Female Filmmaker Friday: Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985 (dir. Susan Seidelman)

Last week I covered Susan Seidleman’s debut film Smithereens and now I will be discussing her second film, the mainstream hit Desperately Seeking Susan. Check back over the next few weeks as I look at three more of her films from the 1980s.


So I am a big fan of Aidan Quinn. Have been ever since my mother and I used to watch Stake Out a couple of times a week when I was a child. For some reason, I never seek him out, but when he shows up in movies I get insanely excited. I had been meaning to watch this film for quite a while but somehow had never seen it. A few weeks ago, I saw that he was in it (somehow I never knew that) and immediately I had to watch it.


Definitely worth it for Aidan Quinn alone. I mean, have you seen his big blue eyes?! And then you get this scene where he’s lounging with a cat. Which I find fascinating, because lots of guys have cats, but cinematically the only other time I can remember a guy having a cat is The Long Goodbye (which in the book is not as big a deal as it is in the movie – which was written by a woman). The stereotype is that guys have dogs and women have cats (or little purse dogs). It’s nice to see that stereotype subverted.


This movie’s plot is the classical two people get mixed up when a third person thinks they are the other person. You can see these sort of plots going all the way back to the Greeks (probably even further, just not recorded). Audiences love it when they know more than the characters, but they also love it when even though they know more, they can’t figure out how the problem is going to get resolved. This film couldn’t really exist in the days of Facebook. Which makes me wonder if someone’s tackled something like this, but with Facebook hacking?


But I digress, Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, a bored housewife who follows the love life of Susan and Jim through the personal ads, until one day she decides to go see them. After a bit of a mix up, Jim’s friend Dez (who has never met Susan) comes to check on Susan for Jim (Susan’s gotten herself mixed up with some shady people) and finds Roberta wearing Susan’s distinctive jacket, only Roberta has hit her head and doesn’t know who she is anymore. Are you following me? It’s less complicated to watch than it is to describe, I promise. The rest of the film is everyone trying to get themselves back in their right place. Also, obviously, a love triangle pops up between Dez and Susan (who is really Roberta) and Jim. Also, don’ forget about Roberta’s yuppie husband Gary, the spa king! It’s very Shakespearean in its complications, and Seidelman handles them with a light, but deft touch. The fashionable flare we saw in Smithereens is back and her love of gritty DYI NYC is still here, this time with a slightly higher production budget. Boy, do I wish I could live in some of the sets in this movie (Dez’s apartment, yes plz). I love the relationship that rises between Dez and Roberta (who he thinks is Susan), because it doesn’t for a minute feel forced. The characters both feel like complicated, fully realized people who have made a connection, but also don’t know each other as well as they think they do and have to work passed their sexual attraction to build something real.


A few his was the movie that really brought Madonna into her own as a fashion icon and cultural fascination. She was on the rise and this movie helped her reach the top. She’s great and her style is everything you’d expect from Madonna circa 1985. That said, she’s not really the lead in this movie. This is really Rosanna Arquette’s film (and whatever happened to her?!). For her performance in this film, she received  a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy and a won the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress.


Although for most of the movie Susan and Roberta are separated (and people think they’re both Susan), this movie really is about female friendship. Susan is a free-wheeling person who gets into trouble but always thinks she’ll get out of it (and usually does) and Roberta is the last of a generation of women who got married and stayed home as the norm. She’s also from one of the first generations wherein if the woman wanted to work she could, but even in the 80s it was still more stigmatized than we like to remember. So she wants more from life, and the best way she knows how to get this is by living vicariously though Susan and Jim via the personals. There’s a great scene early in the film where she’s half-heartedly making a complicated dish along with Julia Child on the television. I can’t help but think that is purposeful (just look up the life of Julia Child, okay). At this point, Roberta has bought Susan’s jacket that she had sold on a whim for a pair of boots (forgetting something really important was in the jacket’s pocket). So Roberta is already gone a step further in her trying to live Susan’s life. So when the rest of the film is basically Roberta living Susan’s life, she gets to feel what that would be like for real (even if she’s suffering from amnesia the whole time). Susan also has Jim (a rock musician), who loves her and whom she loves, who keeps trying to get her to settle down with him. Susan spends a little time in Roberta’s life (in her house, with her husband, etc) and in the end, both women learn a bit about what life is like for the other and you get the idea that they’ll both live more fulfilling lives from here on out.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on February 7, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. OK Now I have to see this movie. And oh yeah – the mixing up of “twins” is an oldie but goodie. There is an ancient Roman version where the wife chooses the wrong twin saying he’s her husband after a “test”. There’s 12th Night and Comedy of Errors (and we were able to use real twins!!). And there was a made for TV movie with Diana Rigg and Robert Culp in the 70s that was fabulous – I don’t remember the name but he was an Australian claiming to be her long lost English husband who had suddenly come out of a decade of amnesia and remembered who he was. Hilarious – she knew all along he wasn’t her husband but told the courts he was – based I think on that Roman play with the “test”. 😉 NNG

  2. Susan Seidelman selected a great cast for this film: Richard Hell as Madonna’s one night stand, John Turturro as the MC, comedian Steven Wright, Laurie Metcalf (who would also work later with Roseanne Barr, Barr would star in Seidelman’s She-Devil) Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Stoler, Anne Carlisle (Liquid Sky), Arto Lindsay, Rockets Redglare, and Anne Magnuson as the cigarette girl. A running theme is jokes about what’s cool and not cool in NYC circa 1985, with New Jersey and Queens mocked.

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