The director who put Madonna in the movies

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The director who put Madonna in the movies

Susan Seidelman took a chance on the then-unknown performer and went on to direct Sex and the City

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Madonna and Rosanna Arquette
Madonna and Rosanna Arquette

In 1985 millions of young women tied bows around their hair and wore crop tops because of one woman- Susan Seidelman. Though the look itself, which included net gloves, skirts over capri pants and studded boots was worn by Madonna Louise Ciccone, it was director Susan Seidelman who had the vision to cast the relatively unknown performer in her film Desperately Seeking Susan.

“We started on the more traditional casting route, auditioning wonderful actresses such as Ellen Barkin, Jami Lee Curtis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Melanie Griffith. But I wanted someone with a persona,” recalls Susan, who had seen Madonna’s video on MTV and knew the pre- Material Girl had something about her. She was also living two streets away from the performer in New York and convinced the studio to give her a screen test.

Susan with Madonna and Rosanna Arquette

Obviously, Madonna got the part, albeit with no experience, but just nine weeks into shooting, her second album, Like a Virgin, dropped and Susan’s film with Rosanna Arquette suddenly had a second star, who was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

“It was good timing and luck. The movie and the album kind of melded together and played a part in why her career skyrocketed,” says Susan. “Madonna would have been iconic anyway, but the two different mediums coinciding helped.”

The film, about Roberta, a bored suburban housewife (Arquette) with amnesia who adopts the identity of grifter Susan (Madonna), also helped Aidan Quinn and John Turturro to launch their careers and is justifiably deemed a classic. Watched repeatedly by those who got ‘Into the Groove’ or, like me, went in search of the jacquard cropped tuxedo Madonna wore for Susan, who was won over by her name in the title, the devotion to her grungy, but stylish romantic comedy with feminist ambitions is a mystery.

“It was shot in ’84, so I never believed it would be part of the conversation almost 40 years later,” says the director, who is genuinely surprised regardless of critical acclaim and box office success.

Susan Seidelman at the Mystic Film Festival

Having made only one film, Smithereens (the first American indie in competition at the Cannes Film Festival), Susan was only offered films about cheerleaders by Hollywood producers who she didn’t trust. She was in effect desperately seeking a project like Susan, which was an all-female production and written by rabbi’s daughter Leora Barish.

“When I was at NYU Film school in 1975/76 there were 35 students on the graduate programme and only five were women. There were no female role models. Directors in my mind were macho guys in military boots stomping around set with a megaphone. And Spielberg, Coppola and George Lucas weren’t role models. They were guys in baseball caps with beards, so I didn’t see myself in them either. Eventually I decided to make the films I wanted to see.”

Rather than Tinsel Town, the Big Apple worked best for Susan and also for Madonna when she arrived in the 70s and lived in an abandoned synagogue in Queens. Susan, by contrast, grew up in Philadelphia and went to Beth Shalom, the only US synagogue designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

“It’s a very famous Conservative synagogue, but my parents, who weren’t religious, eventually joined a Reform temple. But I’ve always had a Jewish point of view or an outsider’s perspective. I certainly have empathy for outsiders and when I read books by Jewish authors or watch movies by Jewish directors, there’s a sensibility I can relate to.”

Susan on set

Susan and Madonna stayed in touch for a few years post Desperately Seeking and the mega star sent the director flowers when she made the Sci-Fi romance Making Mr Right with John Malkovich. Susan also worked with Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr on an adaptation of Fay Weldon’s She-Devil, and Cookie, a father-daughter mafia comedy by the late Nora Ephron, but her next big game changer was the pilot season of Sex and The City in 1998 for which she directed such key episodes as……. “The one with the baby shower? Do you remember that?” Who doesn’t? “And the episode when Carrie goes out on a date with the attractive Frenchman who leaves her money on the bedside table? That was also mine.”

As an SATC fan it’s tempting to keep grilling. After all this is Samantha, Charlotte and Carrie we’re talking about and Susan was responsible for casting Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Mr Big (Chris Noth).

Sex and the City

“I liked the scripts and thought they were clever, but to me the magic lay with the idea of girls being able to go out for a martini and get silly on a Saturday night without feeling like losers if they didn’t have a date. But I never expected the cultural ramifications of the show,” adds Susan, who was hired by producer Darren Starr, a fan of Desperately Seeking. “I  never thought the whole world would be drinking cosmos and eating cupcakes.”

While the SATC girls stayed at the Magnolia Bakery, Susan left the City for real and moved to rural New Jersey to breathe and write a book. As she sagely points out: “Culture changes over time and I had my finger on the pulse. I was the age of the characters I was putting on film.”

Susan became a septuagenarian on December 11, but back in 2005 when she was only 53, she teamed up with her mother Florence to make Boynton Beach (Amazon Prime), a film in which veteran stars Brenda Vaccaro, Dyan Cannon and the late Sally Kellerman play senior citizens, several of whom are Jewish, finding love at a bereavement club.

“The idea came from my mother, who lives in a Florida community and noticed her friends, who were either widows, widowers or divorced at a later age, were back in the dating game. Only the rules had changed. It was like a different world.” The film and TV industry is now a different world for Susan, who struggles to believe that being female in the business is now an asset.

“I never thought that would be the case,” she says. “My book – really a memoir – is about a woman director coming of age at a time when there weren’t any.”

Among her keepsakes from that time are the Desperately Seeking Susan clapperboard and the Egyptian earrings worn by Madonna (then Rosanna). Sadly the jacket with animal-print lapels and pyramid motif sold for $3.2m (£2m) in 2014. I had to ask.


Desperately Seeking Susan UK Blu-ray is presented in a new Limited Edition Box set with brand new extra features from Amazon







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