I just saw a trailer for an upcoming Susan Sarandon flick, an indie called The Meddler. It played at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and will open in general release next month. Apparently the great Sarandon (a 1996 Oscar winner as a crusading nun in Dead Man Walking) here plays a widow who follows her grown daughter (Rose Byrne) to Los Angeles, in search of a new life for herself. Recent Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons is on hand to show her around SoCal on his Harley. It sounds like fun.
But, admittedly, I feel I’ve seen this movie before. Seems like in the past year every one of Hollywood’s aging leading ladies (with the notable exception of Meryl Streep) has taken on the role of a lonely widow -- or lonely spinster – who risks everything for love. The movies are hardly identical: they are all very much shaped by the personalities of their stars. And I’m glad that those stars are still, after all these years, able to find meaty roles. The generally underused Blythe Danner is luminous as a still-elegant widow romanced by Sam Elliott in I’ll See You in My Dreams. Lily Tomlin brings her cantankerous charm to bear on Grandma, a film that manages to contain some surprises (and, yes, Sam Elliott too). But I feel a nagging sorrow that stories featuring older women all cover so much of the same terrain. If you’re an actress past a certain age, loneliness and a longing for love seem to be just about all you can expect in your movie roles.
The latest Hollywood leading lady to star in a lonely spinster part is Sally Field. Frankly, I hate to think of Field as old, since she and I are of the same generation (and I certainly remember her various “cute” roles as TV’s Gidget and The Flying Nun.) Happily, Sally Field is still petite and cute, and so Hello, My Name is Doris is built around her exuberant persona. Doris is a Staten Island dweller who once upon a time gave up her marriage plans in order to keep house for her mother. Now, long years later, that mother is newly dead, and Doris faces an empty life in the cluttered bungalow full of trash-bin “treasures” she can’t bear to discard. But — always ready to find the silver lining – she develops a crush on a much younger guy she meets at work, and her ready-for-anything spirit (abetted by her eccentric but charming fashion choices) briefly gains her entrée into a world of Manhattan sophisticates. Her sister-in-law, a sour realist, bluntly opines that these hipsters merely see Doris as an “art project.”And maybe Sis is right.
Doris does find love, sort of. And though the ending of the film is ambiguous, I’m hoping the character’s pluck survives the changes that lie in store for her. Anyway, thirty years after Places in the Heart and nearly forty years after Norma Rae, it’s wonderful to see Sally Field at the center of a drama once again. Those two roles won her Best Actress Oscars. In 2012 she nabbed another nomination, this time for playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s Lincoln. I very much admired her work in that uncharacteristically somber role. Still, she’s irresistible when she’s perky, so I hope Hello, My Name is Doris brings her many more opportunities. Maybe next time she’ll be looking for something other than love. I certainly hope so. Because I like her . . . I really like her!