New York in the 1980s is considered perhaps one of the greatest eras in United States history for popular culture. If ever there was a film to encapsulate the uniqueness and kitschy creativity of this period, that film would be none other than Desperately Seeking Susan. Often regarded as a B-movie, in spite of critical and financial success when it was released in 1985, many people fail to see the romanticism and brilliance of Susan Seidelman’s only film triumph.
In the era that would become known as the decade of excess, something truly magical was happening in the city of New York. The Lower East Side was a hotbed for innovation, producing the likes of such talent as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jellybean Benitez, all, incidentally, friends and/or romantic conquests of Madonna. Madonna, too, was a product of Manhattan’s underground culture, which largely drew her to Seidelman’s script for Desperately Seeking Susan. Madonna was not a first choice for the role of Susan, however. In fact, Seidelman knew little about her when the casting director, Risa Bramon, handed her a picture of Madonna sitting on the stoop of a brownstone next to a boom box. Nonetheless, Madonna’s overt sexuality and irreverent personality so closely paralleled the character of Susan, Seidelman was intent on signing her to the project. A fortuitous business move indeed, for it was right before Madonna made her infamous appearance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. Unfortunately for lead actress Rosanna Arquette, Madonna’s star power eclipsed the entire production. It was not long before teenage girls, known as Madonna wannabes, were visiting the set in droves.
Although Arquette might have been seething underneath, the rest of the crew, including Seidelman, began to think that the film could really take off as a result of the draw to Madonna. The conjecture turned out to be above and beyond expectations, as Desperately Seeking Susan grossed a total of nearly twenty-eight million dollars in the United States, seven times the four million dollar budget of the film. While Madonna may have been the appeal for moviegoers, there is no denying the humor and subtle wit of Leora Barish’s screenplay. Effortlessly capturing the New York scene of the age, Barish incorporates the iconic venues of early eighties culture into her script.
Danceteria, the once notorious nightclub, is prominently featured in the scene where Susan is dancing to Into the Groove with Roberta’s husband Gary. Another homage to new wave New York occurs when Roberta follows Susan into legendary thrift store Love Saves the Day. Aretha Franklin’s Respect blares in the background as Susan casually tries to steal a pair of rhinestone boots. The cashier, sporting an unforgettable hairstyle, apprehends her before she can escape. Currently, the store sells stills from that scene for fifty dollars, ironically feeding popular culture back into popular culture.
Desperately Seeking Susan also fueled the Madonna fashion phenomenon. Maripol, the designer behind Madonna’s rubber bracelets, boy toy belt, and overall street urchin appearance, made an entire line of Madonna products in conjunction with the release of the film. Most of the outfits worn by Susan in the movie were actually from Madonna’s own personal wardrobe. In one scene, Susan is walking outside of the Magic Club with her friend Crystal wearing an orange midriff with the letters “MC” written in black on the side; these are the initials for Madonna Ciccone.
Roberta, the film’s protagonist, is especially fond of taking on the Susan/Madonna persona when she goes to meet Susan at Battery Park for the first time. Eager to impress Susan, Roberta models her hair and wardrobe after a Polaroid she found in the pocket of Susan’s pyramid jacket. Almost disturbingly, she mimics the facial expression of Susan in the photograph and even communicates with her via the personals, the same way Susan’s boyfriend Jim does. It is this sort of obsessive behavior that seems to resemble the phrase “life imitates art” as Roberta’s actions mirrored the actions of Madonna’s maniacal fans.
Although frequently referred to as “the Madonna movie,” Desperately Seeking Susan is so much more. Seidelman’s signature film honors New York subculture as few mainstream movies ever have. Even Voidoids frontman Richard Hell makes a cameo as Bruce Meeker, Susan’s Atlantic City boyfriend who gets thrown over the balcony of a hotel by his partner in crime Wayne Nolan. More than anything else, Desperately Seeking Susan is a film about New York. As Susan disembarks the bus from Atlantic City, a deliberate and lengthy close-up of the bus’s destination, "New York City,” further reiterates Seidelman’s objectives for paying tribute to the ever-lively metropolis. The film accents the lure it once had over people like Roberta: those searching for meaning in an otherwise mundane existence or simply looking for an escape from reality. In the eighties, New York was that place, the epicenter of all things exciting and worthwhile.