Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

“Desperate: I love that word. It’s so romantic.”

After accidentally hitting her head, a bored housewife named Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) becomes an amnesiac, and is mistaken for a free-spirited woman named Susan (Madonna). With the help of her new friend Dez (Aidan Quinn), Roberta tries to avoid being killed by a mysterious man who is pursuing her; meanwhile, Roberta’s worried husband (Mark Blum) enlists Susan’s help in tracking her down.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amnesia
  • Character Arc
  • Housewives
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • New York City
  • Rosanna Arquette Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Susan Seidelman’s popular ’80s fairytale about amnesia and switched identities is primarily notable as the film which gave pop star Madonna her breakthrough role. While she’s no great actress, Madonna is perfectly cast here as Susan, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the part (though many were considered). As Peary so accurately describes her, Susan is “a sexy, sweet, cocky, casually amoral, totally irresponsible (but forgivable) live-one-minute-at-a-time hedonist who follows her own drumbeat” — in other words, someone it’s easy to imagine stifled housewife Rosanna Arquette longing to emulate. Arquette herself is as wonderful as always; this proved to be her most iconic role as well, and it’s fascinating to know that she originally envisioned herself as Susan. She’s surrounded by memorable supporting actors (including Aidan Quinn, Laurie Metcalf, and Robert Joy), and countless “cameos” by performers such as Rockets Red Glare and Giancarlo Esposito. But the best “performance” in the film is New York itself — Seidelmen perfectly captures “the mind-draining suburbia” of the city’s outskirts, as well as “crazy, festive, seductive, always crowded lower Manhattan.” While the storyline is undeniably preposterous, it is, as noted by Peary, “enjoyably” so. Indeed, it’s hard not to get caught up in Roberta and Susan’s wild exploits as they maneuver their way through this incomparable city of artists, killers, drifters, and housewives.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosanna Arquette as Roberta
  • Madonna in her best film role
  • Laurie Metcalf as Roberta’s sister-in-law
  • Aidan Quinn as Dez
  • Robert Joy as Susan’s boyfriend
  • Good use of authentic New York locales

Must See?
Yes, for its historical popularity.


  • Historically Relevant
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)


One thought on “Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, but it holds some interest for those who harbor ’80s nostalgia.

    For something which, for years, I’ve heard has considerable cult appeal, I found this to be a disappointing film.

    The whole first half is surprisingly lackluster, with rather sluggish pacing that makes it difficult to feel engaged. Fortunately (for the film), things do get better midway – as the complexity of the script’s structure begins to take hold and the relationships (which benefit from the mistaken identity plot) overlap with increasing confusion.
    This creates some welcome tension – even if it doesn’t create that much more enjoyment from the performances.

    Arquette is pleasant-enough throughout and (admittedly) it’s very refreshing when she ultimately realizes that she has grown up and moved on emotionally from her dolt of a husband. Arquette shines in that moment.

    I don’t agree with Peary’s description of Madonna’s character – in the sense that I don’t see anything ‘sweet’ or ‘sexy’ about her. I pretty much see her (and Madonna’s performance, which has no depth to it) as the opportunist that Madonna has always been famous for being. There’s almost nothing here that’s all that likable about her.

    The standout performance is given by an under-used Metcalf – who uses every way she knows how to breathe real life into the potential wackiness of the set-up. She has the film’s best line: “Then take a valium, like a normal person!”

    (Poor Shirley Stoler is here reduced to a two-line role as a prison matron.)

    Seidelman’s direction is ok, overall – in that it’s orderly. I’d’ve liked things to be snappier, though. But she got great support from DP Ed Lachman – who really knew how to light this thing with bravura (esp. all of the night sequences, in a splashy array of color).

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