Desperately Seeking Susan: Style, Sensibility, and the ‘80s

By Nadia Clare Smith

Director Susan Seidelman described Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) as “not an art film, but not mainstream,” which nicely encapsulates offbeat ‘80s American independent films, especially the deadpan comedies with their distinctive tone and sensibility. The film, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, fits into multiple contexts besides ‘80s independent film, such as screwball comedy, women’s film, and stories of mistaken identity. Other directors working in a similar style at the time include Jim Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki with his American-set Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Both Seidelman and Jarmusch had attended film school at NYU and set their first films in New York, and their early films share certain similarities. Besides the laid-back style, deadpan humor, and laconic dialogue, musicians rather than trained actors were given key roles. Seidelman cast not only Madonna but also Richard Hell and Richard Edson, while Jarmusch cast John Lurie (who also appears briefly in Desperately Seeking Susan), Richard Edson, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his 1980s films. The tone of their films stands in stark contrast with the excessive, melodramatic, unironically kitschy sensibility of many major ‘80s films. Some critics were receptive to the film’s style, praising Desperately Seeking Susan as laid-back, quirky, cool, ironic, unsentimental, and pithy. Seidelman’s film reappropriated earlier screwball comedy conventions such as amnesia, which allowed repressed characters such as Roberta to act out.

Desperately Seeking Susan is a women’s film in every sense. Not only does it have two female leads, it also had a female writer, director, and producers, which is still unusual. While there were a number of female friendship films in the ‘80s, this film differs from many of them in its lack of sentimentality. In other ways, it foreshadows 21st-century independent comedies featuring “manic pixie dream girl” characters. In this case, though, Madonna/Susan, who has certain manic pixie dream girl traits such as quirkiness, insouciance, and an idiosyncratic fashion sense, changes a woman’s life, not a man’s, while remaining a static character. Film scholar Susan Morrison notes that Desperately Seeking Susan also rewrites Rebecca, a classic 1940s women’s film and Gothic romance in which the nameless heroine hopes to destroy the memory of Rebecca, a dead icon she can never emulate. Rebecca is alluded to in the beginning of the film, as Roberta watches it on TV, perhaps thinking of the trajectory of her marriage to Gary and identifying with the second Mrs. de Winter. While Roberta views Susan as glamorous and adventurous, she admires rather than resents her, and Susan, her double, facilitates Roberta’s personal transformation and changes her life in a positive way. The film also alludes to and reworks unhappy housewife films from the 1970s, which tended to be dramatic rather than comedic.

Desperately Seeking Susan is also a story of mistaken identity, and even when these stories are framed as comedy (like in The Big Lebowski, a late ‘90s independent comedy), they are still potentially philosophical, as they raise questions about personal identity and its stability or fluidity. Susan functions as a double for Roberta, who emulates her look and gets mistaken for her. This underscores how the film takes questions about female identity seriously while treating them comically. Both Seidelman and screenwriter Leora Barish were influenced by the 1974 French film Celine and Julie Go Boating, which raises similar questions but is much more intellectual and arthouse than Desperately Seeking Susan. In the ‘70s, some European filmmakers had made serious, intellectual feminist films, but Desperately Seeking Susan is more accessible, with Seidelman noting there were few lighthearted, commercial, blatantly feminist films. Besides college students and sophisticated older filmgoers, Desperately Seeking Susan was accessible enough to reach teenage and preteen girls who emulated Madonna and her look, just like Roberta.

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In terms of style and sensibility, the film went some way towards overturning the long shadow and contested cultural legacy of the late ‘60s, which many films, such as The Big Chill, grappled with in the ‘80s. Stylistically, it is very much an ‘80s punk/New Wave counterculture film that is aggressively if comically dismissive of the ‘60s hippie sensibility (as well as of ‘80s yuppie suburbanites like Gary Glass). The 20-something stars of Desperately Seeking Susan, born in the late ‘50s, belonged to the younger, punk/New Wave cohort of baby boomers, while hippies had been born in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Madonna/Susan’s garish, self-aware glamour would have been anathema to the free-spirited hippie backpacker character created by screenwriter Leora Barish. In the original 1979 screenplay, Roberta and Susan were written as 30-somethings who had come of age in the late ‘60s. While Roberta remained a repressed housewife in both the screenplay and film, Susan’s character was changed (by Seidelman) from a backpacking hippie world traveler to a punk/New Wave drifter, giving the film contemporary relevance. Instead of sporting a hippie look with long straight hair, no makeup, bell-bottoms, and Birkenstocks, Susan favors curly hair, red lipstick, hair bows, lace, leggings, and rhinestone-studded boots. She is also shown enjoying junk food, whereas the original hippie Susan would presumably have chosen brown rice and lentils over cheese doodles. All of this might have dismayed ex-hippie women watching the film, but must have delighted another generational cohort – Generation X girls in the mid-‘80s who emulated Madonna’s look and regarded hippies not as admirable free spirits but as deeply uncool, associated with parental figures who placed restrictions on makeup, sugar and junk food. Desperately Seeking Susan signaled that the age of self-imposed asceticism was over, at least in popular culture.

 

 

 

If pressed, longtime red lipstick aficionado Nadia Clare Smith would admittedly choose cheese doodles over brown rice and/or lentils. Extant photographic evidence indicates she favored hair bows like Madonna’s in the ‘80s. A historian and author of books and articles on history and film, she appreciates the laconic, laid-back ‘80s comedies of Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch, and Aki Kaurismaki, as well as other masterpieces of ‘80s comedy such as Ernest Goes to Camp and Troop Beverly Hills.

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