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Smart, sassy, sultry Sarando

Deauville finally gets its leading lady

Susan Sarandon is not entirely comfortable with career tributes, given their suggestion of the twilight years. But this year’s Deauville Film Festival is taking care to award the work of the 53-year-old actress in proper perspective.

“We’re doing a tribute to recognize her at this point in her life,” says Ruda Dauphin, the fest’s U.S. director. “It’s not a lifetime achievement award. We’ve chosen her because she’s a favorite in Europe and here. She can play many roles, and she does them all splendidly.”

That’s an approach that suits Sarandon, who looks at the event as a “Midlife Achievement Award.” Her first such award came in 1996 at the Palm Springs Film Festival, and more are sure to follow. With a strong body of work built steadily over the years, beginning with “Joe” in 1970 and including a Best Actress Oscar in 1995 for her role in “Dead Man Walking,” Sarandon has evolved into one of the most popular actresses of our time, appealing equally to both men and women.

Deauville will honor Sarandon on Sept. 4 with an award presentation, a showing of “Bull Durham,” the film she picked for the occasion, and a dinner. The festival will also screen “Atlantic City,” “Thelma & Louise,” and others, if prints with French subtitles can be located.

As the only European film festival devoted to American film, Deauville has become a kind of demilitarized zone for the French, allowing them to let go of their political opposition to American cultural imperialism and express their abiding adoration for American film and movie stars. “The festival and the French are absolutely thrilled Susan is coming,” says Dauphin.

Sarandon has her mark by playing ordinary women who rise to the extraordinary, and by bringing an open sensuality to middle-aged roles. Before winning the Oscar, she received four Best Actress nominations for performances in “Atlantic City,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Lorenzo’s Oil,” and “The Client.”

Apart from 1980’s “Atlantic City,” Sarandon’s other notable early films include “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Great Waldo Pepper” and “Pretty Baby.”

But it was the 1988 comedy “Bull Durham” that certified her arrival as a leading actress. Coming on the heels of “The Witches of Eastwick,” in which she played alongside Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Bull Durham” featured Sarandon at her best: a wacky but wise love interest in a romantic triangle with Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. Though her performance went unrecognized by the Academy, the film was a boon both professionally and personally. Tim Robbins, whom she met making the film, became her life partner; she has also appeared in the three films he has directed: “Bob Roberts,” “Dead Man Walking” and “The Cradle Will Rock.”

Director Wayne Wang, who worked with Sarandon on last year’s “Anywhere But Here,” summarizes her acting with two signature moments: the final scene with Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking,” as Penn, awaiting execution, arrives at a kind of spiritual reconciliation; and the scene in “Anywhere But Here,” in which she gives a sober lecture to her daughter, played by Natalie Portman, then struts out from behind a car in pink Capri pants. “Those capture her two sides,” he says. “One of the things I especially appreciate about her is the kind of crazy, open, slightly larger-than-life quality that she has.”

Sarandon’s agent at ICM, Martha Lutrell, notes that career tributes normally come later in a career, but that Sarandon’s work stands out by reaching both men and women. “Men find her sexy and she’s allowed a woman her age to be considered sexy. And women admire her role as a mother and activist,” she says, referring to Sarandon’s support for various social causes. “Also, she has a comfort about her age; she doesn’t try to hide, doesn’t try to be something she isn’t.”

As an actress, aging gracefully has a particular meaning for Sarandon. “I’ve read that by the time you get into your 70s you’ve kind of moved beyond gender and just become a force,” she says. “You’re beyond the expectations and limitations that gender throws on you. If I could end up like Melina Mercouri or Jeanne Moreau, where you can still see that fire, that would be fine.”

This refusal to be stereotyped is what makes Sarandon’s acting future all the more promising. “She’s done a lot of different kinds of films and a lot of really good ones,” says Wang, “but she’s got a long road ahead of her, too.”

Along the way, Wang hopes to see her play at least one role she hasn’t thus far. “She should play a really evil character sometime. That would be really interesting,” he says. “She’s got a Bette Davis quality to her.”

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