Director: Susan Seidelman
Stars: Madonna, Rosanna Arquette, Aidan Quinn
Nobody’s liable to write rhapsodically about the acting career of Madonna Louise Ciccone. The reputation of the Queen of Pop, even in music circles, has taken some tarnish over the past two decades or so (her ’80s run remains peerless, however), but there’s been a consensus on her onscreen work more-or-less from the get-go. And while there are exceptions to the rule (Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, this), it mostly holds true that Madonna and motion pictures = disaster. And while I also maintain a strange, nostalgic attachment to her exceedingly lame foray into erotic thrillers (1993’s Body of Evidence), if pushed, I’d readily cite Desperately Seeking Susan as her one true silver screen gem.
The film centres on Rosanna Arquette’s dissatisfied housewife Roberta Glass, living in the lap of luxury in New Jersey with her sales entrepreneur husband Gary (a perfectly square Mark Blum). Their life together is a picture of all that was aspirational in the ’80s. Affluent. Materialistic. But Roberta longs for the romantic. For escape. It’s a character type which was coming to the fore as a rebuke to the Reaganomics of the decade. You can see more-or-less the same malaise in Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder from the previous year’s smash Romancing the Stone.
Roberta ascribes magic and mystery to a woman she doesn’t know named Susan (Madonna), known to her only via a series of cryptic personal ads that she’s followed for some months in the paper. Roberta takes to stalking Susan, who is laying low in Buffalo, NY to avoid some criminal fallout from an escapade in Atlantic City. Cracking the code of her personal ads, Roberta follows her to a thrift store. Susan hocks a rather snazzy, eye-catching jacket there (supposedly once owned by Jimi Hendrix, imprinting the film with additional pop music mysticism), and Roberta picks it up as a souvenir.
As the women have similar build and hair-colouring, a case of mistaken identity quickly ensues. Adding a wonderful dazzle of movie magic to the mix, Roberta suffers a bump on the head and becomes amnesiac. Nice guy Dez (Aidan Quinn) takes her in and she assumes she is Susan. Like an urban Wizard of Oz, Roberta finds herself in an alternate reality – a raw, dangerous, working class reality – it just so happens to coexist in the same universe as her prior, affluent life where Susan has wormed her way into comfort. One might also call the film a sexier remix of John Landis’ Trading Places.
Seidelman was an inspired choice for Desperately Seeking Susan, having previously conjured together the scrappy Smithereens; a down and dirty embrace of the New York post-punk scene that featured enough scuzzy sincerity to get it a place in the venerated Criterion Collection). Seidelman brings some of that same sensibility to bear here. As a result, Desperately manufactures a level of earthen realism in its portrait of NYC; a sense of authenticity that most Hollywood romantic comedies of the era wouldn’t particularly care to capture. This is mainstream escapism that comes with a worn-in sense of its own cool. It works all the better for Seidelman’s relatively straight shooting. She doesn’t beg for street cred, and so her movie acquires it honestly.
The casting of Madonna as the film’s larger-than-life mystery woman is similarly inspired. The singer had, by this point, released a slew of hit singles and two sensational pop albums (1983’s Madonna and 1984’s Like a Virgin), and was a bonafide superstar. This celebrity and her fast-established reputation as an outspoken fashionista, provocateur and feminist icon lend Susan a pre-packaged ‘otherness’ by association. We believe the character, can imagine her poor and hustling, but we also see Madonna, radiating confidence and sex appeal.
Madonna is, ultimately a supporting player in all this, and that’s for the best. A little goes a long way, as they say, and she sparkles with what she’s allowed to be; a figure of want who is mostly out of reach for the viewer and Roberta alike. The lion’s share of the movie is carried by Arquette. And while the character’s amnesia does chime with the Born Sexy Yesterday trope that’s been identified in the years since, Arquette holds court and beguiles in front of the camera, showing breezy chemistry with Quinn. Desperately is a spirited showcase for her.
Viewed now from a vantage of almost 40 years, there’s also fun to be had spotting a smattering of well-known and successful character actors – and New York film and theatre staples – in relatively early roles. Study the peripheries of the story and you’ll find a fresh-faced John Turturro as a lacklustre club compare, Laurie Metcalf as Roberta’s sister-in-law Leslie, and even Giancarlo Esposito in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him flash. The aforementioned club provides perhaps Desperately‘s sugariest comedy aside, as Roberta strives to make a living as a magician’s assistant. Dressed up like Debbie McGee – a further layering of performance and costuming to assume character – she has a proto-Lynchian aura of Pretty ’50s innocence. As Turturro’s Ray says, “Nice try, kid.”
One might argue that Roberta swaps one set of unsustainable aspirations for another, trading the coveted accoutrements of middle-class suburban life for the allure of shabby-chic danger, but more keenly the film is about her loosing herself from the shackles of a conventional, repressed and patriarchal lifestyle. With her societal programming erased – along with her memory – Roberta is free to configure herself as she wishes. As Susan she is more free-spirited, sexually liberated, more liable to take chances. Gary chides to Leslie that his wife “doesn’t even like sex”. It’s meant as a punchline, but the movie shows the comment as a mockingly erroneous assumption.
With some generosity Gary gets close to experiencing something similar to Roberta’s awakening. Seeking his missing wife, he meets the real Susan in a smoky club (where, hey, they’re playing Madonna!). Conspicuously buttoned-up in comparison to the other patrons, he is effectively seduced by Susan’s sexually provocative dancing. Before he knows it, she’s back at his place and they’re smoking pot together. This – in a piece of wry commentary on class disparity – is juxtaposed with Roberta getting booked for suspected sex work.
For all it’s subversive elements – in the context of the genre and mainstream cinema of the time – Desperately is a puff piece. A fantasy. But it’s a fantasy of liberation. Both Roberta and Gary are encouraged to acknowledge that sexual desire (roleplay included) is natural and healthy. Fantasies acted upon can be dangerous, sure, but they can also be satisfying and thrilling. The urge to the audience, one senses, is that it is similarly okay to lighten up, experiment, and seek pleasures outside of empty consumerism.
Desperately can’t quite overcome materialistic tropes. It’s a product of the ’80s, after all. The jacket is and remains a wanted item. But said jacket also stands for the more luminous aspects that the film celebrates. The desire to live a little more. And, in its method, it evidences life more vividly than many of its peers.