Beauty in the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

This week for Beauty in the Movies we’re heading back to the New York of 1985 for the cult classic Desperately Seeking Susan, where the streets are full of characters and you just can’t wear enough jewelry or sequins.

Desperately Seeking Susan brings us into the life of Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), a young housewives living in Fort Lee New Jersey with her neglectful, hot-tub selling husband Gary (Mark Blum). Suffering from the boredom of everyday life, Roberta finds herself obsessing over a string of personal ads in which a man, Jim (Robert Joy), is “desperately seeking” his girlfriend Susan (Madonna) in cities all over the country. When an ad pops up requesting a meeting in Battery Park, Roberta just can’t resist driving over to Manhattan to see the couple in the flesh. After witnessing the musician and his lady reunite, Roberta follows the enigmatic woman to a thrift store where she watches her trade her trademark pyramid jacket for a pair of bedazzled boots. Wanting to understand and be more like Susan, Roberta buys the jacket and rushes home to New Jersey to make dinner for her clueless husband.

That night she finds a port authority locker key in the pocket of Susan’s jacket and decides to pen her own personal ad seeking Susan in order to return the key and unlock the mystery of the woman. Unfortunately for Roberta, Susan is also being sought by a creepy guy who knows only that she unwittingly stole a pair of priceless Egyptian earrings and that she wears a gold jacket with a pyramid on the back. Uh-oh, because now Roberta is wearing that same jacket and the creepy guy is following her instead. Meanwhile Susan’s guy Jim has sent his buddy Dez (Aidan Quinn) to Battery Park to see who put the ad in the paper for Susan and check to make sure she’s alright. While Susan gets hauled away by the cops for skipping out on cab fare, Roberta is pursued by the creepy guy and subsequently falls and hits her head only to be rescued by Dez who also believes her to be Susan. She awakes to find she has lost her memory, and now Roberta believes she is Susan as well. Phew, that’s only the first half hour, from there the film weaves a path of mistaken identity and fabulous 1980’s fashion, if that’s not enough for you, there’s also this moment:

Pensive Aidan Quinn + hammock + cat = magic

When this film first went into production Madonna wasn’t Madonna yet, but by the time it wrapped they needed security to keep her growing fan base at bay during filming. Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t show that Madonna is a great actress, in fact it probably proves the contrary, but she works well because she has a magnetism and style that invite attention. Roberta is drawn to Susan in the same way Madonna’s teenaged fans were drawn to her at the time. It’s as if the film foreshadowed the Madonna explosion, you would think it was written to emphasize the allure of the budding pop star, but it was nothing more than a happy accident. Goldie Hawn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ellen Barkin were all considered for the role of Susan. While I’m sure they each would have brought more depth to the role, it wouldn’t matter, because the only thing Susan needs to be is interesting, she doesn’t need to be likable or sympathetic—but she damn well needs to have style.

Desperately Seeking Susan was written by a woman, directed by a woman, and produced by women as well, so while it can be silly at times, it sidesteps the typical romantic comedy formula and delivers something decidedly different. In truth this film is really a love story between Roberta and Susan, not physically, but emotionally. Roberta is completely enthralled by Susan’s freedom and sense of self, and in her search for her own identity she falls in love with Susan’s, and even gets to live out the fantasy of being that identity before finally embracing her own.

There is something Alice and Wonderland-like about this film, Roberta being Alice and Susan the white rabbit she follows into a new world. Her life in New Jersey is seemingly perfect, but she’s miserable. When Roberta enters the somewhat mad world of Susan on the exciting but frightening streets of New York she finds an entirely new self. At first she needs to believe she is Susan in order to allow herself to change, but even when she regains her memory, she is no longer the suburban housewife she was, but someone new. This film is very much about duality and identity, who we are and who we want to be and why we should allow ourselves to explore both those ideas, because often they don’t line-up as perfectly as one would expect.

Sure, this film has its share of silly moments, but the great clothes and music, the strange background characters, and the somewhat goofy plot all add to the charm. Behind all the style, there is actually a very poignant message that was pretty rare for films about women at the time; be yourself, whoever that is. No matter what everyone else is telling you to be, you’re the one who decides who you are. In the ’80s women were taught they could have it all, but if you’re trying to be everything, you’ll probably lose yourself in the process. What’s really important to remember is that being who you are shouldn’t take any effort, and if it does, maybe it’s time to see what it would feel like to be someone else, you might even discover you’re not who you thought you were at all.

Bustier top
$110 – loefflerrandall.com

Lace top
$35 – modcloth.com

Pink top
18 GBP – arkclothing.com

Ribbed tank
$14 – kohls.com

Cropped tank
$13 – tillys.com

3 1 Phillip Lim sequin blazer
578 GBP – net-a-porter.com

DKNY sequin blazer
310 GBP – fashionbeans.com

Hayden Harnett black skirt
$198 – haydenharnett.com

LnA lace legging
90 GBP – brownsfashion.com

Demi bra
$46 – journelle.com

Pink ruffle skirt
$40 – amazon.com

Alexander McQueen open toe booty
312 GBP – net-a-porter.com

Sparkly high heels
35 GBP – office.co.uk

Oxford shoes
$40 – modcloth.com

Knotted pearl necklace
$248 – maxandchloe.com

Amrita Singh cross pendant necklace
$150 – amritasingh.com

Drop earring
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1928 Jewelry black necklace
$48 – 1928.com

Tarina Tarantino cord bracelet
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Pewter earring
$14 – amazon.com

Glitter bracelet
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Eugenia Kim fedora hat
$295 – net-a-porter.com

Silver aviator sunglass
$150 – kirnazabete.com

Glove
$40 – modcloth.com

Fingerless glove
69 GBP – black.co.uk

Hobbs black belt
59 GBP – johnlewis.com

Cheap Monday sunglass
50 AUD – generalpants.com.au

Flower hair accessory
$28 – nordstrom.com

Dorothy Perkins hair bow accessory
6.50 GBP – dorothyperkins.com

Hair bow accessory
$5.98 – sears.com

Striped Boxer
$74 – barneys.com

Pima Dress Sock in Apple
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Wet Seal skinny jeans
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5 Comments

Filed under Beauty in the movies

5 responses to “Beauty in the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

  1. jennifer

    EXCELLENT! I sparkly heart this movie. You still have perfect taste in movies.

    Fun fact: This movie was supp0sed to be a vehicle for Rosanna Arquette, but because of Madonna’s overwhelming success, she totally eclipsed Rosanna. Needless to say, Rosanna was pissed because her ship never came in the way Madonna’s did.
    I love the way you mention that Roberta goes on an Alice in Wonderlandesque journey because I never thought of it that way but it fits.
    As you mention, the entire movie is pretty much style over substance. Who cares what the movie is about as long as you can live Madonna’s life and smooch on Aidan Quinn in an empty but super huge Soho pad?

  2. Silly story sure but there is nothing silly amount the astonishing attention to detail this film features. Every object, every back ground character, every setting seems to have been selected with the utmost care. A great example: Aiden Quinn’s loft has a giant martial arts poster painted over the entrance wall. If you can’t excuse the story you can at least still sit back in awe of the authentic ’80s NYC atmosphere, It’s a total carnival- I want to go back and live in this world! The cab driver who get’s Madonna arrested was a personal fave, the people walking past the camera as they weave through the west village are a total hoot, and the Magic Club is a locale that should be a national treasure. Viva Desperately Seeking Susan!

  3. haren

    I love the idea of Madonna as the white rabbit!

  4. lizzy

    bullseye straight to my heart! you KNOW how i feel about this movie! what more substance do you need than jackie from roseanne as a prissy nj housewife and madonna dancing to get into the groove?!?!?!?!? its perfection!!

  5. mkz201

    I always loved the look of this movie – even when I was watching it just long enough after it came out for everything to look completely bizarre. I think one of my fantasies of what living in the city would be like involved Aidan Quinn’s loft, hopefully with an Aidan Quinn in it. That place is what city apartments look like in my head. And they should all have an Aidan Quinn in them. Sigh.

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