Through her acting and production work, Susan Sarandon is happy to help challenge the Hollywood patriarchy, writes Helen Barlow
WHEN Susan Sarandon glided up the Cannes red carpet recently in a low-cut tuxedo-style dress, it was hard to believe that the Oscar-winning actress turns 70 in October. Certainly, she hasn’t lost any of her pizzazz.
Interestingly, the sometimes outrageous, out-spoken New Yorker won her best actress Oscar (after five nominations) for her portrayal as a real-life nun in 1995’s Dead Man Walking, a film she and her then partner, the film’s writer-director, Tim Robbins, struggled to make.
“I’d found the book of Dead Man Walking and waited two years before I had a complete meltdown on Seventh Avenue and threatened Tim to give it to someone else because he wasn’t moving on it,” Sarandon recalls. “I felt very lucky we got it made and we made it inexpensively.”
While the actress laments the state of independent film-making, which is in far worse shape than in 1995, she is hardly giving up on helping smaller projects get off the ground. Of late, she has appeared in three independent movies: Mothers and Daughters, with her own actress daughter, Eva Amurri; About Ray, where she plays the lesbian grandmother of Elle Fanning’s character; and The Meddler, the strongest of the three films, in which Sarandon headlines as a woman intent on helping others, most significantly her daughter, played by Rose Byrne. Sarandon also helped produce the film.
“The Meddler was written and directed by a woman, Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and was made in 23 days for US$3m and it’s doing quite well. For me, the important thing is getting it made.”
The film, which Scafaria based on her relationship with her own irascible mother, as they grieved her father’s death in vastly different ways, has given Sarandon some of her best reviews in recent years.
“I look for a good script and people who tell good stories,” she admits. “Certainly, most women are able to get in the mind of a woman and The Meddler was Lorene’s story. When Rose and I had had dinner with Lorene and her mother, I knew it was real.”
Appearing in almost every scene, Sarandon jokes how she wore a lot of blouses in her portrayal of the larger-than-life mum. Scafaria had shot the opening scene of the film with her actual mother in the role to show the producers, so Sarandon knew what she was in for.
“There’s a big responsibility to portray someone who’s still alive. You just fill in the gaps and bring our own fears and vulnerabilities to it, because, at the end of the day, everyone fears the same things and wants the same things.”
Not wanting to dismiss male directors, Sarandon admits she has worked with some fine men, such as Ridley Scott on Thelma & Louise and writer-director Ron Shelton on Bull Durham.
“Ron gave me one of the strongest female characters ever. She had sexual power and she didn’t have to die because of it and I think that was a huge breakthrough, because usually that’s what happens.”
Now, having worked with three women directors in a row — “they’re selecting me on purpose” — she commends recent achievements by women in cinema and very much wants to be a part of it. It was not always as easy.
“When I started out at 20 you had to choose between a family and a career. We take for granted now that you don’t have to choose.
“For many years, I had to refuse all the invitations to come to Cannes, as I was raising my family. Though I remember quite vividly being here in 1978 for Louis Malle’s controversial competition entry, Pretty Baby. The film created a lot of discussion because it featured scenes with a 12 year-old Brooke Shields in the nude. The day of the screening, people demonstrated in front of the Palais and banged on our car. Brooke was scared to death and every time I see her now we talk about it.”
A woman with a wild sense of humour, Sarandon is particularly impressed by the current spate of comediennes, who are blazing a trail.
“Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, and Amy Schumer are writing movies that are making a lot of money and starring a lot of women. Lots of other actresses have production companies that are developing parts for women and that’s also a really good sign. After Thelma & Louise made a lot of money, they predicted there would be so many more films starring women, but it didn’t happen. The studios didn’t have an epiphany.
“There are still many more male executives, who are making the decisions, and Hollywood has become more and more corporate. It’s just a lack of imagination on the part of men. There should be more women in films, stories you feel passionate about, with different people of all ages, colours and gender.”
Currently, Sarandon is taking matters into her own hands, producing a TV series for the FX network in the US. Called Feud, it will also star Jessica Lange.
“I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’m kind of scared. It’s about Hollywood and whether or not it has changed since those gals were trying to find their way through.”
It takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and how the famous feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford began.
While columnists have always been around, Sarandon is glad social media did not exist when she started.
“It’s horrible,” she bellows. “I wouldn’t have survived if there had been someone outside the Chateau Marmont watching people come and go when I was young. There’s this idea of becoming so self-conscious that you’re photographing your food, you’re just constantly outside and it’s expected of you.
“I guess for anybody who has a TV series, they expect you to keep that account up. That’s part of your job now, to have a certain amount of followers. It takes so much energy and a lot of it becomes about the way you look and how much weight you have.
“I think that’s a big distraction and it’s tough. I admire the Kristen Stewarts of this world who can maintain their sanity and keep working and seem authentic when they’re under so much scrutiny all the time.”
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