Hollywood's Liberal Heartbreak

2009 was already a stormy year for the left, and then their patron couple split up. Lloyd Grove on how Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon managed to keep their summer split so quiet—even inside the family—and Robbins' odd donations to Republican candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Dave M. Benett / Getty Images

Two Thousand Aught Nine was a wretched year for America’s embattled liberal purists. First Barack Obama turned out to be a raging moderate, then the public option collapsed, and then this: Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon announced their separation after 23 years of non-marriage.

The politically vocal but personally private pair, who stubbornly declined to take wedding vows after meeting and mating on the set of Bull Durham and adding two sons to the daughter Susan had with ex-lover Franco Amurri, have long occupied a special place in the pantheon of celebrity couples.

Click Image To View Our Gallery of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins

They were rich, famous, and good-looking in all the usual ways, and there was a certain feminist frisson in the fact she was 12 years older: Indeed, they quietly pioneered the pop-cultural territory later appropriated with great fanfare by Ashton and Demi. Like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, they projected a certain reassuring, family-friendly stability. On the rare occasions when they turned up in gossip columns, it was for sightings of parents and kids piling into a station wagon. Unlike Brangelina, they were discreet about their domestic lives, sensibly drawing a veil over matters that were nobody’s business. “Although I’ve always been very protective of our relationship in public,” Robbins once told the audience at a New York tribute to Sarandon, “I want to tell you something unique and funny about Susan—but I also value peace at home.”

It was their low-key, under-the-radar, one might even say boring approach to life in the big city that apparently allowed them to separate in the summer with zero publicity. Lenora Tomalin, Susan’s 86-year-old mother, says she was “shocked” when her daughter called last week to tell her about the split a day before the news broke. “It was perfect timing because the press couldn’t do much with it, because of Christmas and all the other news that would be in the forefront,” Tomalin told me over the Christmas weekend.

She recently saw Susan and Tim at a family wedding in New Jersey and says everything seemed normal. “My daughter was a little concerned about my hearing about it otherwise. It has affected me a lot, I’m still dealing with it,” Tomalin told me. “The way she was talking, it was very amicable. Tim is still in the picture because of the kids. I think they’re handling it beautifully. There’s no recrimination of any kind.”

Tomalin roundly dismissed published speculation that the 63-year-old Sarandon has taken up with 31-year-old Jonathan Bricklin, a business partner and co-investor in the Manhattan ping-pong club Spin. “Gracious, no!” Tomalin said, adding that she met Bricklin recently when he and Susan gave her a tour of the establishment. “He’s a gem. He has nothing to do with her other than as a business partner... If she was [seeing Bricklin romantically], Susan would be upfront about it.”

Tomalin added: “I’m fond of Tim even though I had that blowup with him years ago.”

That was back in early 2003, when I was writing The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column and Tomalin gave me an interview in which she identified herself as a staunch Republican and described the tension her political differences had caused between herself, Susan, and Tim. After the item appeared, Tim called her to angrily upbraid her for airing dirty laundry. She said she was devastated. Weeks later, when I ran into Robbins at a party in Los Angeles, he was still steamed—profanely putting me on notice that if I ever wrote about his family again, he would “find” and “hurt” me. Months later, he was still telling anyone who’d listen—like a lunchtime crowd at Washington’s National Press Club—that I am “a sadistic creep who writes, or rather, scratches, his column with his fingers in the dirt.”

I hope and trust that Robbins has since calmed down.

When it came to politics, Robbins and Sarandon tended to espouse and admonish rather than try to persuade. Either you were enlightened or just weren’t—either ideologically chaste or downright corrupt. “I am not, was not, a big Clinton fan,” Robbins told me back in 2002. “I hear he was a liberal. I hear people described as liberals all the time that I don’t tend to agree with. I think the rise of the Southern Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council has pushed the definition of what’s a liberal farther and farther to the right.”

"All I can say is, 'Thank you!'" said former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, one of 10 Republicans—including Rep. Michele Bachmann—to receive a $500 donation from Robbins.

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A few weeks later, Sarandon was not amused after I tried and failed to stifle a giggle when she approvingly quoted a European newspaper editorial accusing President George W. Bush of possessing “a blueprint for American global domination.” “I don’t see what’s so funny about that,” she scolded—and in retrospect she was right. Of course, many Democratic activists remain bitter at Robbins and Sarandon for campaigning for third-party spoiler Ralph Nader in 2000, when a few hundred votes either way in Florida might have shifted the presidency from Bush to Al Gore.

Loyal Dems would undoubtedly be gobsmacked to learn that, if Federal Election Commission records are to be believed, Robbins has not only donated regularly to Democratic candidates over the past 18 years, he also has written checks to conservative Republicans. In the 2006 election cycle, according to public records, the actor gave $5,000 to 10 Republican candidates for the House and Senate—including, most shocking of all, Minnesota’s resident wingnut, Rep. Michele Bachmann. Why such largesse to the enemy? Former GOP congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, who lost in 2006 despite Robbins' $500 donation, was baffled and surprised when I reached him over the weekend. "Maybe because I covered the Durham Bulls as a sports broadcaster in the late 1970s and early '80s? Maybe because I used to frequently rent Bob Roberts back in the '90s?" Hayworth wondered, mentioning two of Robbins' starring vehicles. "All I can say is, 'Thank you!' I hope he enjoyed the Christmas card." My efforts to reach Robbins to hear his explanation were unavailing, alas.

Hugely talented and wildly successful on their own and as a couple—she won her 1996 Best Actress Oscar for Dead Man Walking, a film he wrote and directed; he won Best Supporting Actor for the 2003 Clint Eastwood drama Mystic River—they represented the preachy Hollywood left at its least self-aware and most lampoonable. One of the bigger crowd-pleasers in Team America, World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s riotously vulgar satire of Bush’s war on evildoers, featuring marionettes as movie stars, has the puppet-Tim Robbins, a delegate to a celebrity capitulation confab with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, catching fire and melting while fighting off the movie’s squad of superpatriot puppet-heroes.

Robbins’ own foray into political satire was Bob Roberts, the 1992 mockumentary that he wrote, directed, and starred in, about a corporate greedhead and Republican Senate candidate (running against a senator played by Gore Vidal) who also happens to be a folksinger and secret drug-trafficker in a conspiracy with the CIA.

At least I think it was satire.

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.