If Clark Gable were to return to Hollywood, he’d never get ahead playing the heterosexual stiff who muddles through Gable and Lombard. The aberrant roles that count for an actor these days are more likely to be found in Masters and Johnson. Consider what’s happening to Chris Sarandon. In his first movie role as Al Pacino’s homosexual “wife” in Dog Day Afternoon, Sarandon was on screen for only 11 minutes, but was so convincing as the fluttery transvestite that he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor. Not that he’s about to be typecast in swishy roles, however. In the forthcoming Lipstick, Sarandon muddles up his sexual identity by playing the average, clean-cut psychopath next door who rapes Margaux Hemingway.
That kind of out-front sexuality has sent producers and talk-show hosts charging after Sarandon. But they’ll have to find him first. Sarandon, 33, is an elusive actor and free soul who holes up in a ramshackle, century-old house 40 miles north of New York City. And instead of being gripped by maniacal sex compulsions, Chris, who was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church, is in the eighth year of his sometime marriage to actress Susan Sarandon (The Front Page, The Great Waldo Pepper). “I’m determined not to get caught up in the hype other people are creating for me,” he explains of his reticence. “I’m not interested in revealing myself through the way I wash my clothes. I want to do it through my work.”
But when Chris got his movie break in Dog Day, many of his friends, even the homosexuals, thought he had, well, queered his acting career. “They told me I was wrong for it,” Chris says. “I guess they had this idealized macho image of me. But I answered back with the old line that you don’t have to be a heterosexual to play one.”
Sarandon prepared for his audition for Dog Day director Sidney Lumet by plucking his eyebrows and wearing makeup and heels—though in the movie he deliberately underplays the part. “Doing that role made me more secure with what I am as a person. I can sit the way I am now,” he says, neatly scissoring his legs, “without worrying about it. In my hometown, sitting like this would put you in a box marked fag.”
Sarandon’s original box was the West Virginia coal town of Beckley, where his Greek dad ran a restaurant called the Eatwell Cafe. Chris studied speech at the state university and went on to his master’s at Washington’s Catholic University, where he met and married Susan.
The two of them left college to plunge into the regional theater circuit and wound up acting in everything from Shakespeare to TV soaps. His was The Guiding Light; hers was Search for Tomorrow. He made it to Broadway in The Rothschilds; she made it to Hollywood in Joe. Chris and Susan live mostly apart now, though a divorce is nowhere in sight. They’re still friendly enough for Chris to pick her up routinely and take her into town in his nine-year-old Dodge to collect unemployment checks. “We are growing, comma, apart,” Chris explains carefully. “I don’t want people to misunderstand that.” Susan herself admits, “It’s confusing for those around us, but I’ve never ceased to love Chris. A lot of people just say it’s very Noel Coward.”
Unlike some Hollywood types who make a show of disdaining stardom, Chris freely allows that he wants to score and plans to travel across country with Susan later this month for the Academy Awards. (She jokes, “It’ll be the first prom we’ve been to in 10 years.”) Producer Freddie Fields, who worked with Sarandon on Lipstick, exults that “It’s as if Al Pacino’s father married Warren Beatty’s mother, and Chris was born.” Sarandon demurs. “To most people that’s flattering, but to me it’s limiting. I don’t know yet who I am, but I’m having a helluva good time finding out.”
Meantime, Chris putters around his old house and hacks away at a garden to supply his vegetarian meals. He’s also pondering new movie parts. But what’s next after playing a transsexual and a rapist? Sarandon himself seems to think that he’s exhausted the possibilities of sexual excess. Last fall he commuted to a New Jersey repertory company to play a priest.