A leading figure in both independent and women's filmmaking since the early 1980s, director Susan Seidelman leapt to prominence with her smart, angsty drama "Smithereens" (1982), which paved the way for her greatest screen success, "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), featuring Madonna on the cusp of superstardom. Both films hinged around women confronting society's requirements to conform to traditional female roles by pursuing their own dreams, no matter how offbeat or impossible the goal might seem. This central thesis also informed most, if not all of Seidelmen's subsequent work, including the comedies "Making Mr. Right" (1987) and "She-Devil" (1989), as well as the pilot for "Sex and the City" (HBO, 1998-2004) and "Boynton Beach Club," which honed its focus to the lives of women in their senior years. Though she never quite reclaimed the success of "Susan" with another feature, Seidelman worked steadily throughout her two-decade-long career in a variety of genres while applying her own aesthetic to each of her projects. In doing so, she transcended the typical Hollywood model of "hits" and "flops" to present instead a body of work regarded more for its quality and integrity than its box-office returns.
Born Dec. 11, 1952 in Philadelphia, PA, Susan Seidelman was raised in the city's suburbs by her father, a hardware manufacturer, and her mother, an educator. After graduating from Abington Senior High School in 1969, she studied fashion design at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Soon realizing that she had no interest in spending time behind a sewing machine, she turned to her love of film as a possible career direction. After taking a few film classes and serving as a production assistant at a local television station, Seidelman enrolled in New York University's film program in 1974. She soon directed a number of short films, one of which, "And You Act Like One Too" (1976), a comedy about a housewife's indiscretions, won a student Academy Award. After graduating, she did freelance editing work and assisted on television commercials while attempting to raise funds for a feature. Eventually, she pooled $80,000 from her own funds and various friends to produce and direct her first feature film, "Smithereens" (1982).
A glamour-free look at East Village life as viewed through the prism of a romantic triangle between a hopelessly untalented but ambitious young woman (Susan Berman) and two musicians (Brad Rijn and punk legend Richard Hell), it became the first American independent film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, where it attracted the attention of Hollywood producers seeking a fresh voice for studio projects. A year of meetings, festival engagements and scripts for teen projects eventually brought her to "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985). Based loosely on Jacques Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974), the film featured Rosanna Arquette as a bored housewife whose fascination with a mystery woman sought after in a series of personal ads led to adventure involving mistaken identities and missing earrings. The film earned mostly positive reviews and a BAFTA for Rosanna Arquette, but its true purpose was to help spread the gospel of pop singer Madonna, who made her second film appearance in the film as Susan. The film's success helped to mint Seidelman as the director du jour, which she soon capitalized on by helming a string of studio projects.
Unfortunately, most, if not all of these subsequent efforts failed to match the box office returns or critical acclaim of "Susan." 1987's "Making Mr. Right" starred former performance artist Ann Magnuson as a PR agent who fell for the kindly robot double of his prickly scientist inventor (John Malkovich). It failed to find an audience, as did the mob comedy "Cookie" (1989) with Peter Falk and Emily Lloyd. "She-Devil" (1989), based on the novel The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, seemed like a surefire hit with a cast led by Oscar winner Meryl Streep and then-reigning sitcom queen Roseanne Barr, but it too was a disappointment. Following this string of flops, Seidelman took a lengthy sabbatical from studio filmmaking, surfacing almost a half-decade later with a 1995 remake of "The Barefoot Executive" (1971) for the Disney Channel. The following year, her short film, "The Dutch Master" (1995), starring Mira Sorvino as a young dental hygienist who entered an erotic reverie after viewing a 17th-century painting, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short.
Seidelman soon returned to television for the better part of the 1990s, helming the pilot episode of "Sex and the City," as well as the Emmy-nominated Showtime Original feature "A Cooler Climate" (1999) with Sally Field and Judy Davis. However, her return to features with 2001's "Gaudi Afternoon" failed to find a distributor and was released as a direct-to-DVD title. She fared slightly better with "Boynton Beach Club" (2005), a dramedy co-produced by and inspired by her mother's experiences while living in a Florida retirement community. But her 2012 drama "Musical Chairs," about a paraplegic woman who entered a wheelchair ballroom dance competition, was overwhelmed by the media blitz surrounding its opening weekend competition, "The Hunger Games" (2011). Undaunted, Seidelman next completed "Hot Flashes" (2012), a comedy about a forty-something group of former high school women's basketball champions who reunited to take on the current leading high school team in a charity competition.
By Paul Gaita