TONS OF VIDEOS RIGHT HERE.
It was 24 hours of Desperately Seeking Susan for me this week, meeting Madonna on Wednesday for the celebration of her and Lola's Material Girl line and then meeting a surprisingly large contingent of the cast and crew of that '80s classic the following night when the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a 25th-anniversary screening.
Tickets to the event and after-party had been hard to come by, and it's no wonder—on top of some members of the press, the 268-seat theater must have had at least 25 people who'd worked on the movie, plus all their guests.
Left to right, top to bottom: Susan Seidelman's intro; Rosanna Arquette's bond with—and Mark Blum's raunchy screen-test with—Madonna; rushing the film out in case Madonna was a "flash-in-the-pan"; and funny casting stories...
The night started during the day for me. I was determined to be in the front of the theater for the post-screening Q&A, so I showed up just after 5:00 p.m.—even though the screening was two and a half hours away! Yes, this is extreme, even for me. There was a one-man line outside waiting for last-second tickets and I became a one-man line inside for an hour before others drifted in. During this time, I was entertained by the staff's witty comments...they'd make a good cast for the sequel, and their struggles to assemble the microscopic step-and-repeat (more like a stand-and-leave) were screwball-worthy.
I overheard that the cast would show up around 6:30, so was hoping I'd be able to grab them for photos since I was the first-in-line loon. Instead, my partner stopped by with his assistant, an embarrassing first meeting if ever there was one. ("Hi...gotta go protect my spot!") Eventually, some people I knew showed up and the staff put up the "LINE FORMS HERE" sign—I'd been so early I'd predated it.
I was the Desperately Seeking Susan 25th-anniversary screening Big Bang.
They let us in and I staked out my spot in the first row on the aisle while my friends spread out. The stage had so many chairs it was hard to figure who from the movie would be filling them other than the announced participants: director Susan Seidelman, producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, screenwriter Leora Barish and stars Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn. Pillsbury, still wearing her producer's hat, took it upon herself to announce to the front row that Madonna would not be coming; she could tell there had been that flicker of hope. "It's okay, though," she said, "Rosanna Arquette is here and she's really the star."
I'm so disappointed Madonna decided to skip this event—I assume she didn't like the allusion that she might come as an unnamed "special guest", she might also have thought everyone involved made their money off of her already, or it could just be another symptom of her pathological fear of nostalgia—but it was still somehow retro-delicious that 25 years later there was still that push-and-pull over whose movie it really is, and that it was still she whom everyone was desperately seeking.
Finally, Seidelman was introduced and gave a short speech about her film in which she called out New York itself as one of the stars and noted that the first scene shot (August 20, 1984, days after Madonna turned 26) was that of Susan finding the newspaper about the stolen earrings (at left).
She also reminded us of the film's feminist cred—it had female producers, a female director, a female writer and was primarily about two women. That would be rare now and was unheard of then.
Watching the film again (I had just seen it last year at a far smaller screening Seidelman hosted Downtown) on the big screen was as much of a treat as I'd anticipated. Instead of being difficult to find more things to say about Desperately Seeking Susan, it's hard not to notice new things with every viewing. That's because this is not a film that's dominated by wonderful performances or a compelling style or a captivating plot or funny dialogue or a relatable theme, it's a film endowed with all of these things. For being as whimsical as it is and as effortless, Susan is satisfyingly dense in every aspect, loaded to the gills with authentic Downtowners, offbeat situations and one-liners of the sort that are often pared down in favor of keeping movie-goers focused on a simple narrative.
A couple of things that struck me this time:
First, I was fixating on the idea of Rosanna Arquette and Madonna as the two halves of Marilyn Monroe, with Rosanna's Roberta the innocent and Madonna's Susan the vamp. It's classic madonna/whore, except in this case Madonna's no madonna.
Also, being a grown-up helps my appreciation for Robert's inner struggle. Being older helps you understand "the Madonna movie" better??? Keep in mind the film is no teenybopper flick; it was originally going to be even more European, like Diva, and R-rated until Madonna's surprise supersuccess pushed it into PG-13 territory. I bet most people remember it as a mindless teen-star vehicle just because that's how it made its money, but it's nothing like that; Madonna's stardom is the filmmakers' blessing and in some ways is the curse of the film's artistic legacy.
I think as a teen I related to frustrated New Jersey housewife Roberta back in '85 because I was a kid wishing I could make the leap from the 'burbs of Michigan to dangerous New York City. Who cares if the grass is greener on the other side when it's asphalt you crave? But now, I relate to her yearning to re-invent herself from a perspective that's probably much closer to how her part was originally written—she was the original desperate housewife, and I think most of us settled types fantasize about living dangerously, or at least differently.
In that regard, Arquette's performance is emotionally pitch-perfect. On paper, she's miscast—she was only about 25 when she got the part (Mark Blum, who memorably plays her sleazy husband Gary Glass, was 10 years older), probably too young to already be rushing home to play Julia Child for an inattentive spouse. But her vulnerability fills the big screen; Roberta is a real woman who wants some action in her life real bad. She's so honestly needy that her voyeuristic fixation on Susan isn't creepy or pathetic, it's completely human and only slightly naughty.
On that tip, I noticed the brief scene in which Roberta looks at a Polaroid of Susan before nip-slipping into her bubble bath and wondered why I'd not thought of a possible lesbian undertone before. Roberta might have vaguely lesbian interest in Susan...you think you'd know if Roberta was supposed to be a lesbian? You didn't even know she was a prostitute!
The Keith Haring van that was painted over and returned to its owner after filming
The film holds up in every way. Seidelman worried it would be cheesy dated, but it's so thoroughly about New York in the '80s that it's more like opening the best time capsule ever. Instead of feeling dated, it feels timeless, possibly because there are so many iconic elements: It's got the best version of Madonna, some of the best pop music (I don't know that Madonna's ever topped "Into the Groove"), the best club (Danceteria), the best art (Keith Haring painted Robert Joy's character Jimmy's van as well as Susan's bag) and the best lines ("Good going, stranger!" "How do you use the birds?"). It also manages to skillfully portray a sort of class struggle, sketching the worlds of the Normal People (who aren't poor so don't buy used clothing and who take Valium) and the Abnormal People (who work dead-end jobs but express themselves through colorful clothing, questionable friendships, pot, petty theft and dining on free Chinese food in uninhabitable lofts).
I don't think I'm overselling this movie's iconic riches just because I happen to like it a lot. Everything about Madonna's styling became forever imprinted on a generation's brain as the "Boy Toy" look, especially her jacket, which itself has that iconic pyramid, created after Egypt's universally known wonders. And let's not forget that the film's title became a catchphrase still in use today.
The final thing I wanted to say about this viewing of the movie is that I continue to be impressed by just how excellent each element is.
Seidelman praises the cast and remembers the genesis; wanting Rosanna; Rosanna getting the script from Kenny Ortega; introducing various cast & crew in the audience...
As was pointed out in the Q&A, Seidelman's eye for style is both impeccable and unconventional scene to scene. The use of red-tinted gels in the city scenes gives the movie a subtle fairytale vibe; Seidelman even likened it to Alice in Wonderland. Santo Loquasto was given loads of credit, too, especially for turning the abandoned Audubon Ballroom into the charmingly seedy Magic Club, where magic indeed seemed to take place.
The comedic timing by Laurie Metcalf as Roberta's busybody sis-in-law, Blum and the film's countless minor characters and walk-ons is absolutely spot-on. Even someone like the Glasses' housekeeper gets huge laughs, and Joyce Griffen may have only made one movie in her life, but her inquisitive prostitute is indelible. (Seidelman is a regular screen-hooker whisperer—check out the late Katherine Riley in Smithereens!) Quinn grounds everything and has such heart, not to mention doing more than his fair share toward giving Roberta and Dez amazing couple chemistry. (I know it's called acting but dayum...did they really not fool around at the time? There were more sparks than a welder's convention.)
And the writing is dizzyingly successful, whether we're talking about the laugh-out-loud dialogue or the thought to have Roberta finishing off some cake alone in her kitchen one night (the cake she longs to have...well, at least she can eat it).
In short, I continue to see Desperately Seeking Susan as just about the perfect movie.
After, all of the announced participants took the stage, with exec producer Michael Peyser and Blum as surprises. It was magical seeing some of the core cast reassembled, and for me the names Pillsbury and Sanford are just as memorable thanks to all the various Susan posters and goodies I've acquired over the years.
Writer Barish (pictured at left with me) was the first to speak, remembering that her inspiration was the French film Celine and Julie Go Boating. Seidelman hadn't known that before reading the script, but independently volunteered that as a point of reference—I have no idea if the four filmmakers fought much during the making (I imagine Orion, R.I.P., had a lot to say based on Barish's note that there were tons of script changes), but they definitely somehow seemed to all be on the same page even if the words on that page might have been different from time to time.
Arquette (and everyone, really) was completely gracious about Madonna, volunteering to speak about her despite her absence and despite the fact that Madonna's fame overshadowed what was arguably one of the more experienced actress's best performances. She said she and Madonna were "very, very close" during filming despite having only "one scene" together (well, there's the scene where Roberta rescues Susan, then there's the scene with the newspaper and also the deleted ending on the camels), and remembered Madonna "showing up at my hotel room at 3:00 in the morning..." She remembered having seen Madonna's "Lucky Star" video and being impressed.
It was a hoot when Arquette admitted to not remembering much from the '80s—and so appropriate that the woman who brought Roberta to life would suffer from her own bit of amnesia. (Seidelman noticed this, too.)
Blum was the funniest of the cast, joking about having kicked Bruce Willis's ass for the part and recounting that he'd never forget the first thing Madonna ever said to him. "I'm not gonna tell you what it is, but I'll never forget it." His story about screen-testing with Madonna, who his mistook for a bike messenger, was equally funny, centering around her deciding to "misbehave" by kissing and licking the side of his face throughout. "It seemed inappropriate but...fun."
Quinn was the quietest. I'm totally reading into it but I wonder if maybe he doesn't get the film's enduring appeal. I would almost bet he enjoyed the experience (at least now that it's 25 years behind him) more than he ever thought of Desperately Seeking Susan as a momentous part of his career. He struck me—again, superficially—as a guy very much like Des, a serious dude too grounded to be too distracted by magic acts and Nefertiti earrings. I would bet anything that if anyone had something sharp to say about Madonna that they were holding back, it'd be him.
The producers, Seidelman and the writer were fascinating to listen to. I wish it had gone on and on...like this post!
Of course I was dying to ask where all the props (especially the Polaroids!) are today, but I asked the actors if they ever thought while making the film that it would achieve iconic status. Arquette told us she really didn't (she seemed to imply it mainly went there due to Madonna) while Blum articulated that because the film is "about possibilities" and that because so many of the people behind it were young and energetic and imaginative, it was a sort of perfect storm, leading to it being so memorable for so many of us.
They only took a handful of other questions and then it was up to me to be the first fanboy to storm the stage. Seeing Seidelman and her actors assembled, I asked Quinn if I might take a photo with them. He agreed and hurried things along so it would happen.
I always feel like a pushy insurance salesman in these situations, but it's also a matter of: Grin and bear it or forever regret the missed opportunity.
I also tracked down Anna Levine (Crystal) and got a solo shot with Arquette as she was leaving (and just before she lost her patience...poor girl was mobbed for photos as everyone walked over to Shun Lee for the after-party.
Once inside, we grabbed a table and a group of Madonna fans talked about the missing star. Arquette, Quinn and Seidelman wound up in a corner booth, staying until the lights started flickering. I was able to get pictures with José Angel Santana (the clerk who swapped those killer boots to Susan—pictured at left) and with Barish—I made a point of posing with the writer because we writers don't get enough credit and she wrote this incredibly complex, effective script by herself.
Finally, I left, loaded with vegetarian dumplings and feeling like Roberta when she first dons Susan's bad-ass pyramid jacket.