I must admit that when I first saw this film years ago, back in the days that I was in Youth Group, and had a pretty one-eyed view of the world, I would have probably have had a heart attack upon realising that not only would I be writing a blog post on this film, but I would also be praising the film as well. I guess when one does have a pretty black and white view of the world and is blinded by the fact that people aren’t supposed to like Madonna (despite the fact that she still sells lots and lots of records, and people still flock to her concerts). However, here I am, and I guess the reason that I now see this film quite differently is because with age, comes wisdom.
Anyway, as I do with a lot of the blog posts that I write about films, here is the trailer (and honestly, trailers were so much different back in the Eighties).
It is probably also a good idea to go over the synopsis before we delve into the characters.
So, we have these two women, Susan, who happens to be a drifter, and Roberta, a housewife in New Jersey that is married to a spa salesman, Greg. Susan communicates with her ‘boyfriend’ Jim through the lonely hearts column of the newspapers (which was the way single people hooked up before OkCupid), and Roberta follows their adventures. It turns out that they will be meeting in Battery Park in New York, so she decides to go and watch.
Well, she ends up following Susan, and Susan goes into a shop and finds a pair of boots that she likes, but because she never has any money, she swaps her jacket for the boots, and Roberta decides to buy the jacket. It turns out that Susan’s locker key is in the jacket, and Roberta arranges to meet Susan at Battery Park to hand the key back. However, Susan gets arrested for skipping on paying her cab fare, and Roberta is hassled by some strange guy and ends up knocking herself out when she runs into a lamp post. Dez, who happens to be Jim’s brother (and has never met Susan), watches the events and takes Roberta back to his apartment, however, Roberta has no idea who she is, and as such everybody thinks that she is Susan, particularly since she is wandering around wearing Susan’s jacket.
A Tale of Two Women
To be honest, Roberta and Susan couldn’t anymore the opposite of each other. As I have mentioned, Susan is a drifter, while Roberta is a housewife. Susan seems to be content with her life, doesn’t want anything, and even though she lives out of a suitcase, and bludges off of friends, she comes across as the type of person that is pretty much content with where she is at. This is despite the fact that she gets thrown out of restaurants and is regularly in trouble with the police, as well as other people. She just drifts, and she is simply happy to drift, sleeping with whoever comes her way, not really having any roots, and just living life as it happens.
Roberta on the other hand seems to have everything. She has a roof over her head and has everything provided for her. I was even going to suggest that she has a husband who loves her, but he does happen to be a cheating little prick. Yet, while he seems to be content to sleep around behind Roberta’s back, he keeps Roberta hanging around. Actually, you sort of get the impression that something isn’t right when you see the advertisement for his spas, where a group of women in bikinis pull him in as he is attempting to spruik his wares.
Another thing that is contrasted is that Susan seems to be in control of her life, despite the fact that she just drifts around. She is always able to persuade people to give her what she wants, even if they are hesitant at first. Take for instance where she meets up with Gary at his house, she just makes herself at home. In fact, she seems to be able to wrap Gary around her fingers and get him to do what she wants. We particularly see this in the nightclub scene, where Gary seems to be out of his depth, and Susan just does what she wants.
Roberta, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem to have much control over what happens. Her life is boring, and she wants something different. It seems that Gary is in charge, but the fact that Roberta walks out to look for Susan, and tries to get a taste of Susan’s life, demonstrates how Gary really doesn’t have any control. At first, it seems as if he has everything, and in a way he does, but at the end of the film, when everybody pairs up, he is the one that is left alone.
The jacket is an import item in the film, as the jacket seems to be that which identifies the wearer as being Susan. Once Roberta puts the jacket on, everybody thinks that she is Susan. It isn’t as if she has stolen Susan’s identity though because Susan continues to wander around being Susan. The only reason she wants the jacket back is because it has the key to her locker. Also notice that when Roberta gets the case, she takes the packet of cigarettes and begins to smoke them, even though she doesn’t actually smoke.
A Bohemian Fairy Tale
Fairy tales usually have a poor woman, or a woman in trouble, fleeing and them meeting their handsome prince and going off and living a life of luxury. However, while there is a fairy tale element to this film, in a way it seems to twist the concept around. Roberta starts off in a life of luxury, and she leaves that to live the lifestyle of the bohemian. Sure, she does have a handsome prince sweep her off her feet, but he doesn’t have a huge amount of money, and he doesn’t live a life of luxury – he lives in a rundown apartment and works in a cinema as a projectionist.
Yet this seems to be what Roberta wants. Look, it isn’t as if Gary is a bad guy, ignoring the fact that he is having an affair, and is having himself filmed as he is being pulled into a spa by bikini-clad women. Yet, as I will mention, there really seems to be something unfulfilling about this lifestyle that Roberta lives. It isn’t that Dez is some guy who has got his life worked out either, or is confident in himself. In a way, he seems to fulfill Roberta’s dream of living a different life. Like, the advertisement really does capture the way that Gary seems to be pulled around, and doesn’t have any control over his life. I guess this is the essence of the affair, not that he was pursuing it, but that it just happened, and he really couldn’t say no.
The magical element to the film is that it is set in New York City. Sure, if you actually live there, you probably don’t consider it to be all that magical, but for a city that is the centre of the Financial World, there is much more to it than meets the eye. It is also a cultural hub with Broadway, off-Broadway, museums, and countless restaurants that won’t break the bank. It is also exciting, and in fact we discover that Susan and Roberta become heroes because, simply by accident, they discover the stolen earrings.
Consider also the job that Roberta lands up with, as an assistant for a magician in a stuffy club. The essence is that there is a magical quality to the city, and a magical quality to the life that she is now living. This is the same with Dez’s apartment, in that while it doesn’t look that great, it still has character. There is no bed, just a mattress on the floor. In fact, there is no furniture, yet Roberta is perfectly happy to live this lifestyle, as it takes her out of the comfort zone.
Emptiness of Middle-Class Life
There are many movies that explore the emptiness of the middle-class lifestyle, and this is another one of them. However, this is the 80s, and there were countless numbers of television shows portraying the ideals of living the middle-class lifestyle. Wealthy, owning a home, and simply being content. However, this film jumps in the face of that by suggesting that this lifestyle is, well, boring. In a way, it is portrayed as being somewhat unfulfilling and in another sense some form of imprisonment.
It seems, in many cases, to be a life where you may be surrounded by people, but in another way, you are utterly alone. It is a life where you are forever wearing a mask, so as not to alienate yourselves from the group of people that you see on a regular basis. However, what goes further is that we are still in the time where the husband goes to work and the wife stays home. It is interesting that some shows have portrayed the monotony of this lifestyle driving people to alcoholism.
The thing is that it seems that the marriage is still relatively new because, for some reason, they don’t have kids. This is never explained, but it does provide Roberta with a way out. While she might be married, she is not responsible for children, so she has the opportunity to walk out of the house, and catch a glimpse of Susan’s life. Yet, what is interesting is how that life draws Roberta into it, and once she has been caught up in that lifestyle, she doesn’t want to leave.
The Failed Husband
Putting the affairs and all that aside, I wouldn’t necessarily say that Gary is a bad person. He is concerned about his wife, especially when she disappears. He’s not angry, and he doesn’t lash out at her either when they are finally united. In fact, he seems to just return home with his tail between his legs, not so much defeated, but rather that despite his wealth and success, he was never actually able to fulfil his role as a husband.
This brings up the idea of the cuckold, that is the man whose wife cheated on him. Yeah, this worked both ways in this instances, but the reality is that Roberta slept with Dez during the time where she didn’t actually know who she was. However, when she regains her memory, she decides that she would rather be with Dez as opposed to returning to Gary. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Gary had been cuckolded, an idea that undermines one’s sense of manliness, but rather that Gary offered nothing to Roberta to entice her back.
In a way, it goes back to the idea of the monotony of the middle-class existence. That is all Gary had to offer her, and from the beginning of the film it was clear that Roberta wanted so much more. In a way, while she may have initially bought into the lie of the idyllic nature of middle-class existence, once she experienced it she realised that this wasn’t what she wanted.
In a sense, it is also like landing that dream job. We hear that term everywhere, but the reality is that when we do hit that dream job, we suddenly discover that it actually isn’t all that fulfilling. This is the same with Gary. He’s a nice guy, and a successful one at that. However, he is a weak individual, as we can see by the way Susan walks all over him. Sure, that is what Susan does, but the thing is that Gary can’t even bring himself to say no to her. In fact, he can’t even bring himself to persuade Roberta to come back to him – he just seems to let her go. In a way, he is like that dream job, that once we land it, we discover that there is no fulfilment in where we have arrived.
As a side note, the actor that played Gary, Mark Blum, died of complications arising from the Corona Virus in March 2020.
In the end this is another one of those films that inspires us to seize the day. However, unlike The Dead Poet’s Society, this one isn’t a tragedy. Desperately Seeking Susan shows us two different sides to life, one that is a drifter, and one that is living in suburban hell. It is interesting to note that neither of the women makes the decision to go across the river, but rather they both choose to stay in New York. It is as if to cross the river is to give up on life, and to enter a boring, endless existence in which everything is pretty much the same.
It is interesting that there has been a movement back into the inner city in recent years. The whole idea of the gentrification of the inner suburbs. It is as if over the decades, the concept of suburban hell has been burnt into our consciousness, and many of us simply want to escape from it as quickly as possible. At the time this film was released, the inner suburbs were considered to be no-go zones, however now they are some of the most desirable places to live. This is the essence of seizing the day – there is so much more variety in the inner suburbs as opposed to the plastic outer-suburbs which could easily look the same no matter where you were. The strip malls all have the same stores, the same restaurants line the roads, and the pubs all have the same beers.
Go into the inner-city and you see a new dynamic community, where experimentation is the key, and each place has its own unique character. This is also what we see here in the film, where there is this dynamic nature of the world in which Susan lives, while Roberta’s world is dry, dull, and empty.
To finish off is another thing that you don’t see with many of the films these days – the music video. I’ll finish off with the video that accompanied the movie, Madonna’s Get Into the Groove.
Desperately Seeking Susan – Dreaming of the Bohemian by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me