Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 14 March 2011
Source Warner Bros. VHS
New York City means different things to different people, and its cinematic representations over the years are as diverse as the city itself. With the rise of independent movies and the decentralization of the American film industry after the dissolution of the once dominant studio system, the 1970s witnessed a prolific return of filmmaking to the Big Apple. That decade saw the release of several seminal NYC movies, ranging from indie underdogs to studio epics: the operatic majesty of The Godfather, the blaxploitation classic Shaft, the junkie drama Panic in Needle Park, the neurotic rom-com Annie Hall, the comic book fantasy Superman, and the psycho-urban-Western Taxi Driver. This hardly scratches the surface of that particular cinematic context. But amidst the Saturday Night Fevers and the Death Wishes, there were also smaller, quieter tributes to the city, like Claudia Weill’s Girl Friends, a fond portrait of the personal and professional frustrations encountered by two roommates helping each other get by in the big city.
Susan Weinblatt and Anne Munroe are aspiring artists in need of a big break and a better apartment. Susan wants to be a photographer, but the only work she can get is shooting Bar Mitzvahs and weddings; Anne has her own struggles with becoming a writer. Things are starting to look up when Susan sells three pictures to a magazine (including one of Anne) and the duo lands a bigger apartment on the Upper West Side. Then Anne announces she is getting married—leaving Susan all alone in the new apartment, and threatening to dissolve their once close friendship.
From here, much of Girl Friends unfolds anecdotally, alternating Susan’s attempts to break into the world of professional photography with Anne’s struggles to adapt to marriage and motherhood. Weill and screenwriter Vicky Polon seamlessly interweave the comedic and the dramatic, often within the same scene. Theirs is a cynical worldview – epitomized by Susan’s declaration that “There’s no truth like bullshit” – that is tempered by moments of earnestness and poignancy. Unlike Woody Allen, who turned New York into a neurotic wonderland filled with characters whose lives were unknowing punch lines to the auteur’s jokes, Weill and Polon don’t condescend to their characters’ moral dilemmas. The depiction on Anne’s marriage may border on mockery (especially with her husband’s fixation on “Moroccan” tea and cigarettes), but there’s a real sincerity to the awkwardness of their relationship. Likewise, Susan’s fling with a married rabbi over twice her age (an inspired performance by Eli Wallach) would seem like perfect fodder for a satirist like Woody Allen, but Weill and Polon are sympathetic to the unlikely couple. Their flirtation is as tender as it is unconventional—Susan talks about her uncle, a rabbi who loved female wrestlers, while Rabbi Gold mimics Marcel Marceau lighting a cigarette. This is far from the snappy “meet cute” that most rom coms perpetuate. Instead, the imperfection of their repartee – its random, impulsive, and nervous undertones – is what makes the scene feel so natural and relatable.
One aspect of New York that Girl Friends absolutely nails is the anxiety over one’s professional identity. Susan is perpetually reluctant to stand up to editors and curators about her work; Anne is unable to take criticism, yet she is unable to bring herself to produce unless she is enrolled in a class; and Ceil, Susan’s new roommate, is “sorta” a dancer. All three women are seeking validation from a city that seems simultaneously ripe with opportunity and completely impenetrable. Susan’s anthemic outburst at editors’ belittling comments is adolescent, but also rational: “Young lady, young lady, young lady! You know, I’m gonna be old before I get to do what I want, then I’ll have forgotten what it was.” It’s the first sign that she is learning how the artistic world works, and that she is going to have to take the proverbial bull by the horns if she is going to get anywhere.
Much like the aspiring female artists featured in the film, Girl Friends was the underdog effort of Claudia Weill. Cecile Starr chronicled the making and selling of Girl Friends in an article for the New York Times called “Claudia Weill: From Shoestring to Studio.” According to Starr’s article, the $80,000 dollar indie was shot in 6½ weeks in 1975, but it took three years to complete the production process and find distribution for the movie, which eventually came from Warner Bros. The film found its way into numerous film festivals, including Rotterdam and Cannes, as well as the first Utah/US Film Festival (the first incarnation of Sundance), where it won the competition. Stanley Kubrick was among the film’s many admirers, saying in an interview that it was “[o]ne of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe… It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story.”
Supporting the magnificent leads is an ensemble cast featuring Viveca Lindfors as the icy gallery owner, Christopher Guest as the charming one-night-stand turned strained long-term relationship, and Amy Wright (lately seen in Synecdoche, New York) as Ciel, the wayward dancer who is the freewheeling yin to Susan’s unconfident yang. Thirty-three years after its initial release, Girl Friends remains an indelible portrait of 1970s New York, and an endearing story of a friendship strained by the pressures of big city living.
As part of our monthly series at 92YTribeca in New York City, we will be screening Girl Friends on Saturday, March 18th at 8PM. Please visit 92YTribeca.org for more information.