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Susan Sarandon’s Got a Pretty Wonderful Life.

Robin Abcarian is a Southern California Living assistant editor whose last piece for the magazine was on fashion designer James Galanos

Susan Sarandon is what you might call a walking oxymoron.

She “has a special knack for harmonizing contradictions,” a movie critic once wrote. “She can be larger than life, and yet always seems to have a grip on reality,” says a producer who has worked with her. “She is reality based,” a best friend says, “and at the same time magical.”

This makes for a life that is wonderful but not always comfortable. Sarandon is the eldest of nine children, a good Catholic girl who grew up assigned to the task of making nice, smoothing the rough edges around her. She also is the auteur of one of the most memorable Academy Awards disruptions in recent years, a moment during which, she recently acknowledged, she was so terrified that she could barely breathe.

She’s an A-list movie star but seems so unthreatening that we’d never wish for her what we secretly might hope for the likes of Sharon Stone or Catherine Zeta-Jones: a few wrinkles here, a few pounds there, a box-office bomb. Susan Sarandon is just too normal to be the target of our envy-driven ill wishes.

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We like her because she’s got a man, three kids, a real domestic life, all of which seems to complete her. We like her because she’s lovely to look at, with those big, wide-set eyes and that button nose. And we like her because she isn’t perfect: Sure, her eyes are remarkable and her breasts are legendary, but her legs are spindly and her smile is two rows of tiny childlike teeth. (Julia Roberts, with her huge gleaming smile, looked like a member of the British royal family next to Sarandon in last year’s five-hankie “Stepmom.”)

Sarandon does not intimidate; she comforts and inspires.

“You don’t feel jealous of her,” says Lynn Cohen, a friend of 20 years. “Women feel it. She is this soothing big mama. She is not this competitive bitch.”

We sense all this, but there’s another, more fundamental attraction. We like Sarandon because she’s still sexy. She gives women hope.

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You’d have thought 45-year-old Rene Russo invented the over-40 topless scene when she briefly took it off in this summer’s “The Thomas Crown Affair.” (“Fortysomething Else!” gushed People magazine). But Sarandon--who this month turned 53, an age at which the culture demands a kind of sexual death for its actresses--has been celebrating middle-aged sexuality for more than a decade (“Bull Durham” anyone?). And she’s still going strong. She appeared topless in “Illuminata,” a small, arty film by John Turturro that came and went in August, about the struggles of a small theater troupe at the turn of the century. She played an aging diva based on Sarah Bernhardt. And, she says, in some ways, an aging diva is what she is.

“I don’t feel like a diva that much, but yeah. The question is whether you can find a way that aging means something constructive. I am not looking forward to losing my jaw line.” On the other hand, “I don’t want to sound too old-hippie-ish, but you have to really try to find your light from inside.”

That was her struggle during the making of “Dead Man Walking” in 1995 as she prepared to play Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who ministers to Sean Penn’s death-row inmate. She put on weight, wore dowdy clothes and no makeup. She found her light, and something else: For her least glamorous, most downright sexless role, Hollywood rewarded her with a Best Actress Oscar.

It’s the pinnacle of achievement for any actor. But for Sarandon, who had already been nominated four other times since 1981 and was devastated when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked her performance in “Bull Durham,” the only appropriate response was: about time.

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In interviews, sarandon is cordial and talkative and eager to promote her projects, but she makes it clear she’d rather be elsewhere. “I’m not that interested in talking about myself,” she says. (Give her points for being consistent. In 1981, she told a newspaper reporter: “I already know what I think, so why would I be interested in reading it in print?”)

And don’t expect her to dish about her relationship with Tim Robbins, her longtime boyfriend and father of her two sons.

She was burned, she says, by some of the stories that appeared while she promoted “Dead Man Walking,” which was directed by Robbins. She told one interviewer: “We had, I’d say, between four and six days where we really couldn’t stand each other. It had very little to do with artistic differences. It had more to do with biorhythms or the moon or something.” To another, she said, “There are days I hate the way he eats his cereal but that’s part of the way we love each other.”

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It was this sort of remark that made things difficult at home. “You’re talking about something in the context of [the film], and then it comes out without the context, as if I am talking about the relationship,” says Sarandon, who met Robbins on the set of “Bull Durham” in 1987. And so, “I am not gonna talk about my personal relationship anymore, except in a generalized, philosophical way.”

She is, however, voluble on the subject of mothering their two boys, Jack Henry, 10, and Miles, 7, and her daughter Eva, 14, whose father is an Italian writer/director, Franco Amurri. She talks about weaning them from sugar and white flour and dairy products during the two months they spent in Vancouver this summer, taking her daughter to audition for plays, which kid looks like which parent, how she and Robbins decided to give their children veto power when fans ask the parents for autographs.

Even though they are unmarried, extremely rich and famous, Sarandon and Robbins seem to have a fairly conventional domestic arrangement. They live in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with a housekeeper but no nanny. Sarandon tries to work in New York during the school year and says she has taken cuts in pay to do so because filming there adds vastly to production costs. And when Robbins has a job during the summer (as he did in Vancouver, starring in Disney’s “Mission to Mars”), Sarandon tries not to work so the family can stay together. “I’m kinda the glue,” she says.

“I think that no matter how liberated you are, there’s a certain conditioning that women fall victim to, as well as men, that even if you have a career or whatever, it’s still your job to make sure the grocery shopping’s done, the toilet paper roll’s replaced. But then there are things that he does . . . I couldn’t play hockey with the kids for six hours.”

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She shrugs off their age difference. (Sarandon is a dozen years older than Robbins.) “A lot of my friends, not just Tim, are all different ages, but they tend to be people I think of as so eccentric or so ageless. I mean, Gore Vidal, do you think of him as being a certain age? He’s so funny and so original. And Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen [both of whom wrote music for “Dead Man Walking”]. Bruce is of my generation, so there’s some things we have in common, but I don’t think of Eddie as being immature or younger. I think of him as being fun and thoughtful. . . . And then, there are guys in my generation who are just lightweights. Intellectually, age hasn’t done a thing for them.”

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Sarandon brings her trademark mix of sexual swagger and vulnerability to the screen next month in an adaptation of Mona Simpson’s critically acclaimed 1986 novel “Anywhere But Here.” Her character, the desperate-to-be-upwardly-mobile Adele August, mortifies her sober-minded teenage daughter (Natalie Portman) with her tight pedal pushers, off-the-shoulder sweaters and flamboyant delusions about their place in the universe. It’s another perfect vehicle for the star of such movies as “Bull Durham,” in which she played an English professor who mentored one minor league baseball player per season on the finer points of sex and literature; 1991’s “Thelma & Louise,” the all-girl road movie that made her into a feminist icon; 1980’s “Atlantic City,” in which Sarandon, as an oyster bar waitress, demonstrated the sensual potential of lemons by rubbing them on her breasts; and 1978’s “Pretty Baby,” her turn as the self-absorbed mother of a 12-year-old prostitute in early 20th century New Orleans.

It’s also about as unsympathetic a role as she has played lately (you really can’t count “Stepmom” because her character was dying). Adele August rips her child away from an extended family in Wisconsin because she firmly believes Beverly Hills has got to be better. She plunders her pension to buy a Mercedes but can’t pay the electric bill.

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“Susan,” says Robbins, “has the character to go to that place where she isn’t sympathetic.”

“Some of my friends who read it didn’t like her and said, ‘You don’t want to play this,’ ” says Sarandon. But Adele intrigued her, and not least because her own daughter, Eva, was about to turn 14. “It’s great to practice before the crisis actually is in your house.”

“Here’s a woman,” says Sarandon, “who wants all the wrong things for all the right reasons. She wants her daughter to have something else, something better, and if it means being in denial in a major way, then that’s what she does in order to have the courage to go to the next place. . . . And I take this as my parenting guide--that as long as your kids know you’re operating from love, they’ll forgive you, if you can make it clear that you’re trying your best and that you’re flawed.”

Maybe Sarandon’s kids would forgive her, but most people’s kids would probably end up on a therapist’s couch complaining about toxic parenting. Perhaps it’s this reservoir of optimism--and belief in the power of good intentions--that made Sarandon so right for the part.

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“There are so few good roles for women Susan’s age,” says Wayne Wang, who directed “Anywhere But Here.” “Sigourney Weaver, Sally Field, Meryl Streep, all of them wanted to do it.” Sarandon, he thought, had the right combination of bullheadedness and fragility. Wang knew that Sarandon had a nervous breakdown in her 20s, and “I was instinctively encouraging her to feel that. I just sensed a part of Susan that’s a little bit crazy, a little out there, this edgy, mismatched thing.”

Her breakdown, for which she was hospitalized, came on the heels of her performance as Janet, the virgin/slut in the 1975 camp classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“It’s not that interesting for me to talk about, but basically at a certain point in your life, everybody has to find a way, as Blanche Dubois would say, to ‘hold onto your magic,’ and at the same time accept the world as it is. Grow up, admit that love does not conquer all, that the world is not fair--all these things that in a way render you with much less control. If you think good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, if you’ve been raised within a certain kind of religion where if you do everything right then you’ll be rewarded, at a certain point you have to come to grips with what you’re really experiencing in the world.”

Years later, she’d have to relearn the lesson big studio-style when she arrived in the States from Italy to make “The Witches of Eastwick” with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher. She’d been hired to play Alex, the earthy sculptor, but was informed that she would be playing Jane, the mousy cellist, a less significant role. (Cher played Alex.)

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“That was a tough one,” she says. “But that was quite a lesson because I really felt as if I went from just sobbing every single day, feeling humiliated, to finding a way to sever whatever ego involvement was there.” Meanwhile, she had to learn to play the cello in two weeks, she says, and was given no wardrobe. “Thank God, Cher got me all these castoffs from the Sonny and Cher show. . . . I learned a lot from that experience that I probably will never have to use again unless I am gunrunning or something.”

Sarandon attributes much of her current emotional balance to staying the hell away from Los Angeles and its studios. Although she has the kind of New Age/ex-hippie take on life one associates with California (she talks about astrology, psychics, swimming with dolphins, Timothy Leary, dropping acid, and reincarnation), she is, in fact, a New York kind of movie star. In Los Angeles, stars hide behind their 10-foot hedges and their smoky limo windows; they keep their sunglasses glued on even at night. New York movie stars hide in plain sight.

“She understands her place in the universe,” says production executive Anna Gross, friends with Sarandon since 1975. “She walks down the street as herself.”

Sarandon devotes a great deal of her private time to the generally left-wing political causes dear to her heart since college. She has been arrested during acts of civil disobedience for causes as disparate as ending the Vietnam War and homelessness, and saving historic theaters in New York from demolition. She was part of a group that filed suit against the Los Angeles Police Department in 1984, seeking to end the zealous surveillance practiced by the since-disbanded Public Disorder Intelligence Division. In 1991, she was vilified in public places for her opposition to the Persian Gulf War. Last March, she was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct during a demonstration after the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant shot by members of the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit. Charges were dropped.

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“I was in [jail] for seven hours this last time, which is a big hunk of your day,” she says. She brought her plastic handcuffs home to show her children.

She was in the news again earlier this month when she spoke at a rally protesting New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s threat to withhold city funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art for mounting a controversial exhibit.

Her most famous act of disobedience occurred at the Oscars in 1993, in front of an audience of a billion or so. She and Robbins, as presenters, took about 30 seconds to decry the internment at Guantanamo Bay of Haitians afflicted with AIDS; the Haitians were subsequently released. She says that taking a political stand on the Oscars show (or having “peed on the carpet,” as Charlton Heston put it memorably in an essay for The Times) was difficult for her. “A good little Catholic girl like me, getting up there and not doing what you’re supposed to do and stopping the show with people screaming at you in the wings, was really, really hard. I could barely talk. I couldn’t get air.”

If this confession comes as a surprise from a woman who has never seemed averse to using her stardom to advance her politics, perhaps it makes sense in the context of her childhood.

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Sarandon says she grew up shy and devout in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools. “I was very spacey, kind of in my head, dreamy and really concerned with my faith and being a good person. When things would go off, it was shocking to me because I was trying so hard and something about me just got on everybody’s nerves.”

Sarandon was already out of the house when her parents divorced. Her mother, Lenora Tomalin, lives in Florida. Her father, Phillip “Les” Tomalin, who had lived in Maine for many years, died this year at 82. He was a big band singer and a director/producer in the early days of television, and ended up a vice president for Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency.

“I didn’t have a good relationship with my mom,” says Sarandon, “but I think it would kill her if I went into it.” Her father, she says, was “very eccentric and very loved and very difficult.” Her siblings are scattered in the East and South, and occasionally she has called on them or their children to help care for her brood when she is working.

At Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., she met Chris Sarandon, a drama student and aspiring actor. She was 20 when they married in 1967. (The marriage ended in 1979.) On a trip to New York with her husband, who was looking for work, she so impressed a casting agent that she was sent to read for the bleak 1970 movie “Joe.” She got the part: a hippie daughter accidentally killed by her uptight businessman father after he falls into a bizarre buddy relationship with a working class bigot played by Peter Boyle.

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Her wide-eyed sexual awakening in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” guaranteed that she’d be employed in years to come, but it wasn’t until 10 years later, in “Compromising Positions” (a black comedy about a Long Island housewife who becomes obsessed with the murder of a local dentist), that she had what has been called her first “bona fide” starring role. “The Witches of Eastwick” came a couple of years later but the experience, as she says, was miserable. Even worse, the movie didn’t do well. When “Bull Durham” came to her attention, she was about to turn 40 and not even on a list of possibilities to play Annie Savoy. This was a part, she says, for which she “groveled.” She paid her way from Italy, where she was with Franco Amurri, to read for director Ron Shelton and then, the story goes, she flounced through the hallways of Orion Pictures, making friends and influencing detractors. “She’s never forgotten the power of a red-and-white striped dress in a hallway full of men,” Shelton once remarked to a reporter.

Three years later, Sarandon would achieve icon status in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster “Thelma & Louise.” The theme of that movie--victimized women taking back the night--struck a nerve that was completely unexpected. Women still tell her, she says, how the film changed their lives. And it certainly changed hers--her new fame brought better roles, although there have been inevitable concessions to her age.

In the past half-dozen years, Sarandon has played an assortment of inspiring mothers on screen: the fierce she-wolf in “Lorenzo’s Oil,” the repentant lawyer who has lost her children because of addiction in “The Client,” the mother of seven boys in “Safe Passage,” the mother of four girls in “Little Women” and, of course, the dying mother who grudgingly puts the emotional health of her children first in “Stepmom.”

It may be tempting to point to these maternal roles as proof that even the sexiest 50-something actress eventually must confront the American aversion to aging female sexuality. But there are signs that today’s 50-plus-year-olds are not about to allow Hollywood, or Madison Avenue, or any other wellspring of popular culture to declare the sexual death of the Baby Boom. Sarandon was the cover girl for Modern Maturity’s recent sex issue, included in the “Steam Heat” category with James Brolin and Richard Gere.

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“She is one of the very few American actresses whose 50s--and more--might hold marvels,” wrote David Thomson in “A Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

Sarandon has occasionally joked that she sees herself as a “designated hitter for older ovaries,” which is a glib way of saying that she offers the culture something more profound. As she treads gently into late middle age--looks, fame, sense of humor intact--you’d have to say that she offers something out of the range of the average aging female movie star. You’d have to say she offers hope.

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Styled by Jennifer Crawford/Sydney Represents; hair: Keith Carpenter/Artists by Timothy Priana; makeup: Genevieve/ Sally Harlor; gray beaded dress by Vivienne Tam, Dolce & Gabbana black pants from Barneys New York, pearl earrings from Ten Thousand Things, New York City

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