Thirty years after its release, Julie Mayhew rewatches the film that gave us Madonna, mistaken identities and the iconic use of a hand dryer to see if it’s stood the test of time.
What and why: The story of New York housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) who is fed up with her affluent, canapé-filled life and her unfaithful hot-tub salesman husband, Gary, so she seeks excitement and romance through the newspaper personal ads.
Specifically, she is obsessed with the ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ ads placed by itinerant musician Jimmy so he can get laid by his wayward girlfriend Susan (Madonna) whenever he’s in town. No Snapchatting for this pair, this is 1985.
Every girl who saw this film went straight out, flipped the blower on the hand-dryer in the public loos and blasted her armpits. In a sexy way, of course. Because, though this film is about Roberta, we are all obsessed with Susan. Or rather Madonna, because Susan basically is Madonna.
This film is the reason a generation of girls filled their wrists with black plastic bangles and permed their fringes, why they let their bras show and wore pants on top of their tights, why they dreamed of one day living out of one suitcase and relying not on the kindness of strangers but on the steamrollering of them. I own a jacket very similar to the iconic one at the centre of the film because I spotted it in Anthropologie a couple of years ago and shrieked like a kid all the way to the cash till.
Rated or dated: Like any film you used to watch on repeat, the dialogue is still in your head, like revision for an exam you never had to take. And this dialogue is sharp and clever – particular when Roberta’s razor-edged sister-in law Leslie (Laurie Metcalf) is scissoring thorough suburban boredom or sexist bullshit. Even minor characters are gifted golden one-liners, like the know-all taxi-driver who tells Susan how he’s tried sushi – “I took it home, I cooked it, it wasn’t bad. It tasted like fish.”
It would be easy to dismiss this film as a lowbrow comic caper – it relies on the recurring device of someone banging their head and losing their memory after all – but the film’s themes of loneliness and the quest for authenticity sing strong. As a younger viewer I may have desperately wanted to be Susan, but watching it again I could see how Susan was just as lonely as Roberta, using strangers for food, board and temporary love.
Rather than dated, this film was ahead of its time. When we first see Susan, she is taking a selfie (albeit with a Polaroid camera rather than Instagram); early on we see Roberta cooking along to FoodTube forerunner Julia Childs, while Gary is busy boring everyone with his no-sugar diet.
The credits rolled and my husband turned to me and said: “Doesn’t it feel odd to watch a film that is all about the female characters, and the men are just fluff?” It’s true. The men in this film are given the clichéd female roles – the ditz (Susan’s boyfriend Jimmy), the hot love interest (blue-eyed, bare-chested Aidan Quinn as Dez) and the tedious nag (Roberta’s husband Gary).
In fact, I’m still desperately seeking a film, 30 years on, that dares to do the same. RATED.4063 Views
Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.