such serious films as Safe Passage (1995), while also scoring popular hits with such crowd-pleasers as Stepmom (1998) and Rugrats in Paris: The Movie (2000). At the same time, she has emerged as one of Hollywood’s best character actors by seeking out a wide array of parts. As Sarandon herself has explained. “[T]he whole point of acting is to experiment and learn—it’s like living hundreds of lives in one lifetime.”
Smith, Gavin. “Susan Sarandon: Uncompromising Positions.” Film Comment. March 1993. 29: 2, pp. 44+.
Spines, Christine. “Icon: Susan Sarandon.” Premiere. “Women in Hollywood” supplement, 1999, pp. 82–84+.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Atlantic City (1981). Paramount, VHS, 1992.
Bull Durham (1998). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.
Dead Man Walking (1995). MGM/UA, DVD/VHS, 2000/1999.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). CBS/Fox Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.