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“Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman)” : High Times

A fascination with bad girls was at the heart of Seidelman’s first feature, Smithereens, a low-budget independent film that brought the former fashion designer and television programmer immediate critical acclaim and high praise at film festivals such as Cannes. It also paved the way for the deal she now has with Orion Pictures.

Smithereens focused on the misadventures of “Wren,” a street-wise girl desperately desiring celebrity in the punk world pulsating in lower Manhattan. Wren is aggressive, abrasive and engaging. Her dream is to sit by a swimming pool in Southern California, eating tacos and signing autographs. Seidelman says, “Wren’s story is the fragmented nature of life in the 1980s”… or as David Lee Roth would say, ‘It’s a dog eat dog world, and you have to decide if you’re going to be a hot dog or a weenie.'”

Seidelman was involved with all aspects of making Smithereens. To finance the project she used up her savings and “begged, borrowed and stole” from friends and family. She also convinced the crew (mostly her New York University Film School compatriots) and cast to work on a deferred salary basis. Two weeks into the filming, Berman fell off a fire escape and broke her leg. But Seidelman’s resolve remained unbroken; she used the four-month delay to raise additional funds. Her resourcefulness came in handy for many sequences in the film. For the shots in the New York City subway, she and the crew sneaked in at 2 A.M., hiding a camera in a travel hag and avoiding transit cops. If that weren’t enough, she had to take the film to the lab and provide refreshments for cast and crew. “I was nice enough to make the coffee.”

Now Seidelnman has other people to make the coffee. She has the backing of a major Hollywood company, Orion, to the tune of $4 million, and a seasoned crew. But Seidelman remains nervous. “It was the first time I had worked with the union,” she recalls. “My impression of the crew was that it was going to be a bunch of sixty-year-old guys smoking cigars and not really caring about the product. I was incredibly impressed by the fact that the crew was as cooperative and into the movie as they were.”

The crew’s involvement came out on the set. Makeup artist Ridiard Dean, who had just finished work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club, explained, “In film, the question is continuity.” In one scene, Madonna is riding in a cab driven by Rockets Redglare, a sometime comedian who appeared briefly in Jim Jarnsusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and was Sid Vicious bodyguard at the time of the ex-Pistol’s worst misfortunes. “At the time of shooting the scene, he had a very ripe pimple on his cheek,” Dean said. “Susan decided the pimple would add to his character, so I didn’t put any corrective makeup on it. After a few days we decided to reshoot part of the scene, but his pimple had popped — so I made an identical pimple.”

Dean, who is the staff makeup artist for the TV programs Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman, discussed the subtle psychology behind the makeup for Desperately Seeking Susan. For scenes shot in the fictitious “Magic Club,” “the waitresses’ and dancers’ makeup is never blended or finished. Some of the characters forget to put foundation on their necks. That’s all intentional. It’s a kind of defiance, because they hate their job.”

“With the principal characters, we apply eyeliner, mascara and a mauve shadow,” Dean explained, illustrating his point on Madonna. She looked tough, wearing an orange T-shirt that exposed her belly, black spandex pants, fishnet gloves, shades, a TV/radio/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink watch and a silver star pinned to her flame-colored headband.

“Don’t forget my orange lipstick,” Madonna instructed Dean with a suggestive finger to her lips.

Madonna - High Times / May 1985

“Madonna brings a certain aura of innocence and coquettishness to Susan,” says Seidelman. “She has an incredible face, almost like vintage movie stars like Garbo and Dietrich. A face you would like to look at blown up 50 feet high and 30 feet wide.”

A crowd that had gathered outside the Magic Club seemed excited by the chance to watch Madonna make her move from video vamp to screen legend.

The Magic Club has been set up in the old Audubon Ballroom, a dilapidated but spacious three-story building near Harlem that received its footnote in history when Malcolm X was shot to death there in February 1965. Twenty years later, Seidelman and crew are shooting Madonna and Arquette. The neighbors seemed pleased.

Madonna and Anna Levine, who plays Chrystal, sat together on a green davenport. Seidelman stood in front of them while they rehearsed their lines. The scene looked a lot like a cigarette commercial — Madonna the sensuous blonde with legs crossed and a cigarette in hand. The image was dispelled when Madonna threw the cigarette to the ground, saying. “Cigarettes are disgusting.” You’ve come a long way, bad girl.

Not often will you find a producer lurking about a movie set. On that score. Desperately Seekinging Susan is decidedly different from most films. “We didn’t want to just hand the script over,” explained co-producer Midge Sanford. “We also have a concept of the movie and didn’t want to throw it away.”