DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985)

  • Director: Susan Seidelman
  • Writer: Leora Barish
  • Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, Laurie Metcalf, Steven Wright, and John Turturro
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#58)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

Desperately Seeking Susan is not the sort of movie I would have sought out prior to working on this site, but I found it perfectly enjoyable, and also a perfect time capsule of a time and a place. What might seem to a modern viewer as bizarre silliness, like the weird, seedy New York club specializing in magic acts, or the guy who lives in an apartment above a noodle shop with basically no furniture except for a fish tank set into the wall, is apparently a fairly accurate snapshot of the bohemian/new wave art scene in early 80s New York. Many of the background characters are, in fact, played by various musicians from said scene. In the foreground, somewhat bizarrely, is a fairly straightforward Screwball Comedy plot that wouldn’t really be out of place in a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movie, only with more Madonna and 80s fashions.

Audiences now might recognize most of the actors, but nearly all of them were unknowns at the time, most of whom were in their first major film roles. Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, an extremely bored New Jersey housewife who decides to investigate the identities of two lovers who keep sending each other ads in the newspaper personals with headlines like, you guessed it, “Desperately Seeking Susan” (this is before Craigslist). Susan is played by the famous pop singer Madonna, who does a fine job in a role that Pauline Kael called “an indolent, trampy Goddess,” a description I don’t think I can better. We first meet her in an Atlantic City hotel room with a naked man in her bed. After he wakes up, she hands him a tip as he puts his bellboy uniform back on.

I’m not going to explain the whole Screwball plot here, because there isn’t really a point. Basically, Roberta ends up with Susan’s jacket, tries to return it, but instead gets attacked by a guy trying to find Susan, hits her head, and gets amnesia. When she wakes up she’s helped by Dez (Aidan Quinn), a friend of the Susan’s lover from the personals, Jim. Dez thinks she’s Susan because of the jacket. While Roberta settles into Susan’s weird, bohemian life, her straight-laced husband Gary (Mark Blum) tries to find her and eventually crosses paths with the actual Susan, who gets him to smoke pot and lounges majestically on his pool deck with her bowl of Cheetos.

So really, the movie’s comedy derives from the sudden, forced mixing of this boring Suburban world and artsy, weirdo Manhattan. Today, the two worlds are likely not nearly so different, but in the 1980s it plays fairly seamlessly as a sort of reverse My Fair Lady, with more mistaken identity comedy. Today, the movie’s biggest claim to fame is as Madonna’s first major movie role. In fact, it was shot between the releases of her first and second albums. Though originally intended to be R-rated, the studio asked the filmmakers to re-cut it into a PG-13 for a wider audience after the runaway success of her subsequent singles “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin.” Director Susan Seidelman obliged (though the final cut includes some “brief nudity” I doubt would be allowed in a PG-13 movie today), and ended up with both a critical and box office hit. Madonna recorded one song for the soundtrack, which did not end up being used, something that also would have probably been different a few years later.

This was Seidelman’s second feature, after her debut Smithereens became the first American independent movie to be shown at Cannes. She’s had a lengthy and productive directing career, though if I’m honest I’d only heard of two of her movies, this one and her following effort, Making Mr. Right, before doing some research for this essay. Here she updates an old genre with a new, more female-centric twist. There is no Cary Grant character in Desperately Seeking Susan, no offense to Aidan Quinn, this is a story in which two women find out things about themselves after getting mistaken for each other. Seidelman was also involved in the creation of the megahit TV series Sex and the City, for which she also directed the pilot episode. Uncoincidentally, I can certainly see the influences from something like this filtering down to that show.

I greatly enjoyed Rosanna Arquette’s role here, really I think probably the only time I’ve seen her in a leading role. Unfortunately, that’s probably because she is among the actresses who now state that they were essentially blacklisted from good roles after refusing to sleep with Harvey Weinstein, later becoming one of the first actresses to speak out against him. Others memorably appearing in early roles here included John Turturro, Laurie Metcalf (who steals most of the scenes she’s in), and the droll comedian Steven Wright. Mark Blum is memorable as Robert’s spa salesman husband, who is perhaps the squarest of the many square guys in 80s comedies. When she tells him that the cool jacket she’s wearing was once worn by Jimi Hendrix, he responds, “You bought a used jacket? What are we, poor?”

In the end, the reason this movie works is because it’s generally winning and the jokes are generally actually funny. The rest is pretty much gravy. I would spend more time on the fashions, but, well, honestly I’m not sure I have the right words for them. They are a lot. In that way it’s also a fun document of a world that basically no longer exists. Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t feel particularly memorable to me, but I definitely enjoyed it, and as I’m definitely not the target audience for this, I’d say that’s a pretty decent endorsement.

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