“It costs a lot to be authentic. And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”
—Pedro Almodovar, All About My Mother
“I would love to be desperate,” Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) remarks wistfully. She’s tucked under a bonnet dryer at a beauty parlor in Fort Lee. The year is 1985, a time when the distance between the New Jersey Palisades and the New York Port Authority means everything about the person Roberta is and whom she can become.
Roberta’s life is the least precarious of anyone she knows. She has what she is told people want: a husband — Gary Glass, New Jersey’s self-appointed hot tub king; a house and a housekeeper; a convertible car; the year’s tastefully bourgeois wardrobe. In the style of 80s suburbia, Roberta dresses older than she is; but in the manner of someone who has always been provided for, she behaves much more naively. She is grateful without being satisfied; discontent but unaware of how to achieve a feeling beyond complacency. Roberta is an observer of her own life.
Before the internet, want ads were the period’s analog message boards—desire and agency made public in cents-per-word print. In this virtuality, Roberta discovers a relationship between two personal column regulars, “Susan” and “Jim,” that is as untraditional as her own life is fixed. The couple is uncommitted but passionate; drawn together and driven apart; errant but true. The rhythm of their lives is more urgent than Roberta’s unblemished safety. In tracking this alien impulsiveness and unorthodoxy, Roberta invokes her own rebirth.
Above all, Desperately Seeking Susan proceeds by compulsions that propel and connect. When we meet Susan (Madonna), she awakes from the dregs of a lost weekend. Susan’s life is an onslaught of experiences cast off to welcome the novel and the new. Bruce Meeker (Richard Hell), the sleeping man beside her, isn’t cherished enough to wake but he’s sufficiently notable to remember. She takes a polaroid of Meeker and of herself, eats room service in her underwear and finds Jim’s broadsheet message calling her back to New York. As she departs, Susan pockets a cool Egyptianesque earring, which happens to be a priceless stolen artifact, and thereby captures the interest of gangsters chasing the bangle, and complicates all the lives that connect with Susan’s.
Susan arrives to Manhattan by boat; Roberta by car; they converge in Battery Park where Susan and Jim have arranged to rendez-vous. The couple unites and quickly disbands (Jim departs for a gig upstate), putting Susan at liberty—her best and worst condition—and allowing Roberta to follow Susan as she wanders. Roberta buys a jacket that Susan swaps for a pair of boots, and the magic of the film is conjured. Roberta becomes Susan, all at once (to the other characters who remember Susan’s wardrobe and ways more than her face) and little by little (as Roberta becomes more entrenched in her downtown wonderland).
Desperately Seeking Susan is a movie about iconography as a narrative strategy, as a cinematic device, as the foundation of an artistic career.
All of this plot wrangling is negligible, though; the story has the logic of a magic act or a dream—seemingly effortless, ritualized enchantment. Roberta gains Susan’s jacket, and thereby gains the key to Susan’s identity, specifically, the key to a port authority locker that houses her wardrobe and mementos of her past. And when Roberta loses her memory, Susan’s baggage becomes the only link to who Roberta might be.
Desperately Seeking Susan is a movie about iconography as a narrative strategy, as a cinematic device, as the foundation of an artistic career. Susan’s personal magnetism infuses each fetishized object, and the film races to keep up with Susan’s multiplying wardrobe trove: the stolen earring, the jacket, the glittery boots, Roberta’s shimmering jacket, which Susan extracts as temporary payment for her missing wardrobe. The most bewitching moments are visual tableaux depicting these items: Susan, changing her clothes in a public restroom; Susan in her adorned pyramid jacket, contemplating the Hudson; Roberta, in the same stance and wardrobe. Susan sits on a railing, striking a match to her boot sole. Susan undulates at Danceteria. Susan in her bra, eats cheese puffs, lounges by Roberta’s pool and reads her diary.
The story was inspired by Jacques Rivette’s New Wave classic, Celine et Julie vont en bateau, in which two women are mysteriously linked when one picks up the discarded clothes of the other. Their identities become conflated, and they embark on an adventure through Paris in a nearly silent homage to Alice in Wonderland. While the summary may roughly parallel the plot of Susan, it says nothing about the disparity in tone, a difference that has everything to do with downtown New York in the late 70s and early 80s.
The originally proposed cast were Diane Keaton as a former hippie and Goldie Hawn as her wannabe. The go-to directors were Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) or Walter Hill (The Warriors). When Seidelman was attached to the project, she had completed her first film,Smithereens, about a woman’s madcap attempt to succeed in New York’s downtown music scene when it was desperate and dangerous.
Seidelman reconfigured the script to make Susan a postcard from the edge—a record of New York as it was, commemorating post-punk and New Wave acts, rising actors and crumbling architecture. The background actors at Danceteria are emblematic of the film’s artistic success—their halting, robotic dances and stiff, winged hairdos, their black clothes and frilly button down shirts. The Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was shot doubles as the exterior of the Magic Club. We navigate the uptown Port Authority, the downtown thrift shop Love Saves The Day, and the second run Bleecker Street Theater (now a Duane Reade) where Dez makes a living playing genre celluloid to an empty theater. Susan—in its design as well as its characters—is made by gleaners. It’s a movie about desperation made with the audacity that comes from being down at heels.
Looking at Madonna and Rosanna Arquette side by side—Herb Ritts shot the promotional image for Vanity Fair that was licensed for Desperately Seeking Susan’s poster—you witness the difference between an actor and a performer. An actor works best in character and can lag in still images. Arquette, who has a nasal voice and an overbite that makes her seem facile, can be astonishingly beautiful and effective on screen, especially in her early work for John Sayles and Martin Scorsese. She is lithe, more symmetrically perfect, more ethnically anodyne—in fact, just looks more scrubbed up and pleasing than her co-star. Madonna, by contrast, gives the camera the side eye. She is insouciant and baby-faced, as sloppy and unguarded as we’ll ever see her. It’s Madonna who draws the eye while Arquette looks worried and already forgotten, as if to underscore: playing yourself yields better results than merely being yourself.
In 1985, just before the release of Like A Virgin, Madonna had a lioness’s mane of tangled, hairsprayed hair; a wardrobe gleaned from the junk shop and a house of love; an absolute confidence in her own interest; grace in movement that countermanded any insincerity or amateurishness in her voice. Her intelligence is the poise of the teenage runaway; her confidence on fleek even before she had something substantive to say.
Above all, the film’s success depends on her leonine presence. Seidelman says her task in directing Madonna was getting her to just be on the screen. The director could talk to Arquette about character and motivation. With Madonna, she needed to capture the magnetism that paralleled the character’s charisma. Madonna herself described appearing in the film as a matter of learning choreography, an indication of how films can succeed by restricting themselves to a visual moment, to persuasive framing or energy. As an actor Madonna’s delivery always sounds flat or calculated; her gestures, in contrast, are magnificent—story-stopping, not naturalistic but compelling an audience to keep with the picture.
Clearly, Madonna is a performer not an actor—a spectacle rather than an interpreter. If acting prioritizes listening and reactivity, performing demands inner direction and absorption (perhaps the reason so many who are famous as solo performers achieve only lesser feats as actors in an ensemble). “Get Into The Groove”, the film’s theme song and anthem, was the b side to Madonna’s “Angel” single. In it, Madonna urges everyone to dance—for inspiration, for intimacy. Dance is a courtship that can be shrugged off at the end of the beat. When we watch her spin loosely around the dance floor, there is no question why Susan is desperately sought and romanticized.
Everyone has a friend who’s main role is mischief; whom you tolerate or cherish because they allow access to something other than normal life. With Susan, the idea of dress up, of play, of improvisation and irresponsibility make desperation and its dangers compelling. Each day all day is a performance. She is cavalier in her relationships and responsibilities; her friends accept the exchange for the giddiness of knowing her.
Who knows if Roberta is better off at the end of the picture? She has a hotter guy and a better wardrobe, but desperation equal parts freedom and uncertainty, lightness and a light wallet. What Roberta wants is not to look at Susan or to imitate her, but to be her—or more accurately, to be a version of herself inspired by Susan. She’s aiming for a condition, not an attitude. The condition is perhaps an act of self authorship, of which Roberta is incapable without Susan’s example. The desire to be desperate is really the urge to transform ordinary unhappiness into something more encompassing, more radical. Maybe, Susan suggests, it’s obligatory to destroy oneself regularly, like a Polaroid, like a day old newspaper, in order to be relevant to oneself.