Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Susan Seidelman Knows What It’s Like to Be in “Movie Jail”

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In February, I attended a one-off screening at Metrograph of the 1987 film “Making Mr. Right,” in which a young John Malkovich—in one of his first movie roles—stars both as a taciturn scientist named Jeff Peters and as Peters’s invention, a walking, talking android named Ulysses, who looks just like him. The film is a sci-fi screwball comedy involving robot-human romance. There’s a scene in which Laurie Metcalf, playing a lab secretary who is obsessed with Jeff, accidentally goes on an ill-fated mall date with Ulysses. The film, shot in Miami, has a zany sense of style. The leading lady, a publicity executive played by the downtown artist Ann Magnuson, wears a Rolodex on her wrist as a fashion accessory. Many other wacky things happen—I won’t spoil them for you here, because “Making Mr. Right,” a flop in its time, is worth watching. I had barely heard of it before this year, but I left the theatre believing that it is a stone-cold comedy classic.

The film’s director, the seventy-one-year-old Susan Seidelman, directed two of my other favorite films of the eighties—a time when the number of women helming feature films could be counted on one hand. Seidelman grew up in a Philadelphia suburb where, she told me recently, “everyone looked the same.” She attended film school at N.Y.U. and filled her movies with the kinds of fashionable and funky strivers with whom she hung out downtown. Her delightfully scrappy first feature, “Smithereens” (1982), centers on a twentysomething woman named Wren who runs around the Lower East Side punk scene trying to convince everyone that she should be famous. One of her love interests is played by the libertine punk rocker Richard Hell. Seidelman submitted the film to Cannes on a whim, and, to her surprise, it was selected as the first independent American film invited to compete for the Palme d’Or. Her follow-up, “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), starred a then little-known Madonna as a free-spirited grifter named Susan and Rosanna Arquette as a bored housewife named Roberta Glass who gets mixed up in Susan’s shady dealings. The movie had a sui-generis sensibility: rat-a-tat dialogue, flouncy (and trend-setting) eighties outfits, including Madonna’s soon-to-be-iconic stacked bangles and rosary necklaces, and a certain kind of feminine shamelessness that at the time was rarely seen on film. (Madonna airing out her armpits using a hand dryer in the Port Authority bathroom remains legendary.) The film cost Orion Pictures just five million dollars to make and grossed more than twenty-seven million dollars in the United States alone—a coup for a film that had two female stars, two female lead producers, a female writer, and a woman in the director’s chair. (Few studio movies today can even boast such a lineup.)

Then “Making Mr. Right” kicked off a series of ill-fated projects for Seidelman, including “Cookie” (1989), a little-seen gangster film that was co-written by Nora Ephron, and “She-Devil” (1989), a black comedy starring Roseanne Barr (as a resentful homemaker) and Meryl Streep (as aromance novelist who steals Barr’s husband). Seidelman went into, as she put it,“movie jail” for several years afterward, and found herself unable to get funding for ambitious projects. Her comeback, in the late nineties, came through the burgeoning medium of prestige-cable television. In 1997, she directed the pilot for “Sex and the City,” imbuing Carrie Bradshaw’s New York adventures with some of the signature Seidelmanian combo of daffiness and grit.

This month, Seidelman will publish a memoir, “Desperately Seeking Something,” which traces her own career path and describes the hurdles placed in front of female directors then and now. It’s a book “I wish I could have read when I was twenty-five,” she told me during a recent conversation. We spoke via Zoom because, after many decades living in a loft in SoHo, Seidelman has decamped to rural New Jersey. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

It’s funny to be speaking to you while you are in New Jersey, because many of your most iconic movies are about escaping the suburbs for the big city, and you lived in New York City for so long.

Yeah, in my films, there was often a Jersey joke, because I had this impression of what New Jersey was like, based on travelling from Philadelphia to New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, and going through Elizabeth, where it was really stinky.

You went to N.Y.U.’s film school in the seventies. What was your first New York apartment like?

My first apartment was on East Ninth Street, in an elevator building, which was upscale for the East Village. But it was a tiny, maybe a four-hundred-square-foot, L-shaped studio apartment with a kitchen nook. It faced an alley, where I could look into another person’s apartment about ten feet away. What was fascinating about New York was I could literally listen in on all the conversations of my neighbors. I didn’t even have to put my ear to the wall. I could just hear it.The guy I rented the apartment from was a former child star. He was in a show called “Our Gang,” which became “The Little Rascals.” But the apartment was depressing. It had just a cot and a few folding chairs. It made me see that New York is full of all these interesting people, either on their way up or on their way down.

You were a young woman living in the East Village by yourself at a pretty rough time for the city. Did you ever feel afraid?

No, never. I think that that was partly naïveté. The only time I was a little scared was when the Son of Sam hit the headlines, because I had long, dark hair then, and I fit the description of his victims. But I would go from the Upper West Side to Times Square to Astor Place at three in the morning and think nothing of it. I feel that my innocence was an asset, about a lot of things. For example, my not knowing how bad the odds were that I would ever become a working female film director. If I had known what the statistics were, it would’ve been disheartening, but I didn’t think about it. It was the same when I went out to shoot “Smithereens”—I’m jumping ahead now. But I didn’t know how dangerous it was to be running around Times Square at night when it was really seedy, with a bunch of kids and a bunch of camera equipment that easily could have been stolen. But that was part of the fun.

In film school, were your professors encouraging? Did they give you a sense that you could be a working woman director?

I had no female role models. I didn’t know any female American directors. The only one I had even heard of was Elaine May, because I had seen “The Heartbreak Kid” and loved it. And in my class of thirty-five, there were five women. All of the crafts classes—camera, directing—were taught by men.

What gave you the idea to make a full-length feature?

I kept talking about wanting to make a feature film after I left N.Y.U., but I needed a little kick to give me the confidence. What happened was, around the time I was twenty-eight, I fell in love with a man who was a professor. My friends were all getting married at the time, though they would all be divorced in ten years. I guess I felt like, Oh, it’s time to do that. Then my engagement exploded. Also around that time, my grandmother passed away. In her will, she had left me some money that was to go toward my wedding. I took that money and used it to jump-start my film. I had the kick in the butt I needed to say, “I’ll show you. I’m going to be a film director.”

You end several chapters of your book with a vow to prove everybody wrong.

Being a girl and growing up in the pre-feminist sixties, I got a lot of cheek pinches and pats on the head. But I never felt like that sweet little girl. I always felt like there was some other kind of person living inside. I always had this feeling, like, I’ll show you that I am different than how you see me.

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