Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
Susan Seidelman had just completed her first feature when the Cannes Film Festival came calling. In 1982, Seidelman wasn’t yet 30; she was only a few years out of film school and had only a single feature under her belt. But that didn’t matter to the world’s most well-regarded festival. They wanted Seidelman’s “Smithereens,” and the ensuing reception for the film — a punk-infused dark comedy about the bohemian underworld of New York City featuring a not entirely likable lead character — didn’t just change Seidelman’s life; it changed the way American independent cinema was received around the world.
“Smithereens,” shot guerilla-style around the city with a cast and crew made up of many of the filmmaker’s NYU classmates, marked a sea change for Cannes: It was the first American independent feature had been selected for a revered competition slot. And that was just the beginning for Seidelman, who would go on to direct a slew of female-focused comedies, from the Madonna-starring “Desperately Seeking Susan” to the Roseanne Barr vehicle “She-Devil,” not to mention a healthy career directing for television — including the pilot for “Sex and the City.”
Back then, however, Seidelman couldn’t believe her luck with “Smithereens.”
“It was accepted into the festival probably about a week or two after I took the first print out of the film lab,” Seidelman recently told IndieWire. “Most people have to wait months or years to get into a festival, and there’s an elaborate process. This was so unexpected.”
A Second Life For “Smithereens”
That sense of disbelief continued even as Seidelman and her star, Susan Berman, hit the French festival to debut the feature. “It was sort of like we were both Alice in Wonderland,” the filmmaker recalled. “Suddenly, the two of us who made this funky little movie show up, and there we are walking up the red carpet of the Palais. It was all slightly surreal.”
The film enjoyed a limited release in the U.S. that fall, and while it didn’t burn up the box office, it opened to extremely favorable reviews. The New York Times critic Janet Maslin was a fan, and Emanuel Levy lauded it for its distinctly feminine spin on the “unlikable lead” genre. The film isn’t especially hard to find — it’s been on DVD for years, and online streaming platform MUBI previously made it available to its subscribers — but it’s hardly enjoyed the kind of full-body revival and reissue that the Metrograph is providing for it now.
Nearly 35 years later, Seidelman’s breakthrough feature is getting a second life, thanks to a weeklong revival at New York City’s Metrograph, complete with a fresh 35mm print. Seidelman herself never thought it would resurface this way.
“I was kind of concerned that the print was lost forever,” she said. “The only print that I knew of in existence before this new one was made, was something that had literally been sitting under my bed through hot summers and cold winters.” Convinced it had actually pickled, Seidelman never expected that a fresh print could be made, nor that she’d be able to see her film back up on the big screen in the very city that made it possible.
“I Loved Movies”
Seidelman came to New York City in the ’70s to pursue her passion at New York University’s film school – “it was pretty funky” back then, she laughed – which mainly involved an insatiable hunger to experience different films.
“I came from a small suburb outside of Philadelphia,” Seidelman explained. “There were no art cinemas back then. I loved movies, but I never saw European films or anything other than what was playing at the local movie theater. It opened up a whole world of just other kinds of movies.” At NYU, Seidelman fell in love with French New Wave and became a big admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and John Cassavetes. These days, the influence that still sticks with her is Billy Wilder.
But even at “funky” NYU, however, Seidelman was an outlier, simply because of her gender. The director estimates that her class, made up of about 35 students, only included three or four women. And Seidelman had to work to find other female role models.
“When I was in film school, I had never heard of [very few] women making movies,” she said. “I had heard of Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner, I knew of those two American filmmakers and a handful of European women, like Agnes Varda and Lina Wertmuller, who I greatly respected at that time.”
But for the most, she knew she was on her own.
Desperately Seeking You-Know-What
After the barrier-breaking success of “Smithereens,” however, Seidelman was on her way to becoming the kind of female filmmaker that other women could look up to. Her next film, the Madonna-starring “Desperately Seeking Susan,” tapped into the same sensibilities of her first. The film was financed by ’80s giant Orion Pictures, and although Seidelman remembers not feeling too much pressure from her first-time producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, it was still a giant leap forward for a second feature. (The film was even shot by “Carol” cinematographer Ed Lachman, just as he was beginning to rise in the industry.)
The 1985 feature is also set in the world of downtown New York City, and follows two very different women – Madonna as the take-no-shit Susan, Rosanna Arquette as suburban wife Roberta, who desperately wants to be her – as they mix and mingle around the clubs and alleys of the East Village.
“It kind of exemplifies a fantasy version of New York that a lot of people, myself included, kind of imagine ‘this is the magical New York I want to go to,'” Seidelman said.
While Seidelman was taking a step forward in making the film, which had a budget of $4.5 million, a far cry from the $40,000 it took to make “Smithereens,” her star was moving up in world, too. The film marks Madonna’s first film role, one she nabbed just as she was on the cusp of becoming famous. Filmed before her breakthrough album, “Like A Virgin,” came out, Seidelman had to fight to get the soon-to-be star in the film.
“They made me screen test her, and they kind of put us all through the ringer a little bit before they would hire her,” Seidelman said. “She was relatively unknown, and they wanted a kind of up-and-coming young movie star.”
By the time the film was wrapping its nine-week shoot, Madonna had become a star, and both she and Seidelman were getting a greater sense of what it meant to be famous.
“The first day we shot on St. Marks, and there were no crowds whatsoever,” Seidelman recalled. “We were just filming. By the end of nine weeks, her album had come out. It was the best of both worlds. I could film with her before she was famous and then her fame helped the release of the movie.”
The film was very well-received – Arquette even won a BAFTA for her work in it – and Seidelman began to field more offers from the studio system. She spent the ’80s making a series of studio comedies, like the John Malkovich-starring robot romance “Mr. Right” and the Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep-starring “She-Devil,” before turning her attention to television for the bulk of the ’90s: Seidelman ending up directing three episodes of “Sex and the City” and has two Emmy nominations for her work on the Showtime movie “A kieler Climate.”
Despite her fast start in the world of female-driven dramedy, neither “Mr. Right” or “She-Devil” burnt up the box office. Even 1989’s “Cookie,” which was co-written by Nora Ephron, made less than $2 million domestically. Seidelman’s television career, which also included stints on “Stella” and “The Electric Company,” wasn’t much more profitable, but allowed her to explore different genres while hewing close to her unique sense of humor. She never slowed down.
“Your First Boyfriend, Or Your First Baby”
It’s been a while since a Susan Seidelman movie left a mark on popular culture, but her usual sensibilities remain intact. Case in point: the 2013 comedy “The Hot Flashes.” As is her forte, the film follows a group of offbeat women – including Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah and Wanda Sykes – who set out to prove expectations wrong by forming a basketball team made up of middle-aged members.
The film was a box office flop and was savaged by critics, who called it “soapy” and “derivative” and in one case compared it to a bad Lifetime film. It did, however, find its champions —including Stephen Holden, who wrote in his New York Times review that the film has “a sharper feminist perspective than many similar films” and came out liking it.
Needless to say, Seidelman remains one of a few prominent American filmmakers consistently making movies for, and about, strong-willed women. But things have not gotten much easier over the years.
That Seidelman’s most recent works have been made outside the studio system seems to both please and dismay her. When asked about the industry’s attitude towards female filmmakers, she’s resolute.
Seidelman didn’t mince words when assessing the studio system, which she called “shameful,” particularly in reference to the past decade. “Hollywood makes fewer and fewer movies and the budgets go up and up,” she said. “They don’t give those to women, or very few, if any.”
And yet, she’s hopeful, at least as it relates to the world that elevated her own career.
“Today, there are, in the independent community, a number of women making movies,” Seidelman said. “Not as many as men, but still a number of them. In the independent community, you kind of create your own opportunities often. You’re hiring yourself and you’re believing in yourself.”
Seidelman is eager to get back into that kind of world. She’s wistful when talking about “Smithereens” and the story of its creation. “It’s sort of like your first boyfriend, or your first baby,” she said. “There’s something really special about it because it was my first film, and because it was done for all the right reasons.”
In Seidelman’s mind, it was also made in the right way — with complete autonomy and all the precociousness of youth. She hopes to recapture that feeling for whatever her next project may be, though she doesn’t have anything specific in the pipeline at the moment.
“I look back and I wish I was as naive now as I was back then, but there was something wonderful about that whole process,” Seidelman said. “I would love to be able to go back and be able to fulfill a total vision from story to art direction to the way the film is made that I had back in the early days.”
“Smithereens” will play New York City’s Metrograph for one week only, July 29 – August 4. Find out more information here.