Girlfriends: Caludia Weill’s Feminist Tale of Friendship

Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends offers a sympatheticaly feminist look at a young, unattractive woman who tries to make it as a photographer in New York.

The screenplay was written by Vicki Polon, based on Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss.” Prior to her feature debut, Weill produced a number of documentaries, including the acclaimed Joyce at 34, and directed the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir (1975), a chronicle of the first women’s delegation to China led by Shirley MacLaine.

Girlfriends, which began as a short at the AFI, was the first indie to be backed by grants (totaling $80,000) from government and city councils. Bringing the feature to the screen, however, was a long arduous task. Shooting lasted six weeks, but post-production stretched out for over a year. When the funding from NEA and N.Y. State Council on the Arts ran out, Weill was forced to interrupt her work and stitch together completion money from private backers.

The protagonists of Girlfriends, Susan Weisblatt (Melanie Mayron) and Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner), are college graduates who share a walk-up apartment on the Upper West Side. They are constructed as types: Susan is Jewish (Fiddler on the Roof like music plays when she’s onscreen), Anne Munroe is gentile (her music is neo-baroque).

Their friendship is put to test when Anne, an ambitious but not very talented poet, opts for marriage, and Susan is left alone. She works with an urbane rabbi (Eli Wallach) on bar mitzvahs and weddings, but at heart she is an artist yearning for recognition. Desperately needing affection and companionship, Susan has to overcome fears of herself and of a permanent relationship.

Girlfriends could have easily degenerated into soap opera, but Weill keeps the slice-of-life film simple and realistic, with charm and humor under the quiet desperation. As a study of loneliness (it’s implied that New York is filled with girls living unfulfilled lives), it draws on Mayron’s strong performance. With her halo of frizzled hair and intelligent, expressive face, Mayron registers a problematic life with hesitant, repressed gestures.

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 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.

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.”