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Music Movie Mondays: Desperately Seeking Susan

September 20, 2010

I chose Susan Seidelman’s 1985 classic Desperately Seeking Susan for a few reasons. Chief among them was my fandom. I saw the Madonna vehicle many times on Comedy Central during high school and college and was and remain charmed by it. As I opened the series with Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People, another movie dear to my heart, I thought this would be a good bookend. 

First of all, I enjoy Ann Magnuson‘s cameo as a cigarette girl who’s friends with the sought-after Susan enough that I’d wager Seidelman’s follow-up Magnuson vehicle, Making Mr. Right, warrants review if this series gets picked back up. I also enjoy anything that features Laurie Metcalf in any capacity.

Madonna’s involvement with the project of course intrigued me, especially since her role as the titular It girl echoed much of the downtown buzz she “borrowed” prior to her ascendancy as one of the 1980s’ major pop (and pop feminist) icons. As Lisa A. Lewis notes in Gender Politics and MTV, the movie’s interest in imitation and identification directly referenced how Madonna’s iconic style motivated a generation of Madonnabees adorned with outsized crucifix necklaces, drawn-on moles, and rubber bracelets. No surprise that playing a too-cool sylph with a mythogized past and second-hand credibility resulted in one of her strongest screen performances–in a supporting role, no less–from a surprisingly wooden actress. I’m sure Camille Paglia’s recent denouncement of Lady Gaga factors into a favorable reminder of the Material Girl’s past cultural supremacy, though for me it just further confirms that Paglia’s politics and musical tastes haven’t evolved past 1990.  

But at its core, I’ve always enjoyed Desperately Seeking Susan as a very clever genre hybrid. It at once channels 40s screwball comedies, 50s film noir, buddy comedies, and romantic comedies while destabilizing all of these filmic points of reference. It recontextualizes it in suburban New Jersey and NYC. It also keeps Susan (Madonna) away from her bored housewife admirer Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), who briefly assumes her identity after a bout of amnesia while foregrounding their psychic connection. The movie abides by its Hays Code-era influences by giving each character male love interests, but as with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there’s little doubt who’s in love with who in this production.

On a final note, tonight’s entry marks the close of the Music Movie Monday series with I Fry Mine in Butter. Before I take my leave, I’d like to say that it’s been a delight to share Web real estate with such a coterie of whip-smart pop culture critics. I’ll keep checking in here as a fan, and I do hope you’ll follow me back to my blog, Feminist Music Geek. Thanks!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 8:11 pm

    I’ve always loved this movie too. I thought about it recently when watching a Perry Mason TV movie featuring a blatantly Madonna-ish character. Thanks for these posts!

  2. September 20, 2010 8:52 pm

    Yay! This was Fry Butter’s 500th post!! Alyx, this was a great summer series, I hope you will come back again in the near future with another one.

    Also, I love that you name-checked Camilla Paglia. She is my favorite person to read and roll my eyes at. Have you seen Watermelon Woman? Her part in it is AMAZING, and I love that Cheryl Dunye got that out of her.

  3. September 20, 2010 9:02 pm

    Thank you so much, Alyx. This was a lovely series and it was great having you! What an awesome coda and 500th post! Cheers!

  4. September 20, 2010 11:52 pm

    Looking at this film today just reminds me how THAT New York, the city of the film did exist at one time, but does not any more. I mean… lockers at the Port Authority Bus Terminal?! And for all the grittiness of the setting, it all seems so terribly innocent in a lot of ways now. It’s very touching and sweet and sad, much like Alyx leaving IFMiB!!

    Best wishes, good luck and knock ’em dead, Alyx! Thanks for keeping us entertained, and keep on learning.

  5. September 21, 2010 11:48 am

    Thanks, Alyx! I will be reading you over at FMG because now how am I gonna get my fix?

    I haven’t watched this in AGES, so now I’m going to have to add it to the queue. Madonna’s acting is always pretty flat, but I do have a huge soft spot for her golden era (including Who’s That Girl?) and her obvious energy and enthusiasm for the projects she does.

  6. evmaroon permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:05 pm

    I had the chance to talk to Dunye after a screening of WW, and she said that the Paglia cameo was one of her favorite parts of making the film! And I just shook my head at that nonsense. But I really liked Dunye, don’t get me wrong, and if anyone ever has the opportunity to have brunch with a film director, they should take it.

  7. September 21, 2010 12:57 pm

    omg, Ev, that made my day. I mean, she totally punked Camilla, right? That is how I read that scene and why I love it. Paglia does not require refuting, just let her talk long enough and she does herself in.

  8. September 21, 2010 1:05 pm

    Madonna’s acting is always pretty flat

    @poplife, I don’t think she’s acting so much as behaving in this film. I’d put her performance just a half-notch above Joey Ramone’s in Rock and Roll High School.

  9. September 22, 2010 6:06 pm

    Oh, I love this movie! It’s just so fun and so accurately captures the spirit of the time and place (or at least, my own idealistic view of it). I’m sorry I only got into the Music Movie Mondays recently, but I’ll be sure to go back and check out earlier posts!

  10. September 23, 2010 1:16 am

    The small roles in this film are like a who’s-who of the New York underground art and performance scene of the 80s! It’s kind of amazing to watch it now and see how many people were unknown then and much more known now. And it makes me miss the New York that once was even more.

    And I love that you mentioned Making Mr. Right! That is one of my favorite wacky 80s films of all time.

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  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Desperately Seeking Susan « Feminist Music Geek

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