18. Susan Sarandon as Sally Matthews in "Atlantic City" (1980, released in the USA in 1981)
For a time, Susan Sarandon and the great Louis Malle were lovers, and I don’t think that could be more obvious than in Atlantic City – from the first shot of the film, it’s as if he wants us to be in love with her, too. We’re seeing her from a distance, through a lens – not only through the camera’s eyes, but also through those of Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), an aging never-was of a gangster who’s been reduced to a daydreamer. The film’s now famous establishing shot involves Sarandon bathing herself, almost ritualistically, in lemons: she pierces through them with her knife, reaches her arms in front of her, and squeezes the juice on her hands, rubbing it all over her chest. We’re supposed to wonder what she’s doing, why she’s doing it, but we aren’t given direct answers until later – for now, though, she’s wondrous. There’s something so weirdly erotic about watching her, but she and Malle never make us feel guilty or lecherous – rather, we’re intrigued.
Soon, we learn her name is Sally Matthews; she works part-time at an oyster bar in Atlantic City, and, when she isn't busy with that, she’s taking card-dealing classes. Sally’s from Canada – a place called Saskatchewan – and she’s one half of a failed marriage; she’s doing her best to get away from her husband, a drug-dealer who’s come to Atlantic City to find her. It’s a city that’s crumbling, riding the coattails of past glory much like Lou is; for Sally, though, this city serves a purpose – she’s here so she can better realize her dreams. She wants to become a croupier, and eventually to go to Monte Carlo, but there always seems to be something in the way of her goals; right now, it’s her husband. Sally’s sort of atypical within the context of this film in the sense that, while Lou’s trying to get closer to his past, in the hopes that he’ll be able to relive it, Sarandon’s Sally is instead always edging further and further away from her personal history, always trying to escape it. For now, she’s looking for some sort of way to chase after her dreams in peace, without any interruptions from her former self.
Of course, this way arrives in the form of Lou, a fellow dreamer – and, for a time, each becomes the other’s companion. At first, she’s a little alarmed by his attraction to her – she’s fearful of letting anyone this close – but that hesitation disappears. She needs his protection, she tells him – she wants to learn from him. And so begins a period in which they both live under the supervision of each other, away from reality, if only for a moment; it’s as if they’re soul mates.
Nearly all of Louis Malle’s films have some sort of underpinning of eroticism, yet Atlantic City is so poetically erotic, so strangely sensual compared to some of his other films, and that’s part of what makes it a masterpiece; what’s more, though, is that Malle knows exactly how to use Sarandon, where to use her, so much that we realize she’s part of Lou’s dream. She represents to him that beautiful, tacitly doe-eyed woman every true gangster should have on his arm. In turn, Lou is, for her, the experienced, mannered gentleman who can teach her everything she needs to know about making a name for herself.
But is Lou really the one protecting Sally? As she’s written on the page, Sally is supposed to be some ignorant bimbo from Canada – Sarandon had a way of always being cast as these dumb, slightly stupid women early in her career – but what Sarandon does here is instead transcend these limits, interpreting her character to be something more than what’s written for her. Behind this one-note exterior is a certain level of intelligence, of life experience – Atlantic City itself is, after all, a city of shared experiences, where each person has some sort of personal history that’s brought them there – that Sarandon brings to her Sally. She’s seen more of the world than Lou has, and only in Atlantic City – a bubble, really – has she gotten away from what she finds so stifling.
What makes Sarandon so exciting, then, is that we get the feeling that she’s hiding something from us – she’s a much smarter performer than anyone expects her to be. Sally’s a quick thinker – we see her deftly, almost snappily dealing with the frustrations of her past with each person she talks to – when we don’t see it coming. Sarandon so expertly blankets these street-smarts behind the innocence of her wide-eyed gazes, her easy blank stares, that we don’t realize what she’s doing – she creates a character with the gift of such an easy, natural performer. It’s almost weird, quite frankly, to see Sarandon before she really became the Susan Sarandon we know her as today – here, it’s almost as if she’s playing against type. Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t the husky-voiced Susan Sarandon we’ve become so familiar with – she wasn’t always a good actress, either – but instead someone who had a much shriller, higher voice, much like Jane Fonda’s pre-1969.
In this film, what's more is that Sarandon has the ability to keep us in tune with her emotions whenever she's on screen, all the time – so much that she never lets us lose touch with Sally. Through these furtive glances, naturalistic mannerisms, or subtle gestures, we’re able to know exactly what Sally’s feeling; we’re able to get a better picture of her dreams, what she feels for Lou, how she perceives the world she lives in, and, most importantly, why she wants to escape it all. Each turn of her head is so delicate, each gaze of hers so soft, that, for a moment in time, we realize why Lou, Malle, and so many others are so obsessed with her.
Here, Sarandon’s redefining our notions of the archetypical American dreamer. Her Sally yearns for some sort of more complex, dreamlike life, devoid of any of the mundane challenges her current one’s giving her, but she isn’t deluded. It’s a performance I’m so glad the Academy recognized – it was indeed a surprise nomination – because the achievement is so artistically satisfying. Her work’s filled with these brilliantly-etched moments – there's one scene where she breaks down near a construction site, and another in which Burt Lancaster delivers this mesmerizingly poetic “I watch you” monologue – that not only function well individually, but, too, serve to create a deepening sense of who Sally is as the film goes on. But we don't realize what she's doing. It’s only after the credits have rolled that Sally Matthews – bathing herself in lemons, staring wide-eyed at Lou as she undresses, telling him he saved her life – starts to inhabit our minds.