Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1995: Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking

Susan Sarandon plays a nun who forms an unlikely friendship with a young man who is on death row for the brutal slaying of two teenagers. Though she is disgusted, both by what he did and by his attitude, and heavily criticized by people she knows, the media, and especially the parents of his victims, she holds firm in her belief that every human being deserves love and respect.

This movie kind of reminds me of previous Best Actress winner I Want to Live! except in that movie it was the woman who was on death row. While I think Dead Man Walking is unquestionably a better movie overall, I found Susan Hayward's performance in I Want to Live! much more remarkable than Susan Sarandon's in this. Not that Sarandon's performance is bad; it's just mostly overshadowed by Sean Penn's incredible, Oscar-nominated (but not -winning) performance as the man on death row. I don't really like Sean Penn, but I think that actually helped get the film's message across even more. He makes his character despicable but very human, and he steals almost every scene. If only one of them could win an Oscar, it definitely should have been him.

That being said, Sarandon's performance is still pretty impressive. She very effectively portrays her character's internal struggle between wanting to only help and support "good people" and trying to follow Jesus' example as a friend to sinners. Often when movies portray a character like this, they make "love thy neighbor" look effortless, at least for that character, but this movie effectively shows how truly difficult that can be. She also could have erred on the side of too arrogant, as if she's only befriended this convict to show what a good nun she is, but instead she mostly seems confused and conflicted, like she's pretty sure she's doing the right thing, but not positive. This makes her much more relatable than most religious movie characters, which prevents the audience - or at least this audience member - from siding with the people who criticize her for showing kindness to such a man.

I want to say more about her performance, but I can't think of much else. This was the first time I'd ever seen this movie, and I was too distracted by the intriguing story, Penn's performance, and the fascinating camera work to pay too close attention to Sarandon's performance, despite my best efforts. Her performance is good, certainly, but there are other aspects of the film that are much better, or at least much more engaging. I definitely don't think she deserved to win the film's only Oscar, but once again, nobody asked me.

So far, Susan Sarandon has been nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Actress, with Dead Man Walking as her most recent nomination. Prior to that, she was nominated for 1980's Atlantic City, 1991's Thelma & Louise, 1992's Lorenzo's Oil, and 1994's The Client. I still mostly think of her as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the evil queen in Enchanted, which made it kind of weird to see her playing a nun. Anyway, she's still working a lot, so she could potentially get nominated again, although she's also pushing 70 and hasn't been nominated for 20 years, so it seems unlikely. But you never know.

Coming up next: Frances McDormand

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