Tag: Susan Sarandon

Atlantic City (1981)

Atlantic City (1981)

A never-was romances a dreamer in Malle’s low-key film, full of neat observations

Director: Louis Malle

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Kate Reid (Grace), Michel Piccoli (Joseph), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Robert Joy (Dave), Al Waxman (Alfie), Moses Znaimer (Felix)

Lou trundles around Atlantic City taking a few cents for bets and wanting anyone who listens to know that back in the glory days of the Boardwalk Empire he was a big shot. Bugsy Siegel roomed with him in the slammer. Meyer Lansky asked his opinions on the latest scores. When he killed someone, he dove into the sea to wash the exhilaration from his body. Not his fault the glory days are gone, and his life has crumbled as much as the worn out city around him. He’s still a player.

Only of course he’s not. Played in a fine autumnal performance by Burt Lancaster, Lou has the front of an ageing star, but is a dyed-in-the-wool loser. He trades on a past that never happened, full of tall stories that only the dimmest and most impressionable would consider believing. He’s essentially a kept servant of Grace (Kate Reid), a former local beauty queen (third place) and spends his nights spying on his neighbour Sally (Susan Sarandon), while she washes away the stench of the hotel fish counter she works in.

When the chance comes to spin a fantasy that means Lou could actually impress and seduce this women, he jumps at it. That chance is Dave (Robert Joy), Sally’s pathetic dweeb of an ex-husband who believes Lou is the perfect to peddle his stolen cocaine around town. Dave winds up dead, Lou pockets the money, impresses the naïve but determined Sally (training to be a croupier) and very firmly considers letting her take the rap when the cocaine’s owners turn up looking for the money.

Both Lou and Sally are dreamers – or fantasists – at the opposite end of life’s scale. Lou dreams big about a past that never was. Sally is dreaming of an impossible future – one of French class, Monaco high-rollers and earning a future as a flash croupier. Really, we know both of their dreams are fantasies. After all it should be clear only losers wind up in Atlantic City. The casinos are dumps and even the criminals are pathetic, easily out-matched by Philadelphia hoods. Louis Malle’s film captures this perfectly in a crumpling city that looks like mouldy leftovers.

Malle’s film is a marvellously structured, low-key but highly effective character study, very well acted and shot with an intelligent, detailed eye. It’s a showcase for Malle’s subtle but intelligent camera work and composition. As Lou serves Grace early in the film, he is kept constantly in the centre of the frame, the camera jerking up and down to match his movements as he fetches and carries for the bed-bound Grace. Dave is frequently shot from above, looking even more pathetic and irrelevant with every shot. This is framing that speaks volume for status and character. The camera fluidly shifts across large spaces – the boardwalk, a casino – to show different interactions in different plains, characters either unaware of each other or using events elsewhere to escape notice.

Grimy and fabulously capturing the collapsing grandeur of a city fallen on very hard times, the setting is the perfect metaphor for the disaster of the character’s lives. None more so than Lou. You can argue Malle’s film may be too sympathetic to Lou – and, indeed, contemporary reviews discussed Lancaster’s inherent dignity mistaking it for the character. Lancaster however is smarter. Lou is a pathetic, sad figure. Look how he delights in puffing himself up as a big shot for the feeble Dave. Watch the childish excitement he takes in the notoriety he collects late in the film. Lancaster perfectly understands the desperate need to dress the part, longing to be something you are not: the grand, well-dressed sugar daddy who solves problems for his moll by unwrapping the elastic band from a roll of dollar bills.

Lancaster never allows this fantasy to be mistaken for reality. When danger comes, Lou almost always freezes or looks to keep himself safe. When he spins his stories of daring or classy confidence, Lancaster shows us a Lou who is replicating behaviours he has seen elsewhere. After completing his first cocaine deal, he has to wash his face in fear in a bathroom – then instantly condescends to an old friend who has been reduced to toilet attendant.

Sally is fooled for a while. But then we know she has a weakness for glamour. After all we’ve seen her indulge the pervy whims of casino trainer Joseph, a lecherous Michel Piccoli. In a clever performance by Sarandon, Sally is naïve enough to be sucked in but guileful enough to just about keep afloat. She tends to trust anyone who oozes confidence. She’s a little star-struck by the idea of Lou perving at her across the window (as if happy that she’s sexy enough to win the attentions of this seemingly classy old guy). But, turned, Sarandon makes clear she’s righteously furious when cheated and far more adept at confidence-tricksterism than the increasingly hapless Lou.

Because when crime comes Lou is out of his depth. But what would you expect from a man who is a live-in cook, dog-walker and sometime-stud for Grace, entombed in her kitsch-nightmare room. Kate Reid is very good as this clear-eyed bully who needs but also despises Lou, who knows all about what an unreliable and cowardly fellow he is deep-down but jealously guards his attentions.

Malle’s film plays out like a sort of noir short story, an adept study of its characters more focused on their damage and flaws than on the crimes at its nominal heart. This is about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves. Just like Atlantic City kids itself it’s still a gambling mecca, so Lou and Sally believe they still have chances in life. It makes for an intriguing, engrossing film as they lie to themselves and each other, denying the truth until it hits them squarely and unavoidably in their face.

Atlantic City muses on familiar themes, but does so with freshness and intelligence. Perhaps Malle is a little too sympathetic to its characters (Lou in particular), but he is very clear-eyed about the Dennis Potterish fantasy world they are clinging onto and the shabby decline and disrepair that clutters their existence. It makes for a very fine, well-made and fascinating little film, full of sharp observations and wonderfully played beats.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

Little Women (1994)

Gillian Armstrong’s beautifully cast and played adaptation of Little Women is a classic

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Cast: Winona Ryder (Jo March), Gabriel Byrne (Friedrich Bhaer), Trini Alvarado (Meg March), Kirsten Dunst (Young Amy March), Samantha Mathis (Amy March), Claire Danes (Beth March), Susan Sarandon (Marmee March), Christian Bale (Theodore Laurence), Eric Stoltz (John Brooke), John Neville (Mr Laurence), Mary Wickes (Aunt March)

There are certain adaptations that simply set the standard. I’m thinking of the BBC Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. For productions like this, it almost seems superfluous to create another version: why would you want to when you can already watch the whole thing done perfectly? Gillian Armstrong’s superlative production of Little Women is such a film: so perfectly cast, immaculately acted and brilliantly assembled that I simply can’t imagine another production bettering it.

In Massachusetts during the American Civil War, the March sisters live with their mother (Susan Sarandon): sensible Meg (Trini Alvarado), tomboyish Jo (Winona Ryder), gentle Beth (Claire Danes) and temperamental Amy (Kirsten Dunst). While their father is away fighting, the girls grow up and experience the highs and lows of life and love, while never losing sight of the strong bond that holds them together.

Not only is it impossible to imagine another production besting this, I can’t imagine another creating so many “something in my eye” moments as this film manages. Gillian Armstrong’s tender direction gets a guaranteed emotional response from the audience every time, largely because she keeps the film simple, focused and doesn’t overegg the emotion. She recognises the story itself carries delicious highs and heartbreaking lows – and lets these moments speak for themselves. From its opening moments, establishing the girls’ love of theatricals and their own private “Pickwick club”, you know you are in the safe hands of people who fully understand the novel.

It’s a film which plays it very, very simple and lets the beauty of the moments speak for themselves. Many work perfectly: no less than three times I felt myself welling up, from the presentation of Mr Laurence’s piano to Beth, to Beth’s tragic death, to the final scenes between Jo and Professor Bhaer. Each of these moments is quite simply perfectly played and carry a major emotional wallop. It’s because Armstrong sets out a film that is totally straight, and a completely loving and respectful adaptation of Alcott’s novel. Armstrong, and adapter Robin Swicord, also build a profound, focused story of growing up and learning to adjust to loss and the changes life brings us. Focusing on this creates a very clear journey in the movie – as well as a story anyone who has had any life experiences is going to respond to.

Part of the reason why the film is such a complete success is the superb playing from a cast without a weak link among it. The four March sisters genuinely feel like people who have grown up together, so strong are the bonds of chemistry between them. I’d also hugely commend Armstrong and Swicord for so skilfully establishing the different personalities of the sisters – within the opening few minutes you’ll feel like you know all their personalities exactly (a task utterly failed by a recent three-part BBC adaptation).

In the lead role, it’s scintillating to watch Winona Ryder and remember what a superb, heartfelt and gloriously expressive actress she is. Vulnerable but also tomboyish, boisterous and also tender, she brilliantly captures Jo and her semi-bohemian, semi-homespun yearnings, and her passionate love for a life different from the traditional. Ryder also has such wonderful skill with conveying emotion – at several key moments, waves of emotion seem to pass over her face in careful micro-expressions. Several moments carry the weight that they do, because Ryder sells them so well. 

Her three sisters are equally well-cast. If she has a rival for skill of expression and conveying depth of emotion it’s Claire Danes, who is astonishingly good as the gentle Beth (hard to believe she was only 15 at the time!). Danes’ simple joy and her gentle, unassuming love for those around her really hit home. Danes’ joyful warmth makes Beth’s acceptance of the piano from Mr Laurence a beautiful moment, while her tender humanity makes her death incredibly moving. Kirstin Dunst is superb as the young Amy – part brattish pre-teen, part excitable child. Her sudden horror when she realises the gravity of burning Jo’s book again helps this moment work so well. Trini Alvarado has the less interesting part, but her grounded, calm, proper and gentle performance as Meg balances the work of the sisters really well, and Alvarado demonstrates she has real empathy for the role.

The rest of the cast are equally good. Samantha Mathis (taking over the older Amy) delivers an excellent portrayal of a woman keen to head into the world. Susan Sarandon is perfect as a wonderfully loving, all-knowing mother. Christian Bale is perfect as the playboyish Teddy, full of playful fire. John Neville sells a few crucial scenes as a humane Mr Laurence. Gabriel Byrne is certainly far more handsome than his literary counterpart, but he’s so wonderfully gentle, caring and kind that it hardly matters: the relationship between him and Jo is beautifully judged.

Beautifully judged basically sums up the whole thing: there is not a bum note in this whole film. Armstrong and Swicord nail every single decision. Armstrong’s direction is outstanding: a brilliant example is the gently, unbearably sad sequence of sprinkling roses in Beth’s room after her death – it’s so simply done but incredibly moving. The film is crammed with moments like this, beautifully scored by Thomas Newman. Swicord’s script is marvellous, and it successfully draws out the feminist message of the book, without hammering the points: it gently flags up the lack of opportunities often available for women at the time, but also celebrates the contribution they can make. 

Little Women is a simply superb piece of adaptation, and a deeply affecting and heart-warming film. Only a film that lets you invest in the characters as much as this, could move you as much as it does. When Ryder smiles, you feel your whole world light up. When Danes cries with joy you feel your heart sing. When tragedy comes you feel like you’ve had a loss yourself. The story is superbly streamlined, each character is perfectly established, the relationships between them all are so wonderfully done – you can’t help but fall in love with it. If it had been a film about men it would have been littered with Oscar nominations. As it is, despite the sexism of the Academy, it’s a film you’ll treasure and return to again and again.

Enchanted (2007)

Amy Adams excels as Disney heroine in the real world Giselle in Enchanted

Director: Kevin Lima

Cast: Amy Adams (Giselle), Patrick Dempsey (Robert Philip), James Marsden (Prince Edward), Susan Sarandon (Queen Narissa), Timothy Spall (Nathaniel), Idina Menzel (Nancy Tremaine), Rachel Covey (Morgan Philip)

With Disney devoting themselves full-time to remaking their back catalogue of classics, replacing animation with live actors, it’s nice to be reminded how imaginative combining animation and live actors can actually be. Enchanted is an original story, packed with charm and feel-good warmth – and for my money it’s streets ahead of the production-line remakes churning out of Disney.

In the animated world of Andalasia, Giselle (Amy Adams) is the classic Disney heroine – singing joyfully, talking with animals, all the usual trappings. She falls (instantly, of course) in love with the dashing Prince Edward (James Marsden), but Edward’s cruel step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) is determined to thwart the match so she can retain the crown. On Giselle’s wedding day, Narissa pushes her through a magic well to a place where there are no happy endings: modern day New York. Stuck in the real world, Giselle meets quietly disillusioned family lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his 6 year old daughter Morgan – can Giselle adjust to the modern world? Can Edward save her? And will she want to go back?

The star turn is Amy Adams, and she is terrific. This is one of those performances that looks easy, but is in fact extraordinarily difficult. She simultaneously plays a fairytale character in the real world, with a cartoon’s outlook and understanding, but also subtly deepens and enriches this character with real world traits, developing and growing her personality to become someone who feels “real”. She does this without jarring gear changes or sudden swings – and holds both these characterisations together simultaneously. So Giselle’s fundamental personality doesn’t change, while her outlook and understanding changes dramatically. She’s endearing, a wonderful light comedian, and her singing and dancing is terrific. It’s not too much of a jump to say she basically is the movie.

And an enchanting movie it certainly is, one part affectionate recreation of Disney, one part affectionate send-up. Relocating the conventions and style of a Disney movie to the real world allows a lot of fun, as Giselle musters the animals of New York to help her clean (pigeons, rats and flies) or recruits the people of Central Park into an extended song and dance routine while Robert looks on with bemused confusion. It helps that the songs are so well written – Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s tunes are basically classic Disney tunes with a satirical bent, which means it’s perfectly possible to enjoy both for what they are and for the dry commentary they offer on Disney.

In fact that’s why the film works so well: it is so blinking affectionate. There is no cruelty about it and none of the tedious “smarter than thou” referencing of, say, Shrek. Instead it teases Disney, while simultaneously understanding the vast majority of us love these films: that if we had the chance, as Nancy does, we might well jack in the real world for a fairytale. We don’t want “gags for the grown-ups” or dumb film references: if a film concentrates on making itself sincere and engaging, it will engage both adults and children at the same time.

The film really successfully bowls along, full of entertaining charms and gags. In fact the appeal of the fish-out-of-water plotline with Giselle is so effective the sub-plot around the villainous Queen Narissa actually becomes less interesting. While the presence of a villain of this type is a pretty central part of the Disney structure, it never quite comes together here – it feels like something inserted due to the rules of the genre rather than an organic part of the story. Now it is essential there is some peril to propel the story forward, but Narissa just isn’t quite interesting enough (and the final battle with a CGI dragon, while a great recreation of similar moments isn’t really gripping). Fundamentally the emotional and dramatic culmination of the film is Giselle realising what she wants – and it’s this compelling human story that powers the film.

But this is a niggle in a charming and very funny film. Amy Adams is of course the star, but Patrick Dempsey very successfully adds warmth to the “stick-in-the-mud” straight man who flourishes as the film progresses (in a nice touch, he slowly takes on the very singing, dancing, cartooney traits he finds so bemusing in Giselle). James Marsden has huge fun as the gently egomaniacal Prince Edward, providing many of the film’s belly laughs with his unreconstructed fairy-tale hero view of the world.

Enchanted works so well because it’s both a subtle commentary on Disney fairytale films and also a marvellous fairytale itself. With a terrific performance from Amy Adams (how did she not get an Oscar nomination for this?) and some cracking songs, the film is wonderfully entertaining, making some gentle fun of its genre, while also celebrating it. It only wants to entertain and enchant you – and it certainly succeeds.