February 26, 2024

Travels by Film – Desperately Seeking Susan (New York, 1985)

Confession time: I am a child of the Madonna. The Madonna era that is. Dishevelled blonde hair, lacy bras, a thousand jangling bangles; I did it all. That is why Desperately Seeking Susan is my defining film. That is why I travelled to New York in 1993. It was a simpler time: post-Sid and Nancy, mid-Madonna, pre-Giuliani. Before New York was cleaned up and Madonna was torn down.


Desperately Seeking Susan is an amalgam of romantic comedy, crime thriller and feminist tract. Yes, I wrote about this film at university under the heading of feminist theory and women’s desire, in this case the desire to be each other. For Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) wants to be Susan (Madonna). Madonna naturally only wants to be herself. This was her first sortie into film and her wooden acting shows that Madonna’s best character is Madonna and that as an actress she makes a good singer. Rosanna Arquette won a Bafta for playing Roberta: a supporting actress Bafta. I wonder if that still rankles. She was the actress in the film, she had the greater number of lines, she had the most screen time yet Madonna got the star billing in the eyes of the 1980s world of besotted beholders.


In 1993, New York still had great affordable second hand stores – I found a bathing suit that exactly matched one my childhood Barbie doll had – Barbie and I were quite the sensation at a drag queen’s birthday party not long after that trip – and it also had definite no-go areas: a trap for young tourists. My friend and I walking and talking and not paying much attention crossed a street and continued on our way to suddenly realise we weren’t in Kansas anymore (sorry, wrong film) but were in fact being cruised by a couple of mean-looking men on a street where no one else dared tread. We turned and walked with hasty composure back the way we’d come and escaped with both our wallets and our selves unmolested. But it was on crowded Broadway that I was approached by a man who offered me a role in a porn film. (Ah, the roads not taken.) In Desperately Seeking Susan Roberta has a similar misunderstanding of image (Madonnaesque wardrobe choices can be so misconstrued) when she is arrested and booked for prostitution. At least I wasn’t carrying a cage of doves – I can see why the NYPD were confused by Roberta.


In 1985 and 1993 CBGB still existed in New York. Madonna, sorry, Susan meets Gary Glass the hot tub salesman at a tres cool club on a 3rd floor – clearly this was a club only for those in the know. The footage became the promo for Madonna’s Get Into The Groove, unsurprisingly also released in 1985. What was happening at CBGB that year? Hardcore punk. The opposite to what Madonna was giving us. And yet there was barely a degree of separation and the link was provided by Desperately Seeking Susan. In the film Richard Hell plays the role (non-speaking) of criminal Meeker who Madonna shacks up with in a hotel in Atlantic City just before he ‘falls out of a hotel window’ and dies. In life, Richard Hell played bass with Television, stalwarts of 1970s CBGB and many give him credit for the dishevelled and torn appearance of punk. Clearly both the film and Madonna had feet firmly in cool New York. I wanted in. But when my chance came I missed it.


1993 was the beginning of my writing dream. New York was the creative mecca. Desperately Seeking Susan was the film I wished I’d written. I was Roberta stuck in suburban hell. I too had bought one fabulous jacket and matched it with ill-advised former purchases. I was also restless with wanting to break out and truly be me. So what stopped me making one phone call to change my life? That is the question for many a therapist (and if I lived in New York I’d have one) but the phone number for the friend-of-a-friend whose father owned The Village Voice stayed in my pocket and my dreams remained in the dark. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I’d been hit over the head in Battery Park as Roberta was, perhaps thinking you are someone else is the way forward to taking those risks. Roberta took the risk, met Aidan Quinn, changed her life. I took some photos, met a porn pimp, changed my clothes. I think she did better than me. But then that’s what movies are for. As the riff in Desperately Seeking Susan goes: ‘At Gary’s Oasis all your fantasies can come true.’ But only if you plunge into the tub.


Bravery was the lesson I learnt from that trip to New York. And from Madonna. And from Desperately Seeking Susan. The need to take risks. Not daft risks like accepting a role in porn, but good risks, the ones the universe is serving up to you on a silver dish and which you’d have to be stupid to ignore. Which I ignored. Thus I am stupid.


Perhaps I was not the only Madonna-tragic wandering the streets of New York back then. When I went into a diner and ordered blueberry blintzes – if I couldn’t actually be in the movie at least breakfast could taste like I was – the waiter asked if I was sure. How could he tell I had no idea what a blueberry blintz actually was? But I stuck to my conviction and they were delicious. I never did make it to the Bleeker Street Cinema. Or find the elusive Magic Club on Broadway. Or change my clothes in the Port Authority bathrooms. There are some risks worth taking and some not.


I watch Desperately Seeking Susan at least once a year and one day I’ll return to New York. This time I’ll order blueberry blintzes with conviction. This time I’ll cover up my lacy bra. And this time I’ll take the risks worth taking.


One fine day, New York, you’re gonna want me for your girl.



Philippa Burne

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