Femme de Flair: Desperately Seeking Susan


Although already having achieved critical recognition when her debut feature film, Smithereens (1982) was selected to compete at Cannes Film Festival, the cult comedy Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) may be director Susan Seidelman’s best known film despite she and Leora Barish having to pitch and rewrite the script several times before it was finally optioned by Orion Pictures. But, rushed for released in early 1985, the movie grossed $16 million, presumably owing much to the popularity and personality of Madonna. In what might be considered her heyday, this marked her acting debut in addition to performing the soundtrack single, Get into the Groove, and in doing so, transcended the limits of just being a co-star, much to the chagrin of Rosanna Arquette.

Inspired by the 1974 French film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Desperately Seeking of Susan is a romantic comedy caper built on mistaken identity. Madonna is the spunky, unfettered Susan, something that’s inevitably earned her a reputation for trouble. Her complete opposite is Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), the timid New Jersey housewife who’s desperation for thrills are only vicariously satisfied in the romance and adventures in the ads through the newspaper personals that Susan and her friend, Jim (Robert Joy) occasionally write for each other. When a new ad appears from Jim asking Susan to meet him in Battery Park, voyeuristic Roberta uses the opportunity to follow Susan around the city, living in her shoes even if only from a distance.

But Roberta isn’t the only one following Susan. Always lingering in the background is a jewel thief (Will Patton) who killed his partner for an earring that Susan has, unaware of its origins. When he confronts Roberta, thinking she’s Susan, she tries to escape and is knocked unconscious, suffering temporary memory loss. But, the only clues to her identity mostly belong to Susan and, even convinced that she is Susan, Roberta is going to get to share in the carefree and sometimes dangerous adventures to which Susan is so reputably accustomed. But, the confusion doesn’t end there. Dez (Adian Quinn), the charming love interest and friend of Jim, is asked to look out for Susan while Jim’s upstate performing with his band. But unaware of the prowling jewel thief, Dez assumes that troubles that follow are just typical to trouble-making Susan. And, Roberta’s yuppie husband, Gary (Mark Blum) and his high strung sister (Laurie Metcalf), who search for the missing suburban housewife, assume Roberta’s gotten mixed up in prostitution.

As Roberta’s life changes, the housewife becoming ever more immersed in the caper, the mundane pastels of yuppie interiors and fashion are cast aside for early 80s East Village Bohemia that is typified by its dive bars, night clubs, chain smokers, and precariousness, something that the makers of 200 Cigarettes (1999) attempted to recreate. Seidelman’s keen sense of New York cool may stem from immersion in circles of musician friends who came out of that late 1970s and early 1980s punk and new wave scene. Several were cast in bit parts, including former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson and Arto Lindsay of the punk band, DNA. Former Television front-man Richard Hell is perhaps the best known. Already having appeared Seidelman’s Smithereens, he has a brief role as Meeker, the jewel thief’s partner. Ann Manguson, former singer of Bongwater, has a brief role as a cigarette vendor at the Magic Club, but she would go on to be cast in the leading role of Seidelman’s sci-fi romantic comedy, Making Mr. Right (1987).

According to Wikipedia, director Susan Seidelman is the first wave of American female directors of the 1980s. Seidelman, in a 1987 interview, appropriately criticized the distinction of “woman director” as something meaningless; that being not just a female director, but labeled more specifically a “woman director,” required subjects and artistic treatment to fit within a particular, definable frame. “Women’s pictures’ are supposed to be something like a sensitive portrayal of relationships between … women, I guess.” Conversely, the assumptions about women directors mean that male directors , unless considered a level of acceptable femininity, would be incapable of handling similar subjects and treatment.

While “woman director” might be a meaningless distinction in Seidelman’s view, her films might nonetheless be labeled as female pop-chic. Seidelman’s films generally tend to be romantic comedies, but ones that replace the typical mold of boring lovestruck women with witty, spunky and erotic female characters like Madonna as Susan and Rosanna Arquette as Roberta in Desperately Seeking Susan, Ann Manguson’s Frankie Stone in Making Mr. Right and Emily Lloyd’s Cookie Volteki in Cookie (1989); these being considerably hip characters who’s traits were usually complimented by Seidelman’s characteristic fusion of 1980s new wave and 1960s bubble gum settings.

On the other hand, many of the male characters in her films tend to vary in their importance. Jim, Dez and Gary in Desperately Seeking Susan were not entirely crucial to Roberta and Susan’s survival nor their success. Regardless, it is almost always the female characters who are responsible for the resolutions to the conflict unfolding on-screen. And these female characters maintained these traits even when the age range shifted from twenty- and thirty somethings to women in their fifties and sixties like Dyan Cannon and Sally Kellerman’s characters in the 2005 comedy, The Boyton Beach Bereavement Club where, too, her characters fail to typify the romantic comedy traditions of age and gender.

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2 Responses

  1. […] This was director Seidelman’s feature film debut, and was originally conceived in 1979 when she asked for assistance from Columbia University’s screenwriting program to further develop her notes for a script. So, Ron Nyswaner and Peter Askin joined the project. Smithereens is a truly low budget film, primarily using non-professional actors for its leading roles (in fact, nearly everyone attached to the project would claim this as debut credits) and financed by a mere $20,000. It became one of the first American independent films selected to compete at Cannes, which would gain some visibility for Seidelman, although her commercial success would arrive in 1985 when Desperately Seeking Susan was released (see the previous post, Femme de Flair: Desperately Seeking Susan). […]

  2. […] Jim Jarmusch talked about making a movie in his friend John Laurie’s apartment and Jean-Michel Basquait, who was homeless at the time, was sleeping on the floor. Whenever they shot scenes, Jim would pull JMB by his sleeping bag to another side of the room to get him out of the shot. Later in the documentary, John Laurie (Strange Than Paradise) talked about his falling out with Basquait, who had by then, become a hot prospect in the art world. I get director Susan Seidelman must have caught the wrath, too, of a dividing scene when her no-budget debut, Smithereens, earned her enough credibility to get financing for the pop caper, Desperately Seeking Susan. […]

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