Weill on Female Friendship

Male friendships, with their robust macho romanticism, have often been celebrated in American films. A spate of male buddy movies was produced in the 1970s as a backlash against the Women's Movement. According to the film critic Molly Haskell, the emotional intensity of these films exists between the men; feminism gave filmmakers the freedom to drop the token women from the narrative altogether.

With “Girfriends,” Claudia Weill reacted against buddy films, which ignored or downgraded women. Simplistic in their notion of friendship, most of these films revolve around “two men with beautiful faces and the adventures they have together,” but for Weill, “what's more interesting is what's not said, what people want from each other.”

A woman's intimacy with a man is such a cherished experience, that society tends to disregard friendship among women. Hence, female friendship has been largely ignored by Hollywood, giving the erroneous impression that it hardly exists. The more prevalent stereotype is that of women going at each other or competing for men. However, with divorce rates on the rise, marriage an increasingly fragile institution, and search for new bonds, female friendship gained new interest.

After the emergence of the women's movement, attitudes began changing. “Today, it's considered bad form to break a date with a woman if a man calls,” observed Weill in 1977, “Not long ago, the man always came first.”

In the late 1970s, a cycle of Hollywood films exalted female friendship: Julia, The Turning Point, Unmarried Woman, were all released within a year. Most of these pictures centered on a pair of female friends, usually opposites. Fred Zinnemann's Julia depicts Lillian Hellman's (Jane Fonda) idealized friendship with the heroic Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), a mythic figure that may or may not have existed as such.

At the center of The Turning Point, also directed by a man (Herbert Ross), is a rivalry between two friends who have chosen radically different lives: One (Anne Bancroft) pursues a dance career with dedication, the other (Shirley MacLaine) follows a domestic life of wife-mother. In neither picture is the friendship convincingly or richly detailed, and neither opened the door to new cinematic subject matter.

Weill, on the other hand, aimed to show that “female friendship is as fragile, delicate, supportive, complex, nourishing, painful and difficult as a love affair,” because, at the end of the day, “you share meals, you go to the movies together and you see friends together.” Weill's film doesn't suggest that friendship with another woman is better than with a man, only that it's different: “With two women, you know how a person is going to respond, there's a kind of bonding with identical things shared.”

Loosely inspired by Weill's experience with her roommate at Radcliffe College, both characters in Girlfriends draw on her life–“I have been Susan and I have been Anne.” Despite the title, however, Girlfriends is better at depicting Susan's commitment to work than dissecting her friendships. Less defined than Susan, the WASPY Anne is used as the Other, a counterpoint to Susan's values and choices. By marrying young, bearing a child and giving up her career, Anne follows a traditional woman's role. Eventually, the two women are brought together on a deeper level of friendship, on the day Susan achieves professional success with her first exhibition in a SoHo gallery. In the final sequence, they even sneer at the man (Bob Balaban's prim, insidious jerk) who caused their breakup.

Girlfriends brought the label “feminist filmmaker” to Weill, but she felt neither limited nor pressured by it: “It's extremely chauvinistic to assume that because you are a woman you have to make films about women or relationships. Feminism is a point of view you can use on any subject, even a big entertainment film.” Weill was gratified that male and female viewers enjoyed her candid view of friendship. Girlfriends drew positive comments from men who confided in Weill: “When my best friend got married, I felt lost.”