Susan Sarandon stars in three films that open this week, playing three very different mothers.

In Igby Goes Down, she is a caustic, pill-swilling, upper-class matron whose sons open the film by killing her. In Moonlight Mile, she is a writer whose daughter has been murdered, and who, with her husband, forms a neurotic attachment to the late daughter's fiancé. In The Banger Sisters, she plays a Martha Stewart mom who receives a midlife wakeup call, and runs off to relive her wild youth as a rock 'n' roll groupie. The newspaper racket views such moments as a good opportunity for a feature story. But since The Stranger film section can't abide such things, I will use the occasion to discuss the fact that Susan Sarandon is 56 years old and still the most interesting movie star in Hollywood.

During her 30-year career, Sarandon has played the full gamut of female characters available to a Hollywood star--from ingénue to quirky "older woman" to, now, mother (next stop: grande dame)--investing them all with intelligence and power. Not to mention (because it invariably feels weird to mention it) the full measure of adult female sexual energy and allure.

As she gets older and more confident in that power, she lends standard Hollywood characters--moms, nuns, et al.--an uncustomary liveliness. It forgives her participation in lesser films like The Banger Sisters and Stepmom, while making her roles in the likes of Thelma & Louise, White Palace, and Twilight positively thrum.

Her earlier performances (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, and, of course, The Hunger) were more overtly carnal, but her skills have deepened with age. Sarandon is a very good actress, who excels at playing moments of wounded dignity and at standing up to anyone who fails to pay her the respect she knows is her birthright.

The cliche is that there are few substantial roles available to female film actors over the age of 20. All the more reason to relish the opportunity to see Susan Sarandon sink her teeth into whatever part she chooses.