Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends has often been called the female version of a Woody Allen picture—an awful, cringe-worthy comparison, but understandable in its centering of a neurotic Jewish protagonist in a talky New York drama. But here, the lead is Susan Weinblatt, played by an endearing Melanie Mayron, and it is, in my honest, humble opinion, far better than anything Woody Allen has ever done.
Girlfriends turns 40 this year, but it still feels under-seen for a movie so influential to the female friendship genre. It’s hard to imagine a show like Lena Dunham’s Girls without Girlfriends (Weill actually directed an episode of the HBO show); Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird feels like Girlfriends with younger protagonists and set three decades in the future. In many ways, Girlfriends is a prototype Frances Ha, the Noah Baumbach picture co-written by Gerwig about two best friends and roommates whose lives diverge. Girlfriends' basic premise is pretty much the same: Susan is the Frances character and she finds herself living alone when her best friend and roommate Anne (Anita Skinner) settles down, moves out, and gets married.
In an interview for the Institute for Contemporary Arts, Weill said that she wanted the "best friend" type, not the "pretty, blond, breezy one" to play the protagonist, because that’s who Weill herself relates to.
"It was important to me that Susan be the girl that’s not normally the protagonist—not the pretty, blond, breezy one that everybody loves and adores. She is that girl’s best friend, the 'Rhoda' lineage, Mary Tyler Moore's best friend played by Valerie Harper," she said. "The best friend is always funnier and men are usually less attracted to her because she’s either overweight, not as gorgeous or not as oriented towards pleasing them. I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out."
Susan is very much a lovably messy and relatable protagonist—like Frances, she’s in the figuring-it-out phase of her life, especially vulnerable without the crutch of her seemingly more mature friend. Without Anne, Susan is forced into an independence many of us have experienced. Early scenes of the pair indicate how they occupy each other's spaces, and it's clear that they had few boundaries.
After Anne leaves, Susan’s dating life becomes more adventurous. She meets a guy named Eric (played by Christopher Guest) at a party and sleeps with him casually before getting involved with an "older guy"—like, several decades older and married and also a rabbi (Eli Wallach). Their relationship is the film's strangest (uncomfortable yet amusing) plotline, especially since the movie is largely plotless and takes on a slice-of-life format.
When Susan gets involved with Rabbi Gold, Anne becomes the voice of reason and cautions her against the affair, but Susan is stubborn and has to realize her mistake on her own terms. The film doesn't judge Susan for her choices—nor does it attempt to make commentary that Anne's marital status leads to a happier, fuller life. Both women struggle and find satisfaction in their own ways—and despite their differences, they find their way back to each other as close friends.
Weill has also said that Girlfriends is about being the girl who looks at other women and thinks, "'Oh she’s got the answers,' or 'she’s doing great,' or 'she’s not home lonely tonight' or 'oh my god, she’s married, I’m never going to get married, I’m never going to find anyone.'"
With Anne gone, Susan finds a new roommate in the eccentric Ceil (Amy Wright), naturally expanding her social circle in a way that's familiar to most. She also isn’t defined by the pursuit of a husband of her own; Susan very much embodies the modern-day New York woman who is ambitious about her own career. Susan is a photographer in a creative rut after one too many Bar Mitzvahs, but with hard work and persistence, she lands a gallery gig. The film shows the opportunities for upward mobility available to young professional women, but Susan remains an artist with yet-to-be-fulfilled aspirations. After all, she's just like us.
'Girlfriends' will play as part of BAM’s Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era series (May 2–20), a stacked program that includes films by other greats such as Elaine May, Joan Micklin Silver, and Chantal Akerman.