March 7, 2017
Claudia Weill described her companionable film Girlfriends (1978) with a quote from the Eleanor Bergstein novel Advancing Paul Newman: “This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life.” Or to put it in modern parlance, it’s a comedy of FOMO (fear of missing out). Girlfriends portrays the NYC friendship between the Jewish brunette Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) and the WASP blonde Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). Susan is delaying family life to pursue a career in photography, while Anne speeds into marriage and kids while putting her writing to the side. They envy the other’s freedom and security, respectively, and their once unbreakable bond begins to fray. Girlfriends began as a documentary project on Jewish American identity, with funding from the AFI, but instead Weill funneled all her research into an independent feature, one so well-received it was picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution. Though the set-up can be a bit schematic, Weill has the patience of a documentarian and allows the actors to build their characters from types into complex personalities (shooting on location in shabby NYC apartments helps with the verisimilitude). The cast is superb all around, from Mayron and Skinner to the men who pursue them with varying degrees of success (an anxious Bob Balaban, flighty Christopher Guest and a charismatic Eli Wallach). Girlfriends is streaming on FilmStruck, and is also airing on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday March 8 at 9:15am.
Claudia Weill studied Modern European History and Literature at Harvard, but decided to pursue the arts. She took painting classes from Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg and studied still photography under Walker Evans at Yale. Her facility with the camera led her into documentary filmmaking, and she shot and co-directed (with Shirley MacLaine) The Other Half of the Sky — a China Memoir (1975), which was nominated for an Academy Award. Afterward she was looking for a new challenge, as she told the Institute of Contemporary Arts: “I had spent years following people around with my camera, kind of waiting for them to say what they wanted to say and then spending months in the editing room manipulating that into a film. So all I wanted to do was to make a film that had a script first.”
After abandoning the documentary project, Weill sketched out the idea of a fiction feature with her friend Vicki Polan (who receives screenwriting credit). The story starts with Susan and Anne sharing their lives together in an Upper West Side apartment. They are mutual support systems working in tandem, cocooning each other with overlapping dialogue. They are always cutting each other off, trying to restate what the other is thinking better than they can articulate. This friendship is punctured when Anne falls fast for Martin and gets married. Their whole system collapses, and their mode of communication shifts. Now there are boilerplate “how are you doing” phone calls, awkward vacation photo sessions on couches where Susan is the third wheel and passive-aggressive fights about who is not keeping in touch with whom. So instead Susan focuses on her photography. She starts out shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs for Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach), and they engage in playful flirtation until it gets too inconvenient for the married man. Men in power are always obstacles to be parried or endured, though the Rabbi is a particularly sympathetic one. Before the rushed split, Wallach is delightfully desperate as the hip rabbi, even trying out a smooth Marcel Marceau impression, which charms Susan (maybe because she was drinking).
But without a roommate Susan is barely making ends meet in the Upper West Side apartment, and she feels abandoned and alone. Susan is a bit of a self-dramatist and whiner, so she receives every setback as a mortal blow. Melanie Mayron plays her with a perpetual slouch, as if anticipating bad news before it happens. With her frizzy hair and sarcastic attitude Susan makes the ideal of the sassy supportive girlfriend in the run of the mill romcom. But Weill makes her the centerpiece. So while nice-girl Anne buggers off to the Middle East on vacation with mousy Martin (Bob Balaban), the film stays with Susan, pitching her work to sleazy magazine editors, taking on a spacey performance artist roommate and throwing herself at the witty-ish, good-looking enough Eric (Christopher Guest) at a party. She would rather not make life-altering decisions so she delays them until they resolve on their own or force her to respond. Like Eric inviting her to move in, or even what photos she should show in her first solo exhibition. She’d prefer to float than to focus. But a switch in her thinking is reflected in the interior design – the array of unpacked boxes and hastily tacked-up posters of the undergrad slowly shifts into the arranged life of an adult, with honest-to-god furniture and a hammock. She now seeks comfort from home instead of just a place to crash. While Susan stresses and redecorates, Anne is trying to restart her writing career with a toddler crawling up her leg and a caring if ineffectual husband. They reconnect as if no time has elapsed, though on different terms. Instead of living inside each other’s thoughts, they have become alien to each other, and so more fascinating. This sparks curiosity and openness, and that friendship sparks anew.
Weill received $80,000 from the NEA and New York State Council on the Arts to make the film, which The New York Times reported was “the first independent American dramatic film to be primed with grants.” The shoot took six weeks in 1975, but the post-production process dragged on for years because they ran out of money. It stopped and started depending on what private funding they could cobble together, until it was finally completed and sent on the 1978 festival circuit. It was an immediate success, and within two weeks of screening for distributors, it was acquired by Warner Bros. In 1978 there was a moment where films for, by and about women were finding success. Studios were trying to replicate the success of Annie Hall (1977), An Unmarried Woman (1978), and The Turning Point (1977). There were also a group of female filmmakers coming out with films, including Joan Rivers’ Rabbit Test (1978), Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Joan Wagner’s Moment by Moment (1978) and Joan Tewksbury’s Old Boyfriends (1979). The New York Times wrote an article, “Women Directors: Will They, Too, Be Allowed to Bomb?” It turns out the answer is no, not really. Weill would make one feature with Hollywood support, It’s My Turn (1980, starring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas), before turning to a long career in television.