This originally was to be a “Films For Mother’s Day” survey, but I kept coming across so many films featuring Susan Sarandon that I decided to focus just on those in which she portrays a mother. We will look at some other mother films next year. Here are some observations about films that, had she not made any other kind, would have established Susan Sarandon as an actress of consummate skill. (Of course, her roles as a “babe” in Bull Durham and as an untutored feminist in Thelma & Louise by themselves would have established her reputation!) We will look at them chronologically, beginning with the film based on a real mother who made a difference.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Michaela (Susan Sarandon) and husband Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) fight to save the life and sanity of their son, Lorenzo (Zack O’Malley Greenburg). The boy, diagnosed in early 1984 as a victim of ALD, a brain degeneration for which there was no cure, is beyond the help of ordinary medicine. The couple refuses to take the advice of the doctors to accept the inevitable death of their little son and make him as comfortable as possible. They troll the Internet, assembling so much information that they come to know as much about the disease as the doctors. The latter come to resent the active participation of the pair, pushing back by telling them in effect, “You are laymen. Don’t bother us.” Of the two, Michaela proves to be the feistiest, Augusto at one point so tired that he briefly flags in his efforts. But not Michaela who, as fierce as a tigress defending her cubs, continues to fight against the doctors and even their support group whose members have accepted the defeatist medical advice. Together she and her husband contact scientists, look into experiments, and even set up an international symposium on the disease, eventually coming across a promising oil, at which point they persuade a British chemist to produce it. It is too late to cure their son, but he does regain some faculties (such as his sight)—and it helps the afflicted children of others even more. Michaela is cut from the same cloth as the wronged woman in Jesus’ parable of The Widow and the Unjust Judge who keeps knocking and yelling unto she gets her day in court.
Safe Passage (1994)
Maggie (Sarandon) and Patrick Singer (Sam Shepard), after raising seven sons, are going through a divorce. Having been confined to kitchen and laundry room for so many years, Maggie wants to launch out and take a job and earn her own paycheck. Patrick has his own problems, periodically going blind due to psychological reasons. In a telling exchange Maggie says, “Patrick, for 25 years you have been dunking your tea bag exactly 7 times and throwing it in the sink. Who do you think throws that tea bag in the garbage?” “Where’s the garbage?” is her clueless husband’s reply. Then comes word that on the Middle Eastern Marine base where their son Percival is stationed a terrorist has set off a bomb. They cannot reach him when they call. Patrick and all six of the other sons rush home, and the rest of the film deals with their interaction. The plot, giving space enough to establish the character of each of the sons, as well as the parents, is complicated, even contrived in places, but the cast members, and especially Susan Sarandon, are so good that one allows oneself to be swept along. I love the summation of the film given by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat in their review in Spirituality and Practice: “Safe Passage is a valentine to mothers who have fought the good fight and kept the faith in all the messes and miseries of family life.”
Little Women (1994)
When this remake of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel came out, I doubted the need for another version when both the 1933 and the 1949 ones were so good. (In 1933 Katherine Hepburn played Jo, and Spring Byinton was Marmee. In 1949 it was June Allison and Mary Astor in those respective parts. Pretty great casting!) However, Susan Sarandon’s depiction of Marmee soon cast aside all doubts, delivering with gusto such lines as, “Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.” No wonder that at least one of her girls, Jo, would become the convention-challenging rebel! What daughter ever received such a wonderful maternal blessing as Marmee’s, “Oh, Jo. Jo, you have so many extraordinary gifts; how can you expect to lead an ordinary life? You’re ready to go out and – and find a good use for your talent. Tho’ I don’t know what I shall do without my Jo. Go, and embrace your liberty. And see what wonderful things come of it.” Few families in Concord Mass. in the 1860s whose husband/father was off fighting in the Civil War could have coped so well on their own as the March women. Even today Mrs. March’s cautionary advice to her daughters is just as relevant as in the male-dominated Victorian era, “If you feel your value lies only in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind.”
The Client (1994)
Although this film is based on a John Grisham legal/crime thriller, Susan Sarandon’s lawyer Reggie Love is a mother. We just don’t see her children because years earlier she had lost custody of them. I don’t recall the reason—probably her drinking problem. Nevertheless when 11 year-old Mark Sway comes to her for help, all her maternal instincts rise to the surface. He is witness to another lawyer’s death and confession about a mobster client and the location of the body the man had murdered. The Feds, the local prosecutor, and the mobster all want to get at the boy. But against such a formidable person as Reggie, armed with her reawakened maternal instincts, they don’t stand a chance.
Jackie (Sarandon) and Luke (Ed Harris), parents of 12-year-old Anna and 7-year-old Ben, are divorced. When he becomes serious about professional photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts), Jackie is resentful and fearful. She does not think that career-oriented Isabel is the right person for the children, and Isabel believes that Jackie is spoiling them. Every time the children spend time with their father and his live-in girlfriend, Jackie worries about the children’s safety, especially after a couple of incidents that could have endangered the two. The two women enter into what amounts to a heated contest for “Best Mom” role, with Anna and Ben caught in the middle. Then comes the news that Jackie has terminal cancer. She and Isabel now must learn to trust one another and get along for the sake of the children. Although by no means a great film, the performances by the two actresses are great, turning it into a riveting experience for viewers! Even with her days limited, Jackie’s focus is upon providing for the future of her children, and not catering to her own comfort.
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
This really is Tommy Lee Jones’s film, Ms. Sarandon’s role as his wife and mother of a missing son being a supporting one. It is Jones’ Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer, who leaves home to find out what has happened to their younger son Mike, a veteran of Iraq who is reported AWOL from his base in New Mexico. Still, even in the background, Ms. Sarandon perfectly embodies the anxious mother worried about the fate of their one remaining son—the older one, also a soldier, had died in a training accident. She might be in the background, but you are well aware of her presence, seen or unseen. For people of faith the scene in which Hank tells the story of David and Goliath to a boy at bedtime will be of interest—and of course, gives rise to the title, the Valley of Elah being the scene of David’s victory over the giant.
Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)
We end this survey on a light note, Susan Sarandon playing the Baton Rouge working widow Sharon putting up with her 30 year-old slacker son Jeff (Jason Segel) living in the basement of her house. Again, hers is but a supporting role, the majority of the screen time given over to the madcap adventures of Jeff and his married brother Pat traipsing after and spying on the latter’s wife Linda whom he suspects is cheating on him. We marvel at Sharon’s patience in dealing with a son who, on her birthday, manages to bungle the simple chore she sends him out to accomplish, the purchase of glue for fixing a broken shutter. While her two sons are getting into all kinds of trouble, Mom encounters a mystery. At the warren of little office cubicles where she works someone is sending her love notes via email. She begins to look at all of her coworkers with renewed interest, but is not prepared for the revelation that is to come.
What a film legacy of strong screen mothers Ms. Sarandon has bequeathed us! The image of the sometimes fiercely protective, other times tender, mother played by Ms. Sarandon could be used as a metaphor for God. This is how the prophet Hosea (13:8) described God, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” The tough tenderness of Marmee also appears in the same prophet’s little book when he depicts God as declaring, “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
It is interesting that our culture celebrates motherhood more than fatherhood, and yet our popular theology’s view of God still is closer to that of the male-oriented Biblical times. It would be appropriate during this season of Mother’s Day to check out some other passages in which God is shown in female terms:
1. Genesis 1:26-27: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Quite a different image of God and the creation of humans from that of the more male-chauvinist second Creation Story in Genesis 2!
2. Deuteronomy 32:11-12: “the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share. He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him… “
3. Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
4. Jesus treated women with a new sense of dignity and equality seldom seen before, and as he neared Jerusalem on his final journey, he used a feminine simile to express his sorrow over the city’s lack of belief in him as the Son of God, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
(For even more such passages see Dr. Margo G. Houts’ excellent article “FEMININE IMAGES FOR GOD: WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY? At http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm
Mother’s Day is a secular holiday long embraced by the church. So celebrate it with a good movie and the thought that there might even be some theological ramifications in them.
Note: The title linkages take you to my reviews, or, for films that I have not reviewed, to the Imdb page for more information on the film.