Ramona: “Desperate, I love that word. It’s so romantic.”
I think everyone has felt at some point or another like switching places with someone else or trying to understand how someone else lives. The grass is always greener, isn’t it? In the beguiling “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), Ramona is a bored housewife in New Jersey whose self-absorbed career husband barely pays attention to her. Her life is so dull she keeps a diary of her activities, “Couldn’t sleep. Went into kitchen. Gary came in, turned on light. Gary left. Finished birthday cake.” (When I think about it, that entry could be my pandemic journal, albeit it is missing the part where I watch a daily movie.) From her glass apartment doors, she can see the bright lights of New York – and she wishes she could be there. She also reads the personal ads in the paper and has been vicariously following a couple – Susan and Jim – who make furtive appointments to meet one another across the country. They will soon rendezvous in Battery Park. So Ramona heads out to Bohemia – to see what life on the other side of the mirror feels like.
I’d forgotten how irresistible Susan Seidelman’s movie is. What I love about the film is the whole notion of metamorphosing into a newer improved version of yourself – embracing all the things you’ve wanted to be and letting go of constrictions and self-imposed boundaries. Being yourself. As in her earlier film, “Smithereens” (1982) – which was the first American Independent film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival – Seidelman explores the theme of identity – and gender expectations. “Are you a lesbian? Leslie says that 9 out of 10 prostitutes are lesbians?” asks Ramona’s hot-tub salesman husband when he sees the new way she’s dressing. “Gary, you’re not listening to me. I’m not a prostitute or a lesbian!” she protests.
“Desperately Seeking Susan” became famous because it was the Madonna movie. If you were to see it now you would be shocked to realize she’s not the most interesting thing about the film – and that instead, all the supporting actors whose careers it launched are where your eyes gravitate. Giancarlo Esposito – so transfixing in “Breaking Bad” — has a small role as a street vendor. John Turturro plays Ray – the befuddled host at the magic cabaret. Laurie Metcalf is a scene-stealer as the over-the-top and outspoken sister-in-law. Will Patton – who has become one of our best character actors and is so good in the upcoming “Minari” — is striking as the bleached-blond hitman. This was one of Aidan Quinn’s first leading roles – and he’s so dashing. There’s an assortment of small parts played by theatre regulars like Robert Joy and the late Mark Blum, amongst others. Last but not least is Rosanna Arquette who is like an Indy Audrey Hepburn in this. She has this great appealing daffiness about her. The image of her in a tutu, wandering through New York alleys and holding on to a gilded cage full of doves is priceless. Yes, Seidelman captured the zeitgeist. She knew Madonna for she was her next door neighbor, and demanded the studio let her cast her. Ms. Ciccone is perfectly suited as the laidback hobo goddess that is Susan. There is indeed a fascinating mixture of girlishness and knowingness about her here – and unaffected. There’s not much range – but she’s charismatic.
The plot is pure screwball. Ramona is fixated with Susan’s nonconformist persona and the liberating way in which she dresses. She follows her and buys a distinctive jacket that Susan has traded at a vintage clothing store. Ramona puts on the clothes – and is mistaken to be Susan – who is being closely followed by the mob. Ramona is hit in the head and suffers from amnesia and when she comes to – she is led to believe she’s Susan. She’s gone through the looking glass and gets to experience what is like to be Susan.
Seidelman captures a fairy tale New York. It also gives you a feel for the underground new wave scene of the early 1980s in Manhattan – where Madonna became known. The production design and costumes are by Santo Loquasto who is one of the premier set designers for the theatre and has won several Tony Awards. After his work here he will go on to work with Woody Allen doing the design for “Zelig,” “Radio Days” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” which will garner his Oscar nominations. This is an early look at what he’s capable of – and yes he’s responsible for that jacket that Ms. M wears. The colors and the cinematography are eye-catching and they’re the work of Edward Lachman, who will go on to earn Best Cinematography nominations for his work with Todd Haynes in “Carol” and “Far From Heaven.” Note his usage of neon colors in the once upon a time world of the Big Apple and the hard edges and pastels of the New Jersey life.
Madonna recorded her song “Into the Groove” specifically for this – and it is heard while she dances with Roberta’s husband on the club’s dance floor. “Desperately Seeking Susan” is worth a trip.
Roberta : “See, he was after me, Dez. Well, not me exactly. He was after Susan, wherever she is, who I’m not! He thinks she’s staying here, but she isn’t because I am. See?”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO Max and DIRECTV and to rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV and FandangoNOW.
Written by Leora Barish
Directed by Susan Seidelman
Starring Madonna, Rosanna Arquette, Aidan Quinn, Robert Joy, Laurie Metcalf, Anna Thomson, Will Patton, Peter Maloney, Steven Wright, John Turturro and Anne Carlisle
Director Susan Seidelman on Bringing “Desperately Seeking Susan” to the Screen
“I had gone to NYU film school. After I graduated, I had an idea for a low-budget feature film that I wanted to do, and having kept in touch with my friends from film school, I told them about it. So we went ahead and made ‘Smithereens.’ It was originally made for about $40K in 16mm. It took about $20K to blow it up to a 35mm print. It was made for very little money back then, and again, just with my friends – the crew anyway – from NYU. After it came out it got some attention because it was at the Cannes Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema — again something I never expected. I started to get calls from agents out in LA who had seen the film and wanted to meet me. I also started to get a bunch of scripts, most of which were pretty terrible. But then I got this one script that had the title ‘Desperately Seeking Susan.’ I didn’t put my name on that. [laughs] I thought that was a good omen, that it was desperately seeking me. I read it. Not only did I love the story and the characters, but it felt like it was the next organic step from making Smithereens, which was about the East Village punk/new wave culture of that time. ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ is a very different kind of story, but it is sort of based in that culture. The thing I was so nervous about — I’m aware of independent filmmakers who do a low-budget movie to acclaim and then go on to make their first “Hollywood” movie and they get totally lost because the producers overwhelm them or working with the studio is overwhelming. They lose track of their vision and their cinematic personality. So I wanted to make sure that the next thing project I did after ‘Smithereens’ was something I felt comfortable doing. Subject matter that I had something interesting to say about. Again, I waited until the script came along and it just felt organically right.”
“Desperately Seeking Susan” also – even though it made by Orion pictures, which was a studio — the budget as somewhere between $5m and $6m, which for a Hollywood movie is still pretty low budget. The expectations of what it was were kind of low. Madonna wasn’t famous. Rosanne Arquette was an up and coming actress, not a star. Most of the other cast members, some who have gone on to become noted actors, were kind of unknowns. When it came out and coincided with Madonna’s meteoric rise to fame and hit the culture at just the right time, it was such a surprise. There’s something wonderful about discovering a movie, and that’s why I think it was embraced, in part. No one knew what it was going to be. It still shows on TV. No one thought it was going to have that kind of longevity.” (flavorwire.com)
Rosanna Arquette on “Desperately Seeking Susan”
Arquette has dear memories of working on such a female-driven project, in an age when this was exceedingly rare. “Now, this movie, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ it had a woman director [Susan Seidelman], written by a woman [Leora Barish], women producers [Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford], and the studio had Barbara Boyle at Orion, Mike Medavoy’s company at the time. [Medavoy] hired [Boyle], and it was her film. The whole thing was women, and it was groundbreaking at the time. Nobody did that. It was actually a groundbreaking female force at the time.” Arquette shares one amusing anecdote about this abundance of female energy on the set, when she got confused about whether her character was suffering from amnesia during a particular scene (since Roberta regains her memory midway through the film). “So, there was a huddle, and it was Midge Sanford, Sarah Pillsbury, Susan Seidelman, me, probably an AD woman, and we were all almost arguing and weepy. It was like… you know how they say that when girls are in school together, they end up all menstruating at the same time? That is factual thing!” Arquette laughs. “So the energy of that was going on. We had high emotions at the time. I always remembered that fondly, in a funny way.” (yahoo.com)
About Cinematographer Edward Lachman
Ed Lachman is one of the most notorious DOPs of our generation. With a career that spans over four decades, Lachman’s unique vision and approach to storytelling is clear throughout his work. Son of Edward Lachman, a movie theatre distributor and owner, Ed Lachman was born in New Jersey. He graduated with a degree from Harvard University and from the University of Tours, in France. He later on took a BFA in painting at the Ohio University. In the 70’s, Lachman had the opportunity to start his career in the New German Cinema and he has since then worked on a wide range of documentaries, features and even music videos. Lachman has worked with directors like Steven Soderbergh on “The Limey” (1999) and the critically-acclaimed “Erin Brockovich” (2000); Todd Haynes on “Far From Heaven” (2002) and “I’m Not There” (2007); Sofia Coppola’s cult classic “The Virgin Suicides” (1999); Wim Wenders’ “Lightning Over Water”, and has even co-directed with Larry Clark the controversial “Ken Park” (2002). In 2015, Lachman works once again with Todd Haynes in the period drama “Carol” (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, which got Lachman his second Oscar nomination and also a nomination for a BAFTA film award for Best Cinematography. Ed Lachman is a strong defender of maintaining film as an alternative tool of picture capture and in 2017 he was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the American Society of Cinematographers. (site.fest.pt)
About Production Designer Santo Loquasto
Santo Loquasto is a designer for dance, theatre and film. He began designing costumes for legendary New York theatre producer Joseph Papp in the early 1970s. He has collaborated with choreographer James Kudelka on various works, including Alliances for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, The Heart of the Matter for The Joffrey Ballet and The Comfort Zone and The End for San Francisco Ballet. For the National Ballet of Canada they created Pastorale, The Actress, Spring Awakening, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Firebird and An Italian Straw Hat. Loquasto also designed A Touch of the Poet, Three Days of Rain, Shining City, Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changing and the 2017 revival of Carousel, all of which appeared on Broadway. He received the Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration in 2002, was voted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2005, and received the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2006 and the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007. Loquasto has won numerous awards for his designs, including Tony Awards in 1977 (The Cherry Orchard), 1989 (Café Crown) 1990 (Grand Hotel), 2017 (Hello, Dolly!) and the Drama Desk Award in 1989 (Café Crown) and 1990 (Grand Hotel). Among his extensive list of nominations are Academy Award nominations for designs in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, Radio Days and Zelig. Other film credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, Big, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove marked the beginning of his relationship with American Ballet Theatre. For his work with ABT, he has also collaborated with choreographers Jerome Robbins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kenneth MacMillan, Agnes de Mille, Mark Morris and Alexei Ratmansky. For the Paul Taylor Dance Company, he has designed such works as Speaking in Tongues, Spindrift, Company B and Funny Papers. The scenery and costumes for Deuce Coupe are Loquasto’s latest designs to be added to American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire. (abt.org)
About Director Susan Seidelman
Born Dec. 11, 1952 in Philadelphia, PA, Susan Seidelman was raised in the city’s suburbs by her father, a hardware manufacturer, and her mother, an educator. After graduating from Abington Senior High School in 1969, she studied fashion design at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Soon realizing that she had no interest in spending time behind a sewing machine, she turned to her love of film as a possible career direction. After taking a few film classes and serving as a production assistant at a local television station, Seidelman enrolled in New York University’s film program in 1974. She soon directed a number of short films, one of which, “And You Act Like One Too” (1976), a comedy about a housewife’s indiscretions, won a student Academy Award. After graduating, she did freelance editing work and assisted on television commercials while attempting to raise funds for a feature. Eventually, she pooled $80,000 from her own funds and various friends to produce and direct her first feature film, “Smithereens” (1982). A glamour-free look at East Village life as viewed through the prism of a romantic triangle between a hopelessly untalented but ambitious young woman (Susan Berman) and two musicians (Brad Rijn and punk legend Richard Hell), it became the first American independent film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, where it attracted the attention of Hollywood producers seeking a fresh voice for studio projects. A year of meetings, festival engagements and scripts for teen projects eventually brought her to “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985). Based loosely on Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (1974), the film featured Rosanna Arquette as a bored housewife whose fascination with a mystery woman sought after in a series of personal ads led to adventure involving mistaken identities and missing earrings. The film earned mostly positive reviews and a BAFTA for Rosanna Arquette, but its true purpose was to help spread the gospel of pop singer Madonna, who made her second film appearance in the film as Susan. The film’s success helped to mint Seidelman as the director du jour, which she soon capitalized on by helming a string of studio projects.
Unfortunately, most, if not all of these subsequent efforts failed to match the box office returns or critical acclaim of “Susan.” 1987’s “Making Mr. Right” starred former performance artist Ann Magnuson as a PR agent who fell for the kindly robot double of his prickly scientist inventor (John Malkovich). It failed to find an audience, as did the mob comedy “Cookie” (1989) with Peter Falk and Emily Lloyd. “She-Devil” (1989), based on the novel The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, seemed like a surefire hit with a cast led by Oscar winner Meryl Streep and then-reigning sitcom queen Roseanne Barr, but it too was a disappointment. Following this string of flops, Seidelman took a lengthy sabbatical from studio filmmaking, surfacing almost a half-decade later with a 1995 remake of “The Barefoot Executive” (1971) for the Disney Channel. The following year, her short film, “The Dutch Master” (1995), starring Mira Sorvino as a young dental hygienist who entered an erotic reverie after viewing a 17th-century painting, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short. Seidelman soon returned to television for the better part of the 1990s, helming the pilot episode of “Sex and the City,” as well as the Emmy-nominated Showtime Original feature “A Cooler Climate” (1999) with Sally Field and Judy Davis. However, her return to features with 2001’s “Gaudi Afternoon” failed to find a distributor and was released as a direct-to-DVD title. She fared slightly better with “Boynton Beach Club” (2005), a dramedy co-produced by and inspired by her mother’s experiences while living in a Florida retirement community. But her 2012 drama “Musical Chairs,” about a paraplegic woman who entered a wheelchair ballroom dance competition, was overwhelmed by the media blitz surrounding its opening weekend competition, “The Hunger Games” (2011). Undaunted, Seidelman next completed “Hot Flashes” (2012), a comedy about a forty-something group of former high school women’s basketball champions who reunited to take on the current leading high school team in a charity competition. (tcm.com)