On March 29, 1985, Orion Pictures released Desperately Seeking Susan, a film about a bored New Jersey housewife named Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), who follows the life of hip New Yorker Susan (Madonna), “a very free-spirited, adventurous femme fatale,” via the classified ads she and her boyfriend exchange. When Roberta gets amnesia, she and Susan briefly switch lives.
At the time, and even somewhat by today’s standards, Desperately Seeking Susan was revolutionary in that it featured two female leads and was written, produced, and directed by women. Ultimately, it was also a woman—Barbara Boyle, Orion’s then-senior vice president of worldwide production—who convinced the male studio heads to greenlight the project.
The movie is notable for marking the acting debut of Madonna, who was an up-and-coming star when shooting began and a household name by the time movie was released. Arquette, meanwhile, won a BAFTA for her performance.
More than 35 years later, Desperately Seeking Susan still packs a powerful feminist punch. Speaking about the film’s legacy in 2015, director Susan Seidelman told Yahoo! that the movie conveyed the powerful message that “you can be a woman filmmaker and make a commercial movie ... [and] have female leads in a movie and that men would see it.”
1. A French film influenced the screenplay for Desperately Seeking Susan.
Leora Barish, who wrote the script for Desperately Seeking Susan, told Yahoo! that the screenplay was influenced by Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating. “I liked the way [the Rivette film] plays with reality in an offhanded, barely perceptible way,” Barish said. “[In Susan] the two women from different realms are curious about each other ... Each is drawn to look beyond her own world and experience the world of the other.”
2. The filmmakers considered Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn to play Susan and Roberta, respectively.
“When I first got involved, the characters were of a different generation,” Seidelman told Yahoo!. “Susan was more of a hippie traveler—Diane Keaton in an embroidered shirt. The downtown Susan story, pyramid jacket, and Nefertiti earrings came later.” However, when the producers decided to reimagine Susan as a NewWave/punk figure, they first considered Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ellen Barkin, and Kelly McGillis.
3. Susan Seidelman convinced the studio to cast Madonna.
“I pulled for Madonna—I knew her from living downtown,” Seidelman told Yahoo!. “Studio execs had never heard of her, so [director of photography] Ed Lachman and I went to Union Square to shoot her audition reel. I remember someone walking by, pointing at her and saying, ‘That’s Cyndi Lauper.’” Based on Orion liking the audition tape and the co-founder of Orion’s son seeing Madonna on MTV and thinking “she was cute,” Madonna got the part.
4. The original script had a different ending.
The film ends (SPOILER!) with Roberta staying with Dez, played by Aidan Quinn, and Susan with Jim, played by Robert Joy. “The original ending was that they didn’t go off with the guys—they go off together on an adventure, and you see them on camels in the desert, in the Sahara. “Without the guys,” Arquette told Vulture. “I think that ending is such a better ending and I wish they would’ve kept it. Especially nowadays! That’s what Roberta was trying to get away from—the stereotype. It wasn’t happily ever after in the original script. I fell in love with that idea and I was very disappointed when they cut that out.”
5. Seidelman directed Madonna and Rosanna Arquette differently.
“I deal with Rosanna as an actress and Madonna as a personality,” Seidelman explained of her different directing styles for the two leads. “With Rosanna, I discuss character—and she expands on it. With Madonna, it’s about trying to get her not to act, but to be.”
6. Madonna became a superstar before filming wrapped.
Sire Records released Like a Virgin in November 1984, just a couple of weeks before Desperately Seeking Susan finished filming. “It was like watching a skyrocket,” Seidelman told Variety. “[Madonna] was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and watching that rise so quickly was fascinating. By the time we were in our last week of shooting, there was security and all the things that are needed when you shoot with stars on the street.”
7. The studio wasn't sure if Madonna's newfound fame was a good thing.
Seidelman told the Los Angeles Times that the studio didn’t know whether Madonna’s newfound fame would help or hurt the film. “Would it work for us or against us? Ultimately, the movie had to stand up for itself. I think for whatever reason, it caught the zeitgeist of the time. I think that is what people responded to.”
8. The filmmakers only had a few months to edit the movie.
Filming wrapped around Thanksgiving 1984. “There was almost no post-production time,” unit publicist Reid Rosefelt told Yahoo!. “Orion wanted a March opening because people there thought Madonna’s career might be over by the time it came out.” Little did they know that Madonna was just getting started.
9. “Into the Groove” doesn’t appear on the film’s soundtrack.
Madonna had written the dancey “Into the Groove” for her friend Mark Kamins and even recorded a demo. However, she decided not to give him the song and instead contributed it to film. Despite the song playing at the end of the film, it doesn’t appear on the soundtrack, which features a score composed by Thomas Newman. On July 15, 1985, “Into the Groove” was released as a single, and it appeared on the 1985 re-issue of Like a Virgin.
10. The studio didn’t know how to design the movie poster.
“Orion’s idea for posters included one with Madonna standing in front of a brick wall and Rosanna peeping over it,” co-producer Midge Sanford told Yahoo!. “Another had Madonna’s face reflected on a toaster and Rosanna’s on a piece of toast popping out. ‘We didn’t make Mr. Mom,’ I said. All the people in the room were middle-aged men who didn’t get the movie. What about those pictures Herb Ritts took of Madonna and Rosanna? A marketing guy looked at the slide and said, ‘If you put two women on a poster, people will think it’s a lesbian movie.’” Eventually, they used the now-iconic Ritts photo.
11. Desperately Seeking Susan was adapted into a short-lived musical.
On November 15, 2007, a stage musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan premiered at London’s Novello Theatre, with Blondie’s back catalogue used for the music. Due to a lack of ticket sales, the show closed one month later.
12. Mark Blum died from COVID complications.
Mark Blum, who played Roberta’s husband Gary Glass, a.k.a. “The Spa King of New Jersey,” died from COVID complications in March 2020. “He was a kind, gentle, wonderful actor with a great sense of humor and just the kindest soul,” Arquette told HuffPost shortly after his passing.
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