Weill, Claudia: Director Profile (Girlfriends) (Women in Film, Women/Film)

In 1977, the same year in which Joan Micklin Silver made the indie Between the Lines, Claudia Weill made another pioneering indie, Girlfriends, dealing with female friendship.

The tale offers a sympathetic look at a young, unattractive woman who tries to make it as a photographer in New York City.

The screenplay was written by Vicki Polon, based on Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss.”

Prior to her feature debut, Weill had 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

Girlfriends began as a short at the American Film Institute (AFI). It 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.

While shooting lasted only six weeks, the 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 various private backers.

GIRLFRIENDS, director Claudia Weill and star Melanie Mayron, 1978

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 the feminist film critic Molly Haskell, those films emphasized the emotional intensity that existed (and prevailed) between male protagonists. Thus,  feminism and the women movement gave those filmmakers “the freedom” to drop altogether the already depicted token women from their male-driven narratives.

Weill’s work was a “reaction” against buddy films, which either ignored and/or downgraded women. Simplistic in their notion of friendship, most of those films have revolved, as she said, around two men with beautiful faces and the adventures they have together.”  However, for Weill, “what was more interesting was what’s not being said, what people really want and expect 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, perhaps, it had hardly existed.  And if and when depicted at all, the more prevalent stereotype was that of “women going at each other or competing for men.”

However, the outside reality was different–and changing. With divorce rates on the rise in the 1970s, marriage had become an increasingly fragile institution, leading to the search for new bonds, and the issue of female friendship began gaining new, much desired interest.

With the emergence of the women’s movement, attitudes finally began changing. “Today, it’s considered a 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.”

Cycle of Movies about Female Friendship

Thus, in the late 1970s, a new cycle of mainstream Hollywood films began to explore and to exalt the various forms of bonds and friendships among women.

Julia, The Turning Point, Unmarried Woman, were all released within a year apart. 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.”

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film.