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CHICAGO - Susan Sarandon doesn't make a point of talking politics these days, but the subject tends to track her down anyway, sometimes in the form of hecklers in New York's Greenwich Village.
"The other night, I came out of a restaurant on Christopher Street, the last place you'd expect to see a carload of young guys shout out the window, `Hey, Susan, you're a terrible American. We hate you. You should die,'" the 59-year-old actress recalled earlier this month while in town for the Chicago International Film Festival's tribute to her and screening of her latest film, "Elizabethtown."
Sarandon was part of a vocal but small minority arguing against a U.S. invasion of Iraq before that war's March 2003 start. This stance earned her and life partner Tim Robbins ridicule and worse on radio and TV gab fests, and it prompted the Baseball Hall of Fame to cancel a 15th anniversary screening of "Bull Durham," which stars the two actors.
Now polls show that a majority of Americans wish the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, so Sarandon feels somewhat vindicated, though "I'm not happy to have been right." She's also still feeling the effects of those days when criticism of the war was labeled unpatriotic.
"Let me tell you, this is a great country, and despite the death threats that I got, despite this wave of hatred that was coming from the shock jocks and the mail and everything, I don't think that I ever really felt that I would lose work or that I would lose my life," she said. "But there's an incredible sense of loneliness when you're isolated like that, when you see your name across the front of a paper as a `Bin Laden lover' or ..."
She paused, her piercing eyes filling with tears. She took a sip of water. When she resumed talking, her voice was a cracked whisper:
"I think the worst thing is when they pick on your kids. And you understand why nobody else wants to go through that, really. But at the same time you can't not ask the questions. ... (My kids) were terrified. Our phone was tapped. But at least I think they know in hindsight when this will be history that you do what you have to do."
At least her extended family was spared. Oh, wait a sec ...
"My nephew's in New Jersey, and his teacher says she'd like to knock my teeth out," Sarandon said. "They don't even know that he's my nephew because he doesn't have the same last name. Or my sister's in Virginia, and her kid's in a play, and the teacher comes up and says,
I hope your sister's not going to show up for this because we won't let her in.' (Stuff) like that, you think,Whoa, what is coming down?'"
Meanwhile, the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post hit closer to home, which happens to be in Manhattan.
"They had an article about one of my sons in the Post, which is such a horrible paper," she said. "They've written a number of things that have been untrue about us, but they wrote an article about my - what was he in 8th grade or 7th grade, so what is he, 12? - that he dropped out of this play because his part wasn't big enough. Which wasn't true. Who would care? Who would find that newsworthy except my son, his classmates and my family?"
Conservative filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd, who co-wrote the "Fahrenheit 9/11" response film "Celsius 41.11," said Sarandon shouldn't have been surprised by the backlash.
"Coming from someone who gets beat up all the time for having views that are unpopular, in my daily life, the reality is if you're going to inject yourself into a debate of inflamed passions you've got to expect to get hit by some body blows, and she did," he said, adding: "It's a mistake to think that the conduct of the war will change people's attitudes toward what somebody said or did at an earlier time."
Still, Sarandon's career doesn't appear to have suffered. Last year she appeared in three films: "Alfie," "Shall We Dance" and "Noel." Aside from "Elizabethtown," in which she plays the newly widowed mother of Orlando Bloom's protagonist, this year's output has included the upcoming John Turturro-directed wiggy-serious musical "Romance and Cigarettes" (which played at the Toronto International Film Festival) and the TV movie version of the drama "The Exonerated." She has two more movies in the can.
"I think the good news and the bad news is Hollywood's not political," Sarandon said. "The only thing they punish you for is getting old and fat. I think if they think you can bring people in, they'll hire you. ... There were people that had an organized boycott against me and against George Clooney at the beginning of asking these questions, and it seemed to go away."
Robbins and Sean Penn even won Oscars, for best supporting actor and best actor for "Mystic River," almost exactly a year after the invasion, so the industry clearly is not punishing its more outspoken actors. To Sarandon, the problem is "much more subtle than that, and it's much more devious than that. What they say is if these famous people can be chastised, think of what can happen to you. ...
"That's the most damaging thing, and I think that's still going on. People are afraid to ask questions. If you ask questions about, even recently in Louisiana, then people said, `Listen, don't be divisive now. We need to band together. Don't ask questions. Don't politicize this issue.' Trying to find out a way for people to take responsibility for what happened isn't politicizing the event."
Many of the attacks on Sarandon, Robbins and Penn hit on their status as celebrities taking political stands. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's puppet satire "Team America: World Police" worked up more bile against these so-called Hollywood liberals - all three are portrayed as ridiculous puppets - than anyone actually in decision-making positions.
Actor Ron Silver, who helped launch the progressive Creative Coalition with Sarandon and Robbins but has been a vocal supporter of the Iraq war, supported the couple's outspokenness. "They do their homework, and if they can draw attention to their point of view, I think it's a legitimate use of their celebrity," Silver said.
But Lester Friedman, media and society professor at Hobart William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, called Sarandon's celebrity "a double-edged sword," in part because people have conflicting ideas of how stars should behave on and off screen. "A feisty Louise (from `Thelma and Louise') on the screen is very different from a feisty Louise at the dinner table," he said. "That distance isn't there anymore. Things we can applaud in that character, when we see that intrude into our daily lives, it becomes a very different reaction."
Sarandon said she felt like she was in a double bind as the news networks specifically requested her to appear, "especially in the beginning there weren't that many people (opposing war), and there were certainly no women. ... They'd ask you to go on CNN, and you'd say,
Well, how about if I bring on (former weapons inspector) Scott Ritter' or,I've got to bring on this person or that person' - no, they wouldn't take them on. So they want you to come on, but then they damn you for doing it.
"Then you get in these crazy situations where you're on split screen with people, and you say something, and then Tucker Carlson comes on and says, `That's completely not true,' and he's in another studio, and you can't respond because your mic's not on."
So Sarandon said she's happy now to let other people raise questions about the war. In the meantime, no, the Baseball Hall of Fame hasn't rescheduled its "Bull Durham" tribute.
Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey, who wrote in a letter to Robbins, "We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important - and sensitive - time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S. position," declined comment for this story.
WHEN THE KIDS ARE WATCHING
The Chicago International Film Festival wasn't the first group to fete Susan Sarandon for her impressive career. The Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a Sarandon tribute in spring 2003, "when everyone was canceling me from events in the lead-up to the war."
Although she loved that event, she hadn't considered the impact on her kids of watching snippets of some of her more sexually explicit films.
"As these clips were playing, my children, who had never seen anything, would get to
White Palace,' and I'd think,Oh, my God, now it's coming.' Or `The Hunger.' They didn't show anything too explicit, but any time even a hint of sexuality came, my child who was about 13 or 12 would turn to me like" - she made a dropped-jaw face - "and then my little guy who was three years younger than that was kind of all agog.
"And when it was over, my eldest son said,
Did it never occur to you that you would have children?' And my youngest said,It was great, Mom, but scarring.'"
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.