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“Lucky Stars” Madonna & Rosanna : Rolling Stone

Madonna - Rolling Stone / May 09 1985

If Madonna is a fan of screwball comedy, Susan Seidelman is more intent on spray-painting her own signature on the canvas of the blank generation she grew up with. “I think I’m a little bit of a satirist,” she says. “I grew up in the epitome of Sixties suburbia. You know, Dunkin’ Donuts shops, TV dinners. We had canned vegetables at home because we thought it was more modern than having fresh vegetables. So that pop-Andy Warhol-whatever aesthetic is something I took for granted.

“Inside that, I wanted to make a fable about identity and appearances. But this film isn’t an essay. I dislike movies in which the theme becomes the plot, where everything is like an essay on Loneliness or Frustrated Housewives of Sexual Whatever. If you look at movies like Some Like It Hot or Tootsie, you could probably write a lot about sexual roles, but the films don’t get bogged down in their message. To be able to show something rather than tell it is much more interesting, and the best devices are the ones that work most invisibly. I mean, if Rosanna’s character is torn between her husband and another guy, and we see her in a magician’s box being sawed in half – that works great if you think about it, but it’s gonna work on an immediate level, too. To me, a script is a skeleton that I liked enough to – well, hang my skin on.”

The skeleton of Desperately Seeking Susan had been rattling around Hollywood for five years before finding its skin, and it would be there still were it not for a coming together of inspired amateurs who – not incidentally in this male-run industry – are mostly women. The script was the debut effort for Leora Barish, 36, who has quit life as sometime saxophonist in Manhattan’s East Village and moved to California seven years ago. She brought it to a close friend, Sarah Pillsbury (whi indeed is from Minnesota cake-mix clan her name evokes), who went from Yale to producing documentaries, including a 1979 Oscar winner. Teamed with friend Midge Sanford, savvy in the Byzantine ways of Hollywood development deals, Pillsbury optioned Barish’s script as their first project. It floared through studio limbo, gathering praise from many women and indifference from most men, but it refused to die. “We reconceived it as a lower-budget, up-and-coming-star kind of movie as opposed to using the older, established actresses we’d been talking about,” says Sanford, and finally Orion took up the option. Sanford and Pillsbury sent Arquette’s agent the script, and a week later, in June of last year, she signed up. The producers had been fans of independent filmmaker Susan Seidelman’s critically lauded debut film, Smithereens, and they tapped the director for Susan early on.

Seidelman, 32, had come out of the split-level Philadelphia suburb of Abington, studied fashion design at Drexel University and clerked for a few months at a local TV station before applying to film schools; New York University “shocked” her with an acceptance. She moved to the Lower East Side in 1974, when St. Mark’s Place was a strip of shuttered hippie boutiques. She gravitated toward directing in the three-year course and began piling up awards with her twenty-eight-minute debut, “And You Act Like One, Too,” about a too-married woman. Smithereens, begun in 1980 with $10,000 from her grandmother’s will, became the surprise hit of the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. (“I think they wanted to make a statement about mainstream American films,” she says diffidently.) In it, young actress Susan Berman played Wren, a sort of punk-rock groupie living by her wits against the harsh and indifferent backdrop of the Lower East Side and it’s punk rajah, Richard Hell. Shooting was delayed when Berman, racing along a row of loft windows, ran out of fire escape (“like some horrible Road Runner cartoon,” recalls Seidelman) and broke a leg. Still, Seidelman brought it in for $80,000, and it earned plenty more – enough to buy her a SoHo loft whose spotless varnished-wood floors and sparse, Sixties-gauche furnishing hardly mirror the unkempt world of her films.

So messy and wheedling are her heroines that Seidelman’s films seem to have at least one foot in the genre pundits are calling “slob comedies.” Madonna’s Susan is an empress of trasg, a libidinous but untouchable she-wolf who washes down cheese puffs with vintage wine, cadges triple tequila sunrises and steals other peoples’ goods and services with an amiable, Pigpen-ish air.

Madonna admits that when she arrived in New York in 1978, she, like Susan, “relied on the kindness of strangers.” When Seidelman heard of the singer’s interest in the part, she invited her over: “She was nervous and vulnerable and not at all arrogant – sweet, but intelligent and verbal, with such a sense of humor. I just started seeing her as Susan.” The chiefs at Orion were skeptical – some 200 actresses had read or been video-taped for the part – so Madonna was given a screen test. “She had this presence you couldn’t get rid of,” says Sanford. “No matter how good the other people were, we kept going back to that screen test.”

“Susan is conniving, an opportunist,” says Madonna, “but she really did care about {Roberta’s husband} Gary Glass and her boyfriend, Jim, and all these people.” Part of her cockeyed charm is a warmth underlying her aloof facade: “Anybody who goes around acting like nobody matters obviously is protecting themselves and hiding what they really feel. So I always wanted to have that little underneath there.”

What underneath may be the “little tiny girl” Arquette is sure she sees in Madonna – perhaps the girl whose mother died when she was six. “I knew I had to be extra special supercharming to get what I wanted, ’cause I grew up with a lot of brothers and sisters {she was the theirs of eight children}, and we had to share everything, I did all I could to really stand out, and that nurtured a lot of confidence and drive and ambition.”

Poet Edward Field wrote that Mae West “comes on drenched in a perfume called Self-Satisfaction,” and it’s a knack Madonna shared. She and Seidelman had a decent repport, but conflicts between the young director and three precocious pros – Arquette, Laurie Metcalf (as Roberta’s vituperative sister-in-law) and Aidan Quinn (as Roberta’s love interest) – were frequent. Production veteran Michael Peyser often picked up the pieces. “Susan has a wonderful quality; she guileless, totally honest,” he says, but he pegs her as a Hitchcock-style director: “She comes from filmmaking, as opposed to directing. She was working with excellent people, like Laurie and Aidan, who are and will be major stage actors of their generation; they’re used to a little more stroking.”

“I really do like actors,” says Seidelman. “I’m not manipulative, at which Hitchcock prided himself. I’m not good at hiding what I feel. I can’t say, ‘Oh, brilliant’; when I’m unhappy, it’s written on my forehead.”