Think Madonna Can’t Act? Watch Desperately Seeking Susan

Even if you’ve never seen actually seen a movie starring Madonna, including minor, overlooked masterpiece Desperately Seeking Susan, you’ve probably heard the general take on her acting. Over a Hollywood career that spanned 21 years — from 1985 to 2006 — and yielded 21 feature films, the music superstar (who turns 60 this week) inspired headlines like “Madonna and The Art Of Bad Acting,” and “Truly Awful Films Are An Art Madonna Can Only Aspire To.”
Google “Madonna acting”, and the search will yield some pretty vicious tidbits. Reviewing her performance alongside then-husband Sean Penn in 1986’s Shanghai Surprise, The Daily Mirror’s Pauline McLeod snarled: “Frankly, I’ve seen more animation from a block of wood.” Of 1993’s Body of Evidence, New York Magazine critic David Denby wrote: “Madonna cannot create a character — she cannot yield to any fantasy except her own.” When, in 2000, she appeared in The Next Best Thing, Brad Haynes at the Orlando Weekly shut it down: “The best thing for Madonna would be to give up her pursuit of a film career.” 2006’s Swept Away, Madonna’s first collaboration with then-husband number two Guy Ritchie, currently holds a dismal 5% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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As recently at 2017, Patti Lupone, who played the lead in Evita on Broadway nearly two decades before Madonna took over the role in the 1996 movie adaptation (one of the few that earned her critical praise, not to mention a Golden Globe), described the pop legend as a “movie killer” during an appearance on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live. “She’s dead behind the eyes,” the actress continued. “She cannot act her way out of a paper bag. She should not be in film or onstage. She’s a wonderful performer for what she does, but she is not an actress.”
You get the idea. Madonna’s acting is a punchline, an easy throwaway joke to drag down her scandalous and trailblazing biography, a way for haters to claim that her ambition is greater than her talent. Still, in honor of her 60th birthday, I would like to take a moment to direct your attention to a phenomenal Madonna-centered movie that deserves all the praise it can get.
Directed by Susan Seidelman based on a screenplay by Leora Barish, Desperately Seeking Susan is both ahead of its time, and aggressively, authentically rooted in the mid-eighties. Not only does it star two female leads in what is as much a voyage of self-discovery as it is a romantic romp, it was written and directed directed by women at a time when that was even less common than it is today. The film grossed $27,398,584 domestically, more than sextupling its $4.5 million budget. It was also Madonna’s first major cinematic role, and one that showcased the very qualities that would turn her into one of the most enduring pop culture stars of the past 35-plus years.
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Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta Glass, a frustrated housewife living in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She’s been married to Gary (Mark Blum), the self-proclaimed “Spa King of New Jersey” for four years, though it might as well be forty. To pass the interminable hours, she gets her hair done with sister-in-law Leslie (Laurie Metcalf, rocking that blue eye shadow), and reads the personal ads in a New York City tabloid. For months now, she’s been following a love story between Susan (Madonna) and Jim (Robert Joy), who send each other messages when they’re in town under the caption “Desperately Seeking Susan.” And one day, after a particularly grueling, stifling dinner party at Chez Glass, she decides to show up to the rendezvous.
I wouldn’t dare spoil the plot twist for you, because that’s part of the fun, but what follows is wildly entertaining madcap mayhem involving mistaken identity, amnesia, a pair of stolen gold Egyptian earrings, and an off-camera murder capped off by an utterly insane act involving doves on the stage of a kitschy magic club. It’s pure joy, set to a killer soundtrack (including “Into the Groove,” which Madonna wrote herself).
Madonna sparkles as Susan, the free-spirited party girl who we first meet lying on the floor of an Atlantic City hotel room posing for the 1985 equivalent of a selfie, Polaroid camera in hand. She’s a rebel, signature red lipstick perfectly applied, packing her belongings — including a stolen silverware set — into a round suitcase covered in skulls. As she heads towards the elevator, her hips sway, Marilyn Monroe style — but with black fishnets, and a signature green jacket stamped with a gold pyramid, topped with an eye. (“It used to belong to Jimi Hendrix.”) Legendary critic Pauline Kael said it best when she described her as “an indolent, trampy goddess,” in the New Yorker.
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What makes this role so special is that it gives us a glimpse of undiluted Madonna, pre-legend, pre-icon. She hasn’t yet shocked the world by dancing in front of burning crosses, or wearing her cone bra; she hasn't been banned by MTV or kissed Britney Spears. She was only 26 when the film was released in March 1985, and about to embark on The Virgin Tour, her first concert tour in North America. (The Beastie Boys were her opening act.) She had only two studio albums under her belt, 1983’s Madonna, and 1984’s Like A Virgin, which propelled her to international stardom. But at the time of Desperately Seeking Susan’s shoot, she still embodied that downtown New York City party scene that had given birth to her. When Susan flocks from club to club, nodding at acquaintances (all of whom she owes money to), drying her armpits with a hand-dryer in a public bathroom and crashing at a different place every night of the week, she’s basically an up-and-coming Madonna, Her performance is natural and effortless, with none of the stiff, self-conscious line-readings that would come to characterize later roles. She oozes sex and seduction out of every pore — even when she’s just chewing gum — but she also seems approachable, like your most wild, fun girlfriend who also mooches off you once in a while.
Ironically, she didn’t start out that way.“The character of Susan wasn’t this downtown punk kind of person,” Seidelman told Vulture about the original script.. “At that time she was a little bit more like a hippie traveler. It was more like Diane Keaton, Annie Hall-ish, that kind of a character. And what I thought would be interesting — again, because I was familiar with downtown culture — was to kind of morph it a little bit into the characters I knew, and that I thought could be interesting in that role. And so the character of Susan changed a little bit, and then certainly when we cast Madonna.”
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Seidelman, who had worked with punk idol Richard Hell on her first film, Smithereens, was interested in incorporating a similar vibe in Desperately Seeking Susan. But she was just as surprised as anyone when Madonna blew up in fame as the movie started shooting.
“Boom,” she continued.Suddenly everything exploded, we went from being able to film on the streets with no security whatsoever, no entourage, no nothing, to suddenly we had crowds of people when we were filming.”
Watching the film with the hindsight of 33 years is to see a star be born. I mean that literally. If you were to play a drinking game and take a shot every time you spot a famous face lurking in the corner of a scene, you’d be drunk before the halfway mark. John Turturro plays the bombastic host of a magic variety act; Aiden Quinn, who somehow makes suspenders and a fedora look hot, accidentally mistakes Roberta for Susan, setting of the crazy chain of events; Laurie Metcalf is gloriously funny as Leslie, and says things like “Take a Valium, like a normal person!” And then there’s Madonna, all punk attitude and see-through bras, going through a bag of cheese puffs like it’s her last meal.
There is a hint of sadness in that stellar assemblage. Rosanna Arquette, who won a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this role, is riveting in her performance, enough to make me seriously wonder why her career never really took off. But of course the answer to that question is simple. Arquette was among the first women to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker expose from October 2017. In an NPR follow-up interview, she said that she believes Weinstein had intentionally sabotaged her career after she rejected his sexual advances in the early 1990s. "Got down the elevator. By the time I got to the bottom, the lobby, I had a completely different career," she said.
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It’s also unfair that she gets second-billing, when she’s clearly the main character — but it’s true that Madonna’s screen presence cannot be denied.
Seidelman, who went on to direct several key episodes of Sex and The City (including the pilot!), has a keen eye for shots, and the whole movie is both gorgeous and grungy, lit with hues of blue and pink neon. Seidelman’s pre-gentrification New York is a dangerous, dirty, exciting shithole. It’s not unlike watching HBO’s The Deuce, except with the knowledge that this was all taking place in real time. Her characters live in gigantic Chinatown lofts that would go for millions today, sleeping on the floor when their furniture is stolen. Coffee shops and diners still have uniformed waitresses, and there’s no railway on the Battery Park boardwalk. And the clubs! New York wishes that the faux-speakeasies that populate the Lower East Side nowadays were this cool. The one Susan frequents is on the third floor of a non-descript tenement building, and it plays Madonna music!
This detail, in the end, is what makes Desperately Seeking Susan click, and also stand the test of time. It’s one thing to see Madonna acting on screen. But to watch her dance, un-choreographed, to “Into The Groove” wearing a skin-tight black crop top and fingerless gloves, her hair swept up in a blue scarf, is almost a religious experience. Like a prayer.
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