White Palace' Poses a Question About Love

"You caught me on a day when I'm looking particularly bouffanty," says the actress Susan Sarandon, fluffing a heedful of loose curls with one hand, reaching for a pack of cigarettes with the other. She pulls one from the pack and lights it - her fourth in 25 minutes.

She explains that although she is not a smoker, her character - Nora Baker - is. Nora chain smokes, in fact, and drinks he vodka tonics with similar alacrity. Other of her penchants include country music and Marilyn Monroe. "Nora is a survivor, and I really like that about her," says Ms. Sarandon. "I'm not interested in playing characters who wallow in their problems. Nora's out there grappling with her life, fighting to survive. I can relate to that because I am a survivor too."

Ms. Sarandon has come to St. Louis to shoot "White Palace," which also stars James Spader, who won this year's beast actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as an impotent voyeur in "Sex, Lies and Videotape." While essentially a love story, "White Palace" asks the age-old question: Can a nice Jewish boy from an affluent suburb of St. Louis find happiness with a boozy, lustful hamburger-stand waitress 16 years his senior. At this point, no one is sure. But today Max, the nice Jewish boy played by Mr. Spader is picking up Nora at her dilapidated fake-brick bungalow in a neighborhood called Dogtown to bring her to Thanksgiving dinner at his best friend Horowitz's house, where she will not only meet Horowitz and his wife but also Max's mother.

"That's why I want to look my best," says Ms. Sarandon, explaning her pouffed hair, the color of which she describes as "cheap red." Most of the time, I look pretty awful in this film. I'd love to do a movie where I want the wardrobe. That hasn't happened to me in a long time." "White Palace" is based on a book of the same title by a first time novelist, Glenn Savan, a native St. Louisan. It is being directed by 35 year old Luis Mandoki, a native of Mexico City. Mr. Mandoki's only other American feature film to date is "Gaby-A True Story," based in the life of Gabriella Brimmer, who grew up with battling cerebral palsy. Shortly after Mandoki was hired as director, he met with Ms. Sarandon to discuss her portraying Nora in the film. At the time, Ms. Sarandon was pregnant and didn't think she would be available when shooting was to begin last March.

But then the threat of an actors strike and difficulty in casting the male lead for the film postponed the production. Initially, dozens of actors read for the part of Max, but none, including Mr. Spader at first, seemed quite right. "Jimmy read in the beginning, but he didn't seem Jewish enough until he won at Cannes," says Sarandon who is 42. "The studio wanted an actor that was hot, and I was concerned about getting a good character actor that young. Everyone read for the part, from Kevin Bacon to Rob Lowe, and all those young actors who two first names.

"The producers kept insisting that the actor be much younger than me. After "Bull Durham', it didn't seem odd enough for me to be with someone in his late 20s or early 30s. That mattered less to me than how the socio-economic differences between the 2 characters came across on the screen, but I seemed to be the only one who felt that way." After Mr. Spader was turned down initially, he made a film with Rob Lowe last summer called "Bad Influence." Then, in mid-August, after the producers and Mr. Mandoki saw "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," Mr. Spader met again with them and was offered the part.

Ms. Robinson and a co-producer, Mark Rosenberg, say they saw a range in Mr. Spader's performance in "Sex Lies and Videotape" that convinced them he was the right choice for Max. "Admittedly, the fact that he won best actor award for a picture that won the Palme D'Or gave us a bit more security that he had more marquee value than in the past," adds Mr. Rosenberg. "That's always a partial consideration."

"I'm not sure what attracted me to Mac," says the 27 year old with Mr. Spader. "I keep trying to come up with some answers that make sense. I suppose I responded to what his life is all about. I like what happens to the characters in the story. And I thought it would be sort of interesting to fall in love with Susan." The way in which these characters fall in love grows of several graphic sexual scenes between Nora and Max, who has been celibate for two years following the tragic death of his young wife. In the first of these scenes, Nora literally attacks Max sexually while he's asleep on her living room floor.

Although Ms. Sarandon and Mr. Spader had never met before filming began here in late October, it is not unusual for them to walk onto the set holding hands like a couple of old high school chums. Each speaks highly of the other's abilities. For the eight-week shoot, both brought their families to St. Louis, including infant sons born only a few months apart. "Sometime when we finish the sex scenes at the end of the day, Jimmy will say, 'OK, now it's time to go back to the kids.'" Adds Ms. Sarandon.

© by Ellen Futterman NY Times: 12/31/1989 (Thank you, Susan!)