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Girlfriends is a delightful New York independent by Claudia Weill, one of the 70s pioneers that broke into the "men only" director's club. Filmed in 16mm, this character-driven story of a struggling Manhattan photographer overflows with natural performances from endearing actors. Instead of imitating Hollywood (even hipster Hollywood like Paul Mazursky), chasing revolution or burying herself in documentaries, Ms. Weill presented aspiring types she seems to know well, and cast them with actors who more or less were living those lives already. The result is a collection of performances that seem less 'actorly' and more authentic. The producer/director also isn't afraid to embrace sentiment and force her characters to undergo issues that might be confused with clichés. The style seems to be to avoid stylization. If the movie is feminist, it's only because it generates empathy for worthy female individuals. 1
New York's a rough place for Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), who has difficulty in both her chosen profession and in her emotional life. Her roommate and soul mate / best friend Anne (Anita Skinner) decides to get married right after they find a larger apartment, leaving Susan at loose ends. She feels lonely when a fellow photographer friend appears to be a big success. She has a one-night stand with Eric, a near stranger (Christopher Guest) and then finds herself falling in love with Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach) a spirited fellow thirty years her senior. Susan's visits with Anne become awkward -- Anne feels confined in her new role as wife and her husband Martin (Bob Balaban) doesn't know how to relate to Susan. Susan picks up a new roommate in drifter-dancer Ceil (Amy Wright) but soon resents the young woman's taking over the apartment, not to mention her sexual advances. Unable to pay the power bill, Susan summons the nerve to bluff her way into securing a photography show with a gallery run by the sympathetic but professional Beatrice (Viveca Lindfors). But can Susan manage success as well as she embraces failure?
Right off the bat, we can't help but fall in love with Melanie Mayron, a delightful actress with a winning smile and resilience behind her surface vulnerability. Ms. Mayron lit up the screen as an unlikely sexual adventuress hitchhiking through Harry and Tonto and carries Girlfriends with ease. She'd later do great work as a regular on TV's thirtysomething, and then became a director. The scenes that comment on Susan's Jewish background are spirited and natural, especially when compared with the relentlessly 'soulful' approach of Barbra Streisand. Susan and Rabbi Gold establish a warm relationship based on her drinking and talking about her Orthodox grandfather. A few minutes later, the married Rabbi is embracing Susan and kissing her, and neither of them are "bad" people. Just try that in a mainstream movie.
Girlfriends is sold as a relationship movie, and it indeed has some fine interactions between Susan and Anne, roommates who couldn't be closer if they were lovers. This is, I imagine, how women-friends might really talk when men or other women aren't around. The ordinary chatter is exceptionally good. The more conventionally dramatic moments get by mostly due to Mayron's warm acting.
The script by Vicki Polon shows very clearly how girls end up in one-night-stands -- a guy comes along just when they're lonely and vulnerable and need somebody. Eric has inspired timing, lucking out at a party and then showing up just as Susan is feeling good because of a career upswing. Eric isn't exaggerated but he bears a few common traits of 20-something male clods. He ditches out on a date to see a football game, saying "I am too there for you ... I'll be here when you get back". Eric shows up just as the penniless Susan has decided to splurge and treat herself to a pair of fancy, expensive jumbo shrimp. Eric plunks himself down in Susan's chair and just starts eating her meal. I admit to being a similar clod in my single years, but never that bad.
We're expecting Susan, a real sweetie, to be hammered down by fate and her own niceness. But Susan's professional rival surprises us by not stabbing her in the back, and her best girlfriend still needs her enough to overlook a spat. So does Eric, although we think Susan can do better than him. Girlfriends lacks a dynamic dramatic ending but it's not that kind of picture ... just getting to know Susan Weinblatt is a rare pleasure.
Girlfriends is so good that director Claudia Weill still commands a powerful reputation. Ms. Weill was a shrewd judge of talent behind the camera as well. This was a first credit for the famous Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. She wisely avoids making the Bohemian life and environs look "cute". Editor Suzanne Pettit later cut 'night, Mother and Testament, among other notable titles. Weill enlisted composer Michael Small, who had already done scores for big movies like Arthur Penn's Night Moves. 1978 is pretty much before the "Independent Film Movement" per se, and Weill attracted classy talent like Eli Wallach and Viveca Lindfors -- and gave them worthwhile roles. Wallach especially is good in his four-scene part.
Amy Wright is wonderfully quirky as a spirit even freer than Susan and her friends. Mike Kellin plays Susan's dad (opposite Mayron's own mother playing her mother) and Kenneth McMilllen has a brief but impactful scene as a backhandedly threatening cabbie.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Girlfriends is an okay transfer of this significant pioneering independent. The transfer is certainly not from restored elements as the titles are murky and there are a couple of moments where the film lifts in the gate as if its sprockets were damaged. But I didn't notice any scratching. Colors have that blah Du-Art 16 to 35mm blowup look, which is okay in a movie filmed mostly in Manhattan crash pad apartments. Audio is just fine; all of the dialogue is audible. Cameraman Fred Murphy's lighting choices are very good, but would look better if Girlfriends were given a full restoration. The framing looks tight on the top in many scenes, as if a 1:66 movie were matted off a bit narrower and positioned a little high in the frame. But the framing places the titles correctly, so what's a telecine operator to do? 2
The disc has no extras. The Warner Archive Classics line is now using individual artwork for its packaging, a nice touch. Girlfriends has a special appeal for me because we had a core of ambitious feminists at UCLA in the early 70s, some of whom were my TA's and became academics, and a couple like Penelope Spheeris that possessed the tenacity required to carve out production careers. I'll bet the UCLA feminists looked at this picture and cheered, even though it has no militant feminist agenda.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Candice Bergen starred in an ill-fated story about a lonely typist tormented by modern alienation in T. R. Baskin. I like the actors and the acting but the picture had little point except relentless negativity. Misery = Profundity, or Profoundness, or Deep Stuff.
2. A note from reader David Hendricks, 11.16.11:
Hello -- While meandering through a bunch of your reviews online, I came across your appealing review of Girlfriends. I was involved with the film as my loft/studio was the setting for the artist's party. Someone I knew suggested they check out my place for that scene and after a first visit by an assistant, Claudia and Fred Murphy came over and were immediately taken by my space and the artwork in progress and on the walls. After talking with them for a while, they asked me to play the role of the artist in their film, saying they thought I would be a perfect fit for the role. I declined because I felt that the art should speak for the artist; they disagreed and we went back and forth until they asked me to think about it. Ultimately they got even with me for not cooperating: the on-screen role is written out by a rather vulgar reference to where the artist/host happens to be when Melanie meets her new love interest during the party.
Besides a small sum, which they complained was twice as much as their next costliest site, one of our agreements included providing help in painting of my loft before filming. So they dispatched a number of young girls to help me repaint dingy walls for a couple days... until somehow the realization came to them that they WANTED that dingy look, probably for the authenticity, and halted all work. The large urban drawing in the background, among others, was bought in person by Joseph H. Hirshhorn on a studio visit and donated to his Museum on the Washington Mall. -- David Hendricks
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