In 1985, Susan Seidelman blessed the planet with Desperately Seeking Susan, a screwball East Village fantasia about amnesia, Egyptian artifacts, mob killings, mistaken identities, jacuzzi sales, magic acts, suburban ennui, Nefertiti’s earrings, and an extremely rad jacket. Leora Barish’s script had been lingering in development hell for years, with studios passing on it because, as producer Sarah Pillsbury put it in 2015, “When we circulated the script, only women and gay men liked it.” Fortunately, Orion Pictures producer Barbara Boyle was one of those women; she picked up the film and hired Seidelman based on the singular, punk-rock style of her debut film, Smithereens. And it worked: The New York Times named Desperately Seeking Susan one of the ten best films of 1985, praising leads Rosanna Arquette and Madonna (called an “indolent, trampy goddess” by Pauline Kael) for their kooky but grounded performances. Arquette eventually won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Thirty-five years later, Desperately Seeking Susan holds up as a bizarre paean to a downtown New York that no longer exists, one where a depressed New Jersey housewife can ditch her prim wardrobe and jacuzzi-salesman husband to spy on a romance she’s sussed out in the city’s personal pages, get bonked on the head, forget her entire life, incidentally impersonate Madonna, get arrested for prostitution in a tutu, and fall in love all in a manner of days. Arquette, who plays said housewife, Roberta, carries the whole thing, all sweet melancholy and Lucille Ball pathos, just as believable running from the mafia while holding a gigantic birdcage as she is swanning sadly around her devastatingly ugly suburban McMansion. Arquette’s nervous innocence plays perfectly off of then-burgeoning Madonna’s aforementioned trampy indolence; in the very few moments they’re together on screen, it’s like somebody got drunk on Champagne and remade Persona.
So are you holed up at home, too?
I’ve been sick. I had a flu and a really bad cough last week and a fever, which has subsided. But I think I’m okay because I don’t have the cough anymore; it’s just a flu. But I’m staying in anyway.
Oh no. Well, I’m glad you’re starting to feel better.
We’re all counting on the internet as this crazy thing is happening, which, along with the election, makes one a little suspicious. I am prone to conspiracy theories. Bill Gates was talking about a pandemic that would kill millions in 2019. Anyway.
Are you by yourself?
I have my husband, and my daughterArquette has a daughter with her ex-husband, restaurateur John Sidel. was here. She’s gone to hang out with her friends, I think. Someone has lived with us for years and I insisted on her going home to be with her family, but she wants to be with us. She helped raise my daughter and she’s wonderful. We’re her family, too.
I live in the East Village and it’s so shocking to watch Desperately Seeking Susan and realize how different the city has become.
Yeah. Both this film and After HoursArquette starred in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 black comedy about nights in New York City’s SoHo district. were filmed in places that no longer exist. It’s so gentrified.
The movie was really groundbreaking even though it’s a comedy — it’s entirely about women, written and directed by women, starring women, produced by women. Did it feel like it was breaking ground in that way at the time?
I’ve been talking about that recently, that Desperately Seeking Susan was totally groundbreaking. And Barbara Boyle brought it in — it was her film. It felt that way then, too. It was cool. I don’t think we understood the impact, but it did feel good. Hollywood wasn’t evolved enough to understand it and get it. Now, it really means something.
I know the script took a long time to get off the ground. At what point did you get involved?
I think I was one of the first people they reached out to. But there were a lot of Susans [thrown around]. They wanted Ellen Barkin at one point; she would’ve been fantastic. I would’ve loved that. Melanie Griffith. Some great actresses that were up for the Susan part. I didn’t audition; it was just an offer. I was with my friend Kenny Ortega, who’s a famous choreographer, and he asked me,”Look, I have a woman who wrote this script, and she’d love you to do it.”
Had Madonna been cast by then?
I was cast first. And then they told me about this pop star that was just blowing up while [the casting] was happening. Suddenly it was like, “Who’s this beautiful girl singing this pop song?” I remember watching her in the “Lucky Star” video and just going, “Oh my god.” It was electric. Everybody at that time fell in love with her. Including me. I remember her cool outfit — I’d just got one too, and I wasn’t wearing it, but the Agnes B. pencil skirt. Her whole look, with the black rubber bracelets — she just had this whole vibe. She was very much like, [affects Madonna voice], “Hi stranger.” Exactly like it was at the end of the movie.
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