Desperately Seeking Susan is a 1985 American comedy-drama film directed by Susan Seidelman and starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna. Set in New York, the plot involves the interaction between two women – a bored housewife and a bohemian drifter – linked by various messages in the personal column of a newspaper.
The film was Madonna’s first major screen role and also provided early roles for a number of other well-known performers, such as John Turturro, Laurie Metcalf, Aidan Quinn and Steven Wright.
The New York Times named it one of the ten best films of 1985.
Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) is an unfulfilled suburban housewife living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, who is fascinated by a woman she knows about only by reading messages to and from her in the personals section of a New York City tabloid. Her fascination reaches a peak when an ad, with the headline “Desperately Seeking Susan,” seeks a rendezvous in Battery Park with the man who regularly seeks her (Jim, played by Robert Joy). Roberta goes to Battery Park, too, sees the woman (Madonna), and in a series of events involving mistaken identity, amnesia, and other farcical elements, goes from voyeur to participant in an Alice in Wonderland–style plot, ostensibly motivated by the search for a pair of stolen Egyptian earrings. With both of them trying to find Roberta, her husband Gary (Mark Blum) encounters the wild Susan.
- Rosanna Arquette as Roberta Glass
- Madonna as Susan Thomas
- Aidan Quinn as Dez
- Mark Blum as Gary Glass, Roberta’s husband
- Robert Joy as Jim Dandy, Susan’s boyfriend
- Laurie Metcalf as Leslie Glass, Roberta’s sister-in-law
- Anna Levine as Crystal
- Will Patton as Wayne Nolan
- Peter Maloney as Ian the magician
- Steven Wright as Larry Stillman D.D.S.
- John Turturro as Ray, the master of ceremonies at the Magic Club
- Anne Carlisle as Victoria
- José Angel Santana as Boutique Owner
- Giancarlo Esposito as Street Vendor
- Richard Hell as Bruce Meeker
- Rockets Redglare as Taxi Driver
- Annie Golden as Band Singer
- Richard Edson as Man with Newspapers
- Ann Magnuson as Cigarette Girl
- John Lurie as Neighbor Saxophonist
- Victor Argo as Sgt. Taskal
- Shirley Stoler as Jail Matron
- Arto Lindsay as Newspaper Clerk
- Kim Chan as Park Bum
- Michael Badalucco as Guy from Brooklyn
- Carol Leifer as Party Guest
The film holds an 85% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 26 reviews. In her review for The New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael referred to Madonna as “an indolent, trampy goddess.” The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby named the film as one of the 10 best films of 1985.
Rosanna Arquette won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Roberta; the fact that the award was for a “supporting role” reflected the surge in popularity that Madonna was experiencing at the time, since in terms of billing, number of scenes, lines of dialogue, and plot, Arquette was the film’s lead. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. Madonna also received positive reviews for her portrayal of Susan.
The soundtrack was released on both vinyl and CD together with the soundtrack to the film Making Mr. Right. The soundtrack does not feature any of the other songs in the film including Madonna’s “Into the Groove” which can be found on the European 1985 rerelease of her Like a Virgin album. The film captures the feel of the underground Bohemian/new wave scene of the early to mid-1980s New York City, a scene that helped Madonna get her big break in the music business. Madonna recorded a song for the movie, titled “Desperately Seeking Susan”. It ended up not being used in the film, and a demo she just finished at the time called “Into the Groove” was used instead. The demo version can only be heard in the movie. The song was a huge commercial success but was not included on the film’s soundtrack, despite being heard in the film, because licensing restrictions involving Madonna’s record label prohibited her songs from being mixed in with other artists. The video for “Into the Groove” consists of clips from the film compiled by Doug Dowdle of Parallax Productions.
Desperately Seeking Susan – Music composed by Thomas Newman
- “Leave Atlantic City!”
- “Port Authority by Night”
- “New York City by Day”
- “Through the Viewscope”
- “St. Mark’s Place”
- “A Key and a Picture Of”
- “Battery Park / Amnesia”
- “Jail / Port Authority by Day”
- “Running With Birds in Cages”
- “Trouble Almost”
Making Mr. Right – Music composed and performed by Chaz Jankel
- “Chemtech Promo Video”
- “Ulysses’ Escape”
- “Night Visit”
- “Frankie’s Drive”
- “In the Lab”
- “Sondra and Jeff”
- “Mr. Right”
- “Wedding Reception”
- “Parting Glance”
The filmmakers initially wanted Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn to play Roberta and Susan, but the director decided to cast newcomers Arquette and Madonna instead and the studio wanted the film to have younger actors in order to appeal to younger filmgoers. Bruce Willis was up for the role of Dez and Melanie Griffith was up for the part of Susan. Madonna barely beat out Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh for the part. Suzanne Vega also auditioned for the role.
The Statue of Liberty can be seen in the film when it was still covered in scaffolding during its two-year renovation. The DVD commentary track for the film (recorded in 1996) notes that after Madonna’s first screen test, the producers asked her to take four weeks of acting lessons and get screen-tested again. Although the second screen test was not much of an improvement, the director still wanted her for the role, for her commercial appeal more than anything else. Costume designer Santo Loquasto designed Susan’s pyramid jacket.
The film was inspired in part by the 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating). It also has an alternate ending included on the DVD, in which Susan and Roberta are invited to Egypt after helping return the earrings. They are depicted next to the pyramids on camels. Seidelman cut this scene, saying that it was unnecessary and audiences at the test screenings thought the film should have already ended much earlier (as explained on the DVD). The 1964 science fiction film The Time Travelers is playing in scenes 6 and 23 (melts at the end of the movie). All the scenes featuring Dez (Aidan Quinn) working as a projectionist were filmed at Bleecker Street Cinema. The scene with Roberta and Gary in their kitchen shows Roberta watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
The movie was filmed during the late summer and early fall 1984, early in Madonna’s rise to popularity, and was intended to be an R-rated feature. After the success of her 1984–85 hits “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” from her Like a Virgin album, the film was trimmed in content by Orion Pictures to get a PG-13 rating in order to also market the film to Madonna’s teenage fan base.
The interior/exterior shots of The Magic Club were filmed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Some scenes were filmed at Danceteria, a club that Madonna frequented and which gave her a start in the music business.
Separated at birth triplets Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman have a cameo role, reportedly at Madonna’s personal invitation.
The film was developed into a stage musical that premiered at London’s Novello Theatre on November 15, 2007, following previews from October 16, 2007. It features music and lyrics by Blondie and Deborah Harry, including a new song written especially for the show. The production was directed by Angus Jackson, with book and concept by Peter Michael Marino and sets and costumes by Tim Hatley. Produced by Susan Gallin, Ron Kastner, Mark Rubinstein and Old Vic productions, the musical starred Emma Williams as Susan, Kelly Price as Roberta, and Steven Houghton as Alex. Marino presented his solo comedy Desperately Seeking the Exit, which is based on his experiences, at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.