Among missions of mercy it was pretty routine, and as a stroke of provocative PR on the international stage it wasn't in a class with Jane Fonda's jaunt to North Vietnam in 1972. But the headline wrote itself: BIG STAR BRINGS MILK TO HUNGRY BABIES OF NICARAGUA.

The actress on the spot was Susan Sarandon, 37, best known for her co-starring role opposite Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City (it got her an Oscar nomination)—and as a fledgling activist in Hollywood political circles. She and a dozen other women delivered milk and baby food to needy mothers under the auspices of a New York-based women's group called Madre ("mother" in Spanish), whose sponsors include Joanne Woodward, Tammy Grimes, author Alice Walker and other notables. Though plainly a challenge to the Reagan Administration's hostility toward the leftist Sandinista government, Sarandon's trip, she insisted, was strictly a humanitarian gesture. Wasn't she concerned about being seen as another Hanoi Jane? "Nonsense," she said. "That's like worrying if your slip is showing while you're fleeing a burning building."

The women flew to Miami, where they boarded a Nicaraguan plane to Managua, the capital. Although they stuck mostly to hospitals and day-care centers, they also ventured into the war zone on the red-hot Honduran border. Despite their confrontations with the U.S., Nicaraguans who recognized their gringo visitor as an American movie star were friendly. "People would come up and say, 'Cine, cine,' " says the actress, referring to the Spanish word for the movies. But Sarandon insists she got no special treatment despite her star status. Was she being used as a political pawn? "I went there for eight days to see what was happening," she answers. "The Sandinistas just want us to leave them alone."