Desperately Seeking Susan (1985): Seidelman Best Film, Starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna

If there was a “forced” hiatus after Susan Seidelman’s promising 1982 feature debut “Smithereens,” which played at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, it’s because all the projects she was offered were dopey teenage comedies.

She decided to bide her time until Desperately Seeking Susan, a comedy about an identity mix-up of a New Jersey housewife and a downtown New York rocker, came along.  Financed by Orion at $5 million, the movie was overlaid with anti-bourgeois attitudes, which paid off commercially.

The movie’s appeal derived largely from its varied cast, which included a rock star (Madonna), an up-and-coming actress (Rosanna Arquette), figures from recent hot indies (John Lurie and Richard Edson from Stranger than Paradise, Anne Carlisle from Liquid Sky), and gifted stage actors (Laurie Metcalf, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, comedian Steven Wright). And a taxi driver is played by Rockets Red Glare, Sid Vicious’ former bodyguard, and a jail matron by Shirley Stoler (Seven Beauties).

The plot’s complications rely on an ancient device in farce, amnesia, a gimmick imposed on a stylish East Village comedy, underscoring the discrepancy between punk postures and old formulas. As the noted critic David Ansen pointed out, the collision of contrary styles in a New Wave fairytale was partly inspired by the French cult film Diva (1982), The Prince and the Pauper, and Alice in Wonderland.

Roberta (Arquette), a bored housewife married to Gary, a hot-tub entrepreneur, escapes her routine by reading personal ads and following the adventures of a man who’s desperately seeking Susan. Roberta’s insatiable curiosity leads to Susan (Madonna), a voluptuous gold-digger wanted for some mysterious death in Atlantic City and tailed by a mobster for the precious Egyptian earrings she carries. While spying on Susan, Roberta gets bopped on the head–when she wakes up, she believes she’s Susan.

Orion tried to interfere with the casting, recommending “a perfect blonde” for Madonna’s part. But Seidelman wanted “a dark, spicy blonde,” perceiving Susan as a woman who “floats through the funkiness in which she lives as if she were a princess.”

The whole movie was conceived as a party–“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”–and no party would be complete without party favors and astonishing props such as pink, shell-encrusted phones.


Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette)
Susan (Madonna)
Dez (Aidan Quinn)
Gary Glass (Mark Blum)
Laurie Metcalf (Leslie Glass)
Distributor : Orion
Producers: Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford
Director: Susan Seidelman
Screenplay: Leora Barish
Camera: Edward Lachman
Editor:  Andrew Mondshein
Art Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Music: Thomas Newman
Song by Madonna
Running Time:            104 min
End note

“Desperately Seeking Susan” is one of the few commercial films Seidelman has made, grossing in the U.S. $27.4 million.



Producer: Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford Director: Susan Seidelman Screenplay: Leora Barish Camera: Edward Lachman Editing: Andrew Mondshein Design and Costume: Santo Loquasto Music: Thomas Newman, Madonna (song)

Running Time: 104 minutes