Desperately Seeking Susan

Desperately Seeking SusanSynopsis: If you know what to look for, you can find almost anything in the personal ads…including the love of your life! Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction) is “irresistible” (Newsweek) and, in her first starring role, pop star Madonna (Evita) gives a “marvelously comic” (Time) performance in this “delightful madcap comedy” (US Magazine) about mistaken identity.

Bored New Jersey housewife Roberta (Arquette) fills her days by reading the personal ads and following an ongoing romance between “Jim” (Robert Joy) and “Susan” (Madonna), a mysterious drifter who appears to lead the kind of free-spirited life about which Roberts can only dream. And dream she does, until the day she actually shows up at the couple’s pre-arranged rendezvous in New York City…and after a bump on the head, a bout of amnesia turns Roberts into Susan and opens the door to intrigue, laughter and love!

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Desperately Seeking Susan 7.5

eyelights: its main cast (yes, including Madonna). its quirky plot.
eyesores: its finale.

“Desperately seeking Susan. Meet me, four o’clock, Battery Park. Keep the faith. Love, Jim.”

‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ is a Rosanna Arquette picture. Then a nascent motion picture actress, this 1985 box office winner lead her to a BAFTA award and a Golden Globe nomination. But let’s face it: for almost everyone (including the BAFTA people), this is Madonna’s first starring vehicle.

Madonna was also a rising star at the time, having released two hit albums in the previous two years, she had become a poster girl and pop icon. ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ was a way to consolidate her success and take her to the next level. For a while, it did, and Madonna was virtually everywhere.

Madonna plays a homeless young woman named Susan who hooks up with her lover Jim through personals ads. Although she’s currently staying with Bruce in an Atlantic City hotel, she sees Jim’s latest ad and proceeds to steal Bruce’s valuables before traveling back to New York for her rendez-vous.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that a pair of Egyptian earrings she stole from Bruce are extremely valuable and are sought after by a hood – who wastes no time wasting her lover. Soon, not only is she wanted in connection with the crime, he’s tracked her down to NYC and intends to get the earrings back.

Meanwhile, Rosanna plays Roberta, a bored housewife who follows the newspaper exchanges between Jim and Susan, wondering about them. Obsessed with their story, she decides to go to their next meet up to see who they are – only to become mesmerized by Susan, whom she follows around for a day.

She eventually buys a jacket that Susan exchanged for a pair of boots she wanted. However, this leads to a case of mistaken identity and, after a struggle with the hood, Roberta loses her memory. Now everyone she meets believes that she is Susan, and she has no recollection of her previous identity.

Her life changes forever.

I never saw ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ back in the day. In fact, up until now, I may have only seen it the one time, some 10-15 years after its initial release. I had liked it, there’s no denying it – and not just because I’m a fan of Madonna (although that helps). It’s simply a fun, quirky, well-made comedy.

What I find interesting is how it doesn’t spotlight Madonna the way you’d expect such a picture to: not only is she just a co-star, not the star, but she doesn’t perform any of her songs – something which pop stars usually do in their movies, to draw their fans. A new song of hers is briefly heard, and that’s it.

So the filmmakers made use of her, but not so much as a name-brand. Instead, they used her as an actress even though she had limited acting skill and plenty of other well-known actresses had tried for the part. And yet, they didn’t try to change her either, allowing her to look very much like she did then.

In other words, they put her on screen as unfiltered as possible. It’s so hard to tell the difference between the on-screen Madonna and her public persona, as they merge so well: both her and Susan are fiercely independent and self-confident, which I think is super cool, and is key to their appeal for me.

Granted, Susan is a grifter, which is less pleasing. However, she’s also a tough female role model, something still rare in 1985: even though she’s got the law and possibly criminals (she doesn’t really know this for a fact) on her trail, she’s sure she can take care of herself; she’s not at all a wimp or a victim.

So I love the persona, but I also just love seeing her playing herself in a way, because it takes me back to a very specific moment in her then-burgeoning career. Of particular note was her fashion sense, which was so disparate; she was like a walking fleas market. Somehow, though, she made it work.

Although Madonna’s the main draw for me, it’s not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t good. In fact, Rosanna Arquette rightly deserved her acclaim, and there’s also some excellent turns by Aidan Quinn as her suitor and Laurie Metcalfe as her sister-in-law, as well as cameos by Steven Wright and John Turturro.

But, for me, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ is a Madonna picture, and I likely wouldn’t watch it if she weren’t in it. It may be a well-rounded picture with enough layers to appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers, and it’s certainly entertaining, but Madonna brought to it a raw star quality that eclipses everything else.

Even though the filmmakers were desperately trying to find their Susan, and ironically bypassed tons of crafty actresses, they found the perfect one in a non-actress. All they had to do was let her be herself. And that’s why this role was compelling but almost all her other silver screen performances bombed.

As infuriating and imperfect as she can be, Madonna is absolutely fascinating. She’s at her best when she’s just being herself.

Date of viewing: June 7, 2015

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