In this energetic romantic comedy, Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, a bored and frustrated housewife married to the wealthy Gary Glass (Mark Blum), but becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the soulless, suburban yuppy nightmare she is trapped in. Out of boredom, she's started to obsessively read the ads in the New York papers and becomes particularly interested in one ongoing saga involving Jim and the free spirit Susan (Madonna), who goes all over the world from month to month living a glamorous life style. One day she reads a new ad which reads "Desperately Seeking Susan." When Roberta goes to the destination mentioned in the ad, Battery Park, she spots Susan. After buying Susan's jacket (once worn by Jimi Hendrix), she arranges another meeting at Battery Park. Later, Roberta is knocked out cold and wakes up with amnesia, and is mistaken for Susan. Meanwhile, some less than savoury types are searching for some stolen Egyptian earrings which Susan has in her trunk and the plot thickens.
It's a simple enough storyline, but little clever touches are added in to keep it fresh. Writer Leora Barish ensures the script never becomes saggy, filling it full of unexpected (and often comfortingly expected) plot twists and funny gags. Director Susan Seidelman keeps up the pace too, ensuring the farce moves speedily.
The part of Susan was one of the most battled for Hollywood female roles that year, even though the film was quite low in its budget. Originally, the producers saw this as a vehicle for superstars Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, but even by the mid 80s they were arguably too old to be playing the roles of Susan and Roberta. There were numerous other actresses up for Madonna's role, including, very nearly, Ellen Barkin, but it's hard to think of anyone else but Madonna in that part now. With her iconic jacket, endless outfit changes, huge trunk, dark sunglasses and care free attitude, this was a truly brilliant acting debut for Madonna, a role that was not unlike like herself (cocksure and confident), with just a little bit of bohemian flare added in (somewhat reminiscent of photos from her earlier rebellious days in bands). Her second album Like A Virgin was selling madly at the time of release. When she was originally cast however, she was not a huge mega star and her rise to the top coincided with the film's theatrical release, helping to make the movie a box office hit. After all, it was only a 4 million dollar film, relatively low budget by Hollywood's standards and had little riding on it.
Director Susan Seidelman looked back on the film's success in 2009: "When it came out it 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."
Madonna's presence though, at a time when her fame was becoming stratospheric and every young girl wanted to look and dress like her, made this film the hit it was and gave it a much needed dose of natural charisma. Madonna's Susan is a magical creation, a careless and cool character who sort of strolls on to the screen and nonchalantly dominates any scene she is in. There's a naturalistic edge to it, and you get the impression she was getting a real buzz out of playing this free spirit, cruising from town to town looking for new adventures. She did her own hair and make up for the film too, so clearly she had a similar level of artistic control over her character as she did with her music.
Just how much of Madonna's role in the film is down to acting though is another matter. This is definitely a star performance and she is effortlessly magnetic whenever on the screen. Madonna is speaking her lines with an coolness, as if she couldn't care less what anyone thinks and perhaps this is the key to why it was such an authentic characterisation. Maybe Madonna herself didn't care what anyone thought. She had bagged a part in a big movie, a now iconic role and clearly at the time, a much desired character. It was the perfect part for her - her first big appearance in the movies, in a role that combined her true self with a little touch of liberated movie exoticism. Madonna was just being naturalistic and cleverly altering already apparent facets of herself to fit in with Susan. Still, she holds her own with the more experienced Arquette and her other co stars, including a brilliant Aidan Quinn.
Although her character is almost the whole of the 1980s personified into one pop cultural entity, there is much more to it than that. Watching the plot becoming more daft and complex, you think back to classic cinema of yesteryear and those quirky female leads from the golden era; Audrey Hepburn at her kookiest, a touch of vintage Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine. It's the kind of star performance that is hard to define and a very old fashioned comedy in many ways; that glamorous presence, the few chosen words, the charm and the overwhelming appeal which makes every man in the film fall over themselves to get to her. It's remarkable that such an inexperienced actress could make such a big impression in her first film.
"In the case of Desperately Seeking Susan," director Seidelman recalled, "because Madonna had never acted in a film before, I didn’t cast her for her experience as an actress but because she had an interesting persona that I thought would be right for the character of Susan, and I wanted to capture that on celluloid."
In another interview she said "Madonna lived down the street from me, so she wasn’t “Madonna,” in quotes. I knew her from people who were in the downtown music scene. I can’t postulate what kind of response the film would have gotten had Madonna’s star not risen so fantastically in such a short period of time. Sometimes things converge and make a thing that’s even bigger than the two alone. By the time we
finished shooting the film, Madonna’s Like a Virgin album came out and that’s what catapulted her to the first level of stardom. You never knew how long that was going to last, but certainly that made a huge splash. Simultaneously she had this movie, and had the movie not been well received, it wouldn’t have mattered. But the fact that she’s good in the movie, people seemed to like the movie and she suddenly had this meteoric album — all that converged. So much about what makes something happen or not happen has to do with having the right stuff at the right time."
At the Los Angeles premier, fans gathered from miles around to catch a glimpse of their heroine arriving at the screening. In the video of the event, Madonna blows them all a kiss, playing the movie star with ease. She says of her character "She's irresponsible, she's adventurous, she's courageous and she's very vulnerable." The interviewer asks, "is she Madonna?" The Queen of Pop herself looks into the camera and tellingly replies "we have some things in common."
On the set of the movie itself, Madonna gave an interview for television, saying "I play Susan, a very free spirited femme fatale, charming everyone and breaking people's hearts. But everyone likes her because she represents fun and adventure." Again, she could have been talking about herself and she knew that very well.
Released the year I was born, this film has a lovely nostalgic feel to it now, with the music, the fashion and the dialogue. It's a perfect snapshot of a time, when Madonna's very appearance told you she was something unique. She has some wonderful moments throughout, not least her first appearance in the bedroom, snapping pictures of her one night stand and packing her suitcase up for the next chapter. Another great scene gives us a telling glimpse into how Susan lives her life, washing in a public rest room, oblivious to what the other women might think, as she dries her arm pits under the hand dryer. Yes Susan is wild, free and ready for the next thrill, but there is something almost childish behind this breezy, sharp dressed front. It's almost as if there's a hint of that little girl lost about her, somewhere deep inside perhaps.
Another stand out scene, perhaps the most famous in the movie, is when Madonna amusingly dances to her own song, the brilliant Into the Groove, in a smoky 1980s night club spot. Typically for Madonna, unarguably the greatest PR woman in the world, she makes sure we hear the song in its entirety, literally having to prick up our ears to pick out the dialogue from under the music. Now that's genius.
Madonna aside, the film flows wonderfully and the script is tight as can be. The supporting cast are all on top form too, working in aid of the farcical plot. It was a big hit at the time and proved successful with the critics too, who saw it as a charming throwback to the farces of the 1930s. I liken it to Woody Allen, in its tone, quirky characters, performance style and plot shifts.
Reviews at the time seem to agree it's a decent film, a somewhat freakish surprise hit that came from nowhere. Roger Ebert thought it was solid, commenting "What I liked in Desperately Seeking Susan was the cheerful way it bopped around New York, introducing us to unforgettable characters, played by good actors. It has its moments, and many of them involve the different kinds of special appeal that Arquette and Madonna are able to generate. In a dizzying plot they somehow succeed in creating specific, interesting characters."
Retrospective reviews all seem to agree that it was the one definitive movie where Madonna found her perfect role. Time Out wrote that it was an "emancipated screwball comedy, even if the plotting is square as a square peg. Madonna has never found a better fit than the role of Susan, a thrift-store free spirit - and even then Arquette gives as good as she gets with a deliciously kooky comic turn."
Looking back on the classic movie, BluRay.com wrote "Desperately Seeking Susan has a fresh, youthful way about it that keeps it humming along when dramatics fail to earn interest. Perhaps this is the Madonna magic in motion, with the star's iconic style and swagger sparking the picture to life whenever she's onscreen, creating a personal aura of irresistibility."
It has to be said that much of its success and longevity is down to Madonna's presence alone, even though the film still works on numerous levels. It caught her at that magic point in time, resulting in an explosive collision of star and movie, that could never be repeated again.
I ask a few questions with Leora Barish, who wrote the screenplay for Desperately Seeking Susan.
How did you come up with the idea for the film? Do you remember how it started?
I had seen and loved Jacque Rivette’s film, Celine and Julie Go Boating. In it, an ordinary woman living an imaginatively very modest life sees a woman on the street - a chaotic, charismatic, mysterious woman - and simply gets up and follows her into an alternate reality which you feel is an invention of the strange woman’s imagination. Together, they start to play with that reality. It’s about playing and reality and women being the imaginative creators of their lives - a fantastic movie. A few days after I saw it, I noticed the personals in, I think, the Village Voice or maybe it was another paper, and the personals seemed to fit into a Rivette-like premise.
Looking back now, Madonna got the Susan role. How did she fill the part from how you envisioned it in the script?
Pretty much perfectly. She slipped into the role and it fit her like a glove because it was kind of like her own bad-girl Boy Toy persona at the time, and on top of that, she rocked it. I think she especially connected with the amoral, pseudo criminal, selfish, powerful, curious, improvisational qualities of Susan.
It's got to be Madonna's most celebrated film role today. Do you think it's a good performance?
She’s an accomplished, charismatic performer, but she’s not really, you know, an actor.
How much control did she have over the part? Did she change much about her original character?
It’s like a tune that she could play the shit out of. Like I said, she rocked it. She added her own riffs that revealed it, enhanced it, made it more saturated.
This film was made by strong women and stars strong women. What are your views on female movie roles today?
The importance of women characters and actors in film has mostly deteriorated since the 70s and probably before that: the 50s, the 30s. I happened to watch some of Serpico last night; the female characters as written in that movie are inexplicably dreadful, so go figure. I’ve never made a study of women in film, so I don’t know enough to have an opinion on those changes. However, one more note on that: there are lots of male buddy movies in which the women are irrelevant and almost no female buddy movies in which men are irrelevant, so that’s interesting, right?
Or go to Amazon for a paperback or kindle ebook