Film Reviews

Mother lode

It's not at all surprising that when Susan Sarandon finally edged away from earthy sexpot roles and began embracing characters with maternal streaks, she'd do it with the same warmth, clearheadedness, and street-smart charm she's displayed throughout her long and fruitful career.

In the past six months, she's played three mothers in three movies--The Client, Little Women, and her new film, Safe Passage. All are maternal sources of strength, understanding, and wisdom--movie mothers through and through--but Sarandon plays them with such realism and complexity that it's difficult to imagine any other major actress pulling off such a startling cinematic hat trick. Emotionally, and also politically, the roles in question are every bit as idiosyncratic and challenging as Sarandon herself. And taken as a whole, they tell us plenty about American motherhood today.

Sarandon has flirted with this sort of character before. As she moved into her 40s--still enjoying her status as an icon of everyday glamour--she continued playing romantic leads, often in films with strong sexual elements. But she never played against her real-life age, or the expectations that her age created; at a time when many of her contemporaries, both in Hollywood and elsewhere, struggled to reconcile the liberating freedoms of their single pasts with marriage, crows' feet, and the ticking of their biological clocks, Sarandon gravitated toward characters who incorporated both impulses.

In 1988's Bull Durham, she played a southern minor-league baseball groupie-cum-guru who picked a new rookie each season and tutored him in baseball, literature, philosophy, and sex--not necessarily in that order. There was a hint of Blanche Dubois-style delusion to the character, and her costar, Kevin Costner, circled around her like a college-educated Stanley Kowalski, breaking down her illusions. He was like a randy, uninvited drug counselor who had breezed into town to break her addiction to mothering young studs.

Over the next several years, Sarandon poked and prodded at the boundaries of screen motherhood, enriching a series of very diverse parts with hints of maternal emotion. In Thelma and Louise, she was the elder, wiser, and tougher of two postfeminist heroines, alternating between big-sister affection and motherly protectiveness. In White Palace, she played a lonely waitress embroiled in a romance with a much younger ad executive; the spectacle of her character's sexual reawakening was made bittersweet by our knowledge of the vast chasm of life experience she had to cross to enjoy it. In the druggy drama Light Sleeper, she played the employer of a smolderingly handsome but perpetually adolescent narcotics courier; the personal interest her character took in the hero's ever-more-troubled life often suggested a mother entreating a son not to make the same mistakes she once did.

With Lorenzo's Oil, the transformation from romantic lead to maternal figure was complete--sometimes terrifyingly so. As a mother obsessed with finding a cure for her son's debilitating illness, Sarandon put her fiery gaze to unsettling use, suggesting, somewhat disturbingly, that the child's predicament unleashed her inner fire and resourcefulness in a way that a tragedy-free life never could have.

This year, Sarandon has taken three screen roles, each one examining motherhood from a slightly offbeat angle. In The Client, she was a tough female attorney who became a surrogate mom to a neglected trailer-park kid who might have witnessed a Mafia-related death. But her character was anything but a cardboard holy cipher. She was a life-coarsened woman, a fallen mom whose chemical dependency had caused the state to take her children away; her assignment to protect this barely adolescent boy represented an obvious chance at redemption. Nor was she sexually neutered; she used her skill as a flirt to smooth the boy's swaggering young ego and gain his trust, and to match the film's symbolic Bad Cop-Tough Dad character--a showboating federal prosecutor played by Tommy Lee Jones--taunt for taunt and trick for trick.

In Little Women, Sarandon played the mother of a house full of precocious, talented, and passionate girls, but the text of Louisa May Alcott's book was updated so that the role would have a modern, explicitly political resonance. The strong but decidedly domestic mother of the novel was tailored to Sarandon's sensibilities; now she was a suffragette, a temperance leader, a fighter for racial and ethnic tolerance, and a pillar of the community so extreme in her commitment to liberal ideals that she gave up her own household's Christmas meal to feed a poor family down the block. The film invited us to admire her grit and to cheer when she urged her daughters to live life with "moral courage"--but not unconditionally. Director Gillian Armstrong made it clear that the force of her moral code, and the consistency with which she lived it, put tremendous and sometimes unfair pressure on her children.

This month, Sarandon appears in what seems, on first glance, like her most traditional mom role yet, in the domestic melodrama Safe Passage. As the matriarch of a family full of men drawn together by an unexpected stroke of bad luck, she holds the film's too-stagelike structure together by sheer force of emotion. Every conflicted feeling her character endures while sorting through her life as a parent comes through in her eyes with revelatory and sometimes painful clarity.

And yet, true to form, Sarandon once again hints that beneath the universal desire of a mother to protect her family lurks something stranger, darker, and more elusive--a spark of inexplicable compulsion, maybe even madness. (In a stunning, unexpected sequence, she defends her youngest boy from a dog attack by intercepting the animal in mid-leap, grabbing it in a headlock, and nearly strangling it to death.) This character is so hell-bent on protecting her children from harm that she sometimes verges on shielding them from life itself, and Sarandon acknowledges this truth by showing the insecurity and irrational fury behind this woman's warm, nurturing, protective facade. It's a capper to a remarkable phase of a remarkable career--a portrait of the suburban mother as avenging angel.

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Matt Zoller Seitz