“Desperately Seeking Susan” Is a Throwback to an NYC Even Weirder Than the 2020 Version

On Madonna’s meteoric rise, amnesia and personal ad hookups, 35 years later

desperately seeking susan
Madonna is held captive by Will Patton in a scene from the film 'Desperately Seeking Susan', 1985

There are certain films that I like to refer to as “accidental artifacts.” These movies tend to lie somewhere in the nebulous space between bad and not-so-bad, but are so particularly of their time and place that they provide a fun and unique set of information to pop-culture archeologists.

Desperately Seeking Susan, currently celebrating its 35th anniversary and available to stream on Amazon, is one such film.

From shots of a lower Manhattan that no longer exists to an icon — Madonna — captured at the exact moment of her rocket-ship ascent to superstardom, one would be hard pressed to build a better (or more enjoyable) time capsule of 1985.

At the risk of sounding like an Old-Man Gen-Xer, it has become increasingly difficult to articulate to the younger people in my life the impact that pop stars had in the 1980s. It was the peak of mass media, before cable television and the internet ushered in the niche-ification of interest and pointed everyone into their own corner of predilection. Everyone listened to the same radio stations, watched the same music videos and subscribed to the same magazines. Score some combination of those three things — say, a Top 40 hit, regular MTV rotation and the cover of TIME — in 1985, and an artist would wield a level of celebrity and influence that I’m not sure even exists anymore.

Despite having a few modest hits under her belt, Madonna was only a minor star when Desperately Seeking Susan started shooting. It sounds absolutely insane now, but in the fall of 1984, she could walk the streets of New York with a camera crew and attract only the occasional glance from passersby. That all changed mid-production when, on October 31st, “Like a Virgin” was released. Overnight, Madonna became an über-celebrity to the point of requiring extra security for the last few weeks of production and a rushed post-production process so that the studio could capitalize on her meteoric rise. She began the film as a moderately successful singer and finished it as one of the most famous people on earth, a feat that has not happened since and likely never will again. Desperately Seeking Susan dropped in April of ‘85, the following month Madonna got her TIME cover, and the rest is history. 

The movie itself is a delightful mess. While the premise is goofy, the mechanics are sound enough that one can buy in without thinking too hard: Madonna plays the titular Susan, a grifter and proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who communicates with her sometimes boyfriend through personal ads in the New York Post. Rosanna Arquette is Roberta, a bored housewife who has gotten to know these anonymous people by reading the personal ads. After deciding to spy on them by covertly following Susan around the Lower East Side, Roberta buys Susan’s recently bartered jacket and a botched meetup, case of mistaken identity and amnesia ensue. 

As far as cultural artifacts go, this plot is a buffet of amazing. Let’s start with communicating through newspaper personals: the idea here is that the players are too broke to afford phones and roughly a decade too early for email, so the most efficient way for them to communicate is by going to the office of a newspaper and paying $5 to place an ad! It seems ridiculous, but the logic is oddly sound in a very ‘80s sort of way.

Second, the mistaken identity: there is an entire generation of Americans out there with no concept of a time when you couldn’t instantaneously share images with other people. You hear that, Gen Z? That means that if you were, say, trying to facilitate a meetup between two people who don’t know each other, you could only describe those people with words. “Hey, my buddy is coming to town, can you pick him up at the bus station? He has brown hair and is wearing a jean jacket.” When you really think about it, instances of mistaken identity must have been rampant until sometime in the mid-’90s.

And finally, the amnesia: growing up with films like Overboard, Regarding Henry and Total Recall, I believed that amnesia, much like quicksand, was going to be a much bigger deal in my adult life. Cut to 2020 and If it wasn’t for Larry David’s assistant choking on a scone, Jason Bourne would count as the only significant amnesiac of the last 20 years.

Each of these elements actually find a way to work in one sense or another. There are probably ways one could update them, but in their construction here, they really couldn’t be duplicated today — we all have too much information to ever be this confused.

Which brings us to New York City, one of the most recognizable characters in the history of cinema. The manic grime of mid-’80s/early-’90s Manhattan will always have a special feel. It’s not a coincidence that Desperately Seeking Susan was shot around the same time as Scorcese’s After Hours — both embody the feelings of inherent danger on the Lower East Side and the self-reliance necessary to navigate it. Despite the contracted geography, it’s a place where it’s very easy to be lost, to lose someone, to become someone else, and to lose entire days without noticing it. Such a Manhattan just doesn’t exist in 2020, nor does that feeling of New York being a magical and scary foreign land. And that’s perhaps the most impactful part of watching a time capsule like Desperately Seeking Susan at a time like this: those of us who live here now reside in a New York that’s infinitely more connected and less alien than it was 35 years ago, but scary in a whole new way nonetheless.

Of course, missing this version of New York doesn’t mean we wish we could go back to the petty crime and social strife that characterized the city in the mid-’80s; it just means that’s it’s fun and comforting to dive into a version of our city where the danger is of a visible variety and hijinks are always possible. It’s a New York populated by the sort of irresistible companion who can get you to let your guard down just long enough to swindle you, but at such a low cost that you may just be willing to get suckered by her again.

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