Truly, Madly, “Desperately”: The Glory of Madonna in 1980s NYC

Thursday, August 15, 2019
If you’re a film fan who lives in New York, there’s a good chance you have at least a few New York–set movies that shaped your outlook on the city in one way or another. Whether it’s the ’70s Times Square grime of Taxi Driver or the simultaneously effervescent and exasperating millennial (in both senses) Brooklyn of Frances Ha or any other onscreen portrait of the city, one thing’s for sure: New York can be just about anything on film—anything but boring. As a native Manhattanite with perpetual nostalgia and a graduate degree in archival studies to prove it, I turn to cinematic depictions of New York as a form of time travel. Few things are more exciting to me than seeing this constantly mythologized city depicted as it was before I was born.  One of my favorite New York movies is Desperately Seeking Susan, directed by Susan Seidelman. Released in 1985, it starred Madonna (obviously!) in her first cinematic role. I’m not the only New Yorker feeling affectionately toward Seidelman’s New Wave screwball feminist romp: The film just played in 35mm this month at BAM (as part of its excellent series titled “Punks, Poets & Valley Girls: Women Filmmakers in 1980s America”) and will screen again at Film at Lincoln Center on August 25 and 30 as part of a series called “Make My Day: American Movies in the Age of Reagan.” While not the best cinematic decade by any means, the ’80s did offer some uniquely fun portraits of New York life at the time—films like After Hours and Something Wild, which depict the city as part yuppie playland, part insane asylum, also come to mind. In these films, the city isn’t a slick place filled with glass towers and Duane Reades, but rather a creative mecca, home to, well, punks, poets, and probably a few transplanted Valley Girls. The New York of ’80s films is a place where characters are free to experiment with identities, to run around and feel the urgency of subcultures not yet commoditized. That was an easier thing to do when rents were lower and everyone wasn’t staring at a screen all day and night.
If I have anything resembling a life philosophy, it’s that you can never see Madonna walking down the street eating Cheez Doodles while wearing lace gloves too many times.
Desperately Seeking Susan is a perfect encapsulation of a moment. The comic plot concerns a bored housewife who, thanks to a series of personal ads in the newspaper, becomes mixed up with a free-spirited young woman (guess who?). Oh, and there’s also amnesia and mistaken identity, of course. Downtown music icons like Richard Hell and John Lurie make appearances, and Madonna’s character is a spirited, natural hipster who seems to live a life solely devoted to bohemian fun—needless to say, this is a type hardly seen in New York anymore, and certainly not in Manhattan.  Part of what makes the film so special is the point at which it came in Madonna’s career. Released shortly after her second album, Like a Virgin, came out, the movie captured lightning in a bottle. While not a natural actress, Madonna is still a true performer: You don’t make some of the most iconic music videos of all time without learning how to be totally and completely watchable onscreen. It’s easy to take Madonna’s stardom for granted today, but looking back at Desperately Seeking Susan, you see that she was truly destined for fame.    Madonna’s onscreen career has been the subject of frequent mockery, but part of why Desperately Seeking Susan works so well is the fact that she’s basically playing herself. The movie is filled with what’s now trendily called “the female gaze.” Seidelman has an eye for girly ephemera, and Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta, the more buttoned-downed suburban housewife–turned–original Madonna wannabe, definitely has a girl crush on Madonna’s Susan. As the male love interest, Aidan Quinn is the ideal downtown guy, with a job as a film projectionist, a warehouselike apartment, and perfect bone structure. Madonna plays the kind of enviably confident New Yorker who gives no fucks. She dries her armpits with a public bathroom’s hand dryer. She walks the city streets in boxers and lace stockings. Such a manic pixie-dream girlish character could be annoying or cliché if played by someone else, but in Madonna’s embodiment, she overflows with charisma. Years before GIFs, Madonna’s every moment in the film feels like a master class in sassy gesturing. And her outfits! Well, if you don’t covet every single thing Madonna wears in this film, we probably won’t get along. 
If you don’t covet every single thing Madonna wears in this film, we probably won’t get along. 
My Desperately Seeking Susan fandom, like any good obsession, feels personal. I grew up downtown (after Danceteria, the famous nightclub featured in the film, had already closed, alas) and shopped at Love Saves the Day, the arty store that plays a pivotal role onscreen. Love Saves the Day closed in 2008, and in a tragic turn of events, the whole building burned down in the 2015 East Village fire. Part of loving a New York movie is loving all the lost places it represents. 
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When I watch Desperately Seeking Susan, I think of my mom (also named Susan!), who moved to New York the same year Madonna did. She’s not a world-famous pop star, but she speaks of the era and all the cool stuff she felt she was just missing fondly. (Madonna, through luck and pluck, was always in the right place at the right time—a rare talent.) When she first saw Desperately Seeking Susan, my mom actually ended up writing Seidelman a fan letter. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose. I was destined to be obsessed with this movie. If you want to go out to the movies and haven’t seen Desperately Seeking Susan yet, you simply must head to Lincoln Center. If you’ve already seen it, I still recommend going. If I have anything resembling a life philosophy, it’s that you can never see Madonna walking down the street eating Cheez Doodles while wearing lace gloves too many times. You might just end up wishing you could place a personal ad to declare your love. 

Abbey Bender writes about film and fashion. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Nylon, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, and other outlets. Her portfolio can be found here, and she’s on Twitter: @abbey_bender. She previously wrote about Ms. Magazine Way for WSWD.