The Cult of Actress Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City (1980)

*contains spoilers

My love of the actress Susan Sarandon (1946-) has always been based on a combination of her luminous brown eyes, her seemingly perfect breasts and her beautiful acting ability and persona.

I fell in love with Sarandon before she became political when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) while barely a teenager. Rocky Horror was a lesson in sexual corruption and Sarandon showed she could play an innocent who wants corruption … despite her past experienced performances on film. There was something about her as I mentioned… She looked almost nymphean and she could also sing and act. She has a certain physical vulnerability and also an inner strength which she has shown throughout her career. She is a woman I still admire to this day.

A young Susan Sarandon

I waited for her next release in great anticipation after I saw Rocky Horror and that film was by French director Louis Malle (1932-95 lymphoma) entitled Atlantic City (1980). It is a movie which opens with Sarandon cutting up lemons at her kitchen sink in her apartment after selling shellfish at an oyster bar at a casino in Atlantic City. Her neighbour secretly watches from an adjacent window in the apartment block as she washes away the perceived odour and caresses her bare breasts in a ritual she performs after each working day…

Atlantic City (1980) aka Atlantic City U.S.A. poster

The resonance of this voyeuristic scene is made all the more effective and beautiful through its handling by the director and by the fact an aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-35 dysentery) tragic opera Norma plays in the background. To watch it today as a much older man and I still find the same sensuality as I felt back when I first saw it. And as sex is hard to find as I grow less potent and age disgracefully, I begin to see it more appreciatively through the eyes of this much older man. This wasn’t pornography, it was beauty and, as a result, remains a fond memory of a classic movie moment. As the film critic Roger Ebert wrote, there is a certain dignity to the scene.

Actor Burt Lancaster (1913-94 heart attack) is the man watching from between the venetian blinds at his window as the film tells his tale within the titular city in the state of New Jersey which is undergoing rapid change at the beginning of the 1980s.

Susan Sarandon performs the ritual in Atlantic City …
….As Burt Lancaster watches

It is said that the movie inspired the song Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen and its lines: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

This is essential philosophy to a city which seems to have gone through the cycle of boom and bust and over and again… and it’s all due to the vice of gambling and the casinos associated with it over the past century. The words from Springsteen’s song also speak of the renewal of love and the vain hope that it might come back to the loser. It’s something which is against the odds for the torch carrying lover just like a win in the casinos, where Sarandon’s character is training to be a croupier, is also against the odds.

As she undertakes her training, Sarandon is warned by the manager, who deliberately spills a drink to make her take her eyes from the cards on the training table – that there are liars and cheats everywhere that will want to take advantage of her… And that goes for Atlantic City itself, even if they are only racketeers and businessmen out to make a quick and gigantic buck by building the casinos in the first place.

An Asian poster for Atlantic City sees money fly away
Sarandon’s seedy husband played by Robert Joy (left) and Lancaster as Lou become acquainted on the boardwalk

Sarandon seems to be taken advantage of constantly in this movie and it begins with the appearance of her pregnant sister and her ex-husband when they arrive together at her apartment. He’s a loser and amateur drug dealer who has ripped off a large amount of white powder and hopes to sell it in Atlantic City and make a killing just like any other businessman. But he is a seedy leftover hippie who has left a trail…

Sarandon’s character is kind of pure like the white powder he desires to take advantage of and that is reflected by the soprano’s voice from Norma which follows her along the boardwalk as it plays on her tape recorder in her handbag as she rushes to work. The filmmakers wanted to use the voice of Maria Callas (1923-77 heart attack) but had to settle for cheaper recordings.

Lancaster and Sarandon live in a tenement which is ear-marked for destruction, possibly to make way for a new casino. Here’s a quick history lesson about the history and abuse of Atlantic City: It was once a resort town which thrived during Prohibition (1919-33) thanks to its close proximity to the supply of booze over the border from Canada.

The original Monopoly game was based on Atlantic City… or America’s Playground
Actor Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire and the real ‘Nucky’ Johnson

Prohibition also saw the rise of racketeer and politician Enoch L. ‘Nucky’ Johnson (1883-1968 in a nursing home) who held a conference in Atlantic City in May 1929 for organised crime figures that created a national crime syndicate…. Lancaster’s character in the movie was involved on the periphery with these gangsters in a menial capacity. Fans of the tv show Boardwalk Empire will be familiar with the tales.

“We have wine and women and song… I won’t deny it and I won’t apologise for it… people want them,” said the real Nucky, who was later arrested and jailed for his unconventional business and political practices.  But for a time, Atlantic City thrived.

Such were the good times but by the end of World War Two, people preferred the comfort of suburbia and Florida to Atlantic City where the weather was freezing for around two thirds of the year and the place became a slum in areas as the population declined. But in 1976, New Jersey passed a referendum to allow casinos to be built only in Atlantic City and the place was touted as a possible rival to Las Vegas, Nevada, which was the only other state to allow gambling at the time.

The facade of the Playboy Hotel and Casino appears in the movie
Donald Trump at the Taj Mahal casino which he called “the eighth wonder of the world”

One of the first casinos to be built from scratch and which appears in the 1980 movie was the Playboy Hotel and Casino. It was almost finished around the time the movie Atlantic City was shot and this building and gambling boom eventually drew the attention of the businessman Donald Trump. He built and opened the Trump Taj Mahal Casino which he described upon its opening in 1990 as “the eighth wonder of the world”. Trump insisted it would make Atlantic City great again. You’ve got to remember that casinos make their money from the little people who play slot machines day in and day out… not just high rollers.

Trump’s company built another one called Trump Plaza which at the time was the biggest in the city’s history. Trump at one stage had three casinos which employed 8000 people. The businessman brought WrestleMania, which was at its height, to town in 1988 as a part of the circus and hype while the casinos provided the bread for its working citizens. It perhaps wasn’t his fault that Trump Entertainment Resorts ended up failing…

Trump Plaza closes and has since faced demolition
Signs Atlantic City once had the circus in town… and maybe it’s back again today…

Both the Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza ended up closing as gambling revenue fell sharply because surrounding states such as New York legalised gambling. By 2014, a third of Atlantic City’s casinos had closed and Trump’s company filed for bankruptcy. Poor Atlantic City and its citizens had seen another boom and near bust.

But it is the dreams of the losers and loners which abound in the city during the boom of 1980 which is addressed in the movie and the place which is about to be torn down is also the home for a bed-ridden former wife of a 1930s gangster – a moll and possibly a former prostitute – played by Kate Reid (1930-93 cancer). Her name is Grace while Lancaster’s is Lou – and Grace is the ace to Lou’s loser.

Canadian actress Kate Reid from The Andromeda Strain (1971) is Grace in Atlantic City (1980)
Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster inside a casino in Atlantic City (1980)
Lou is a loser and Grace is his ace in Atlantic City (1980)

They are remnants of a city haunted by similar spent characters as the dreams of American capitalism is shown to exist hand in hand with predatory traps for players that lure their potential victims with promises of sexy riches and a good time. The city is a tourist trap as well as a trap for those who live there. But you can dream, can’t you? … and Lancaster holds onto his masculinity, keeping himself potent and in shape despite the grey hair and the fact he runs errands for Grace to earn his keep. She calls him “numbnuts” in the film which was his nickname amongst the gangsters and their molls. Sarandon baring her breasts is the last vestige of his youth, the last chance of redemption in terms of being a lover in a city which once again holds some sort of promise.

Another poster for Atlantic City (1980)
French director Louis Malle had an interesting American career

Lancaster and Sarandon’s loser husband hook up together and the drug dealer uses Lou’s apartment to weigh and package his stolen drugs. Meanwhile there is a syndicate which has employed a couple of killers to finish this low-life off. Lancaster’s vision of himself is lifted by this new adventure and some money and after the ex-husband is murdered, he ingratiates himself in Sarandon’s life as he now has the money and the drugs left over by his acquaintance’s death.

There is an ingenious scene where the death of the old Atlantic City is announced along with its rebirth by the singer Robert Goulet (1933-2007 pulmonary fibrosis), who is promoting the donation of money at the hospital where Sarandon’s husband has been declared dead. Sarandon is on the pay-phone as Goulet sings: “Atlantic City, my old friend…” as she tries to phone the parents of her dead ex from the box. Goulet draws close to her in attraction and almost serenades her as she tries to tell her former in-laws that their son has been killed.

The Paul Anka penned song Atlantic City (My Old Friend) by Robert Goulet
Malle’s ‘strange’ scene from Atlantic City (1980)

This blend of glamour, Atlantic City, good intentions, crime, winners in the form of Goulet and losers in the form of the dead dealer, was described modestly by Malle in an interview as a ‘strange’ moment.

“Glad to see you born again…” sings Goulet, although there is no religion involved, except in terms of reincarnation – it’s strictly business. Generation after generation of movers and shakers make a fortune while the losers scramble and scavenge and live outside of the limelight. If there is any symbolism to Sarandon’s character it is the fact that she is a transitory individual whose dreams see her move on to the next city. Put that together with the transitory nature of Atlantic City at the time and you have a sense of that moment in time captured. This is something essential to masterpiece movies it seems.

This movie was the first time I had seen Burt Lancaster with grey hair and I thought it was so cool and bold of him to do so and feel he didn’t have to dye it anymore… He would go back to dying it for The Osterman Weekend (1983) a couple of years later.

Burt Lancaster (left) in a German lobby card for The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Sarandon as Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Bette Davis eyes!

“Lou, what’s got into you?,” asks Grace when he climbs into bed with her in the middle of the night and her eyes light up as she melts at his touch: “Lou.” Apart from Lancaster and Sarandon having sex in an earlier scene, which isn’t shown, this is another taboo in film and the reality of much older people apparently having sex, or the possibility of a sex life… It’s perhaps stomach turning for younger people to ponder the very possibility and still isn’t really shown to a great extent today.

“I watch you…,” Lancaster begins with his admission to Sarandon about the almost religious experience of the ritual with the lemons which leads to her seduction of him.

Director Malle shot the movie on location for five weeks and the rest of it in studios in Montreal. What began as a tax shelter for a group of wealthy Canadian dentists ended up producing a masterpiece instead of just a piece of exploitation junk which was intended.

Malle had wanted Robert Mitchum (1917-97 lung cancer and emphysema) for the role of Lou but Lancaster’s enthusiasm for the part won out.

A dying Henry Fonda nurses his Oscar
Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon in the controversial Pretty Baby (1978). Shields reports ‘no regrets’ about her nudity.

“A part like that, especially at my age, happens every ten years if I’m lucky,” Lancaster reportedly said and he probably would have won the Oscar for his portrayal if Henry Fonda (1905-82 heart disease) weren’t dying and won it instead for On Golden Pond (1981).

Director Malle had a habit of tackling taboo subjects. He and Susan Sarandon were an item for a period and they made Pretty Baby (1978) together with its depiction of child prostitution and the nudity of twelve-year-old actress Brooke Shields (1955-). Shields would also appear naked at fifteen in The Blue Lagoon (1980). Pretty Baby opens with Shields watching what we think is the sound of Sarandon in the throes of love-making when in reality she is giving birth. A possibly shocking moment quickly emerges as an intriguing opening to that movie which is otherwise unremarkable.

Sarandon snapped on a date with Malle
Promotional material for Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Malle got two Oscar nominations for his film Au revoir les enfants (1987) and his earlier French film Murmur of the Heart (1971) dealt with taboos such as masturbation, incest and touchy-feely priests. His best film apart from Atlantic City, in terms of his American output, was Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) which is the best adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya I have ever seen – even though it’s just actors doing a rehearsal of the play!

Atlantic City would be nominated for Oscars for Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. It won none. But tellingly, it tied with John Cassavetes’s (1929-89 cirrhosis) Gloria (1980) for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Both movies were too good for Oscar that year and didn’t fit into its popular parameters.

The film finally launched Sarandon into the critical stratosphere and there would be more Oscar nominations for her before she finally won one for Dead Man Walking (1995). The actress made her first appearance in the movie Joe (1970) and bares her breasts in the first scene of that film. But it was a combination of those eyes and her fragility, not just the fact she took her kit off.

Susan Sarandon is bisexual in The Hunger (1983)
One Summer Love (1976) poster

“She’s so old,” said someone years ago to me when I said my favourite actress was still Susan Sarandon and I never gave up hope she would eventually win an Oscar. She was even one of the first actresses to make bisexuality and lesbians seem glamourous and mainstream with her appearance in director Tony Scott’s (1944-2012 suicide by jumping off a bridge) stylish The Hunger (1983).

I guess Sarandon was always a naturally sexy actress and The Rocky Horror Picture Show sealed that for her. She made a film called One Summer Love (1976) about the relationship between a recently released mental patient played by Beau Bridges (1941-) and a young woman who serves at the candy bar at a small-town cinema.

It was only a cheap American-International movie and not a great one but her dialogue in one shoe-horned scene summed up her sexuality and her candour: “…We’re still pulling sex on one another if it’s some kind of dirty joke. Why we’re doing that is because we feel guilty…” And more insightful: “… Wouldn’t it be absolutely fantastic if we could all … have sex as openly as eating a cracker… Wouldn’t it be great if we could take off our clothes under the big blue sky and make love as freely and as innocently as the first day of paradise?” Well, yes.

But back to Atlantic City and the screenplay is the first by playwright John Guare (1938-) who would later find success with his play Six Degrees of Separation which was made into a movie starring Will Smith (1968-) in 1993.

Atlantic City (1980) trailer
A book about playwright John Guare

In the end, there’s no fool like an old fool, and Lancaster becomes a hero in his own eyes when he kills the killers who menace Sarandon for the remainder of the drug money. Lancaster then thinks that he and Sarandon will be a couple as they flee the city and his adolescent dream of being a real-life gangster and a lover is fulfilled. He reacts to the headlines on the television of the murders with an almost childish glee. Sarandon’s dreams lie elsewhere, such as taking some of the drug money and going to France to perhaps drink red wine… She steals some of the money from Lancaster’s wallet in a scene which has the movie come full circle, since the beginning of the story has a scene where Sarandon’s ex-husband steals from her wallet. This ode to the cycle of crime predicts, as well as celebrates, Atlantic City itself coming full circle in terms of boom and bust at the hand of mercenary businessmen. Poor Atlantic City with its transitory big dreams and broken ones.

Susan Sarandon seduces Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City (1980)
She finally got an Oscar for Dead Man Walking (1995)

There is a photo by famed American photographer Brian Rose (1954-), who published a book of images of Atlantic City in the wake of Trump’s departure, which shows the gulf that exists within the American Dream. It is a photo of the Pavel building, which at one stage was a casino, dwarfing some old houses in Atlantic City.

“It looks like the end of the world for me,” said Rose about this particular photo. “It looks like the death of the American Dream.”

It is reported that Trump once tweeted: “Does anyone notice that Atlantic City lost its magic after I left years ago.” Businessmen and leaders come and go. Perhaps they will be back.

Well, they already are, according to reports that gambling revenue is up again in Atlantic City that place once known as “America’s Playground” and a new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on the site of the old Trump Taj Mahal is apparently pulling them in as the city is once more born again. It’s good food and a show! Or bread and circuses to take the patrons’ minds off their gambling losses!! Others report say that the casinos remain vampires draining the city’s life-blood as locals spend on pokies and there is no real return otherwise.

The photographer called it The Death of the American Dream: a shot of some houses next to the Ravel casino in Atlantic City
Bread and circuses keep the masses happy and distract them from their misery
The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is now in Atlantic City to take your money

The movie Atlantic City is a snapshot of a new regime and people enjoying the American Dream while it is on the upswing, even if they are not all necessarily a part of it. Some are almost parasites, just like the vampiric casinos.

Lancaster flips a coin with Sarandon near the end of the film in a motel which will decide if she has a chance to escape under the pretence to getting something from the store… Sarandon calls and wins the toss, but Lancaster knows she has the money and he still may have lied about the toss as we never see the coin. He saves face with this ace and goes back to Grace to walk the boardwalk… This is the same coin we earn to live the dream in America or elsewhere and there are two sides to the coin, as well as the dream, its inadequacies and pitfalls disguised in a world of bread and circuses just like they were in ancient Rome. We fool ourselves gladly as we watch Atlantic City, because this movie is also a part of that dream and circus. You can bet or toss your bottom dollar on it.

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