Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Girlfriends: Claudia Weill

Written by Lisa Bensing
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In early April, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) hosted a series of films curated by Lena Dunham, the creator of the much-hyped HBO series Girls. Rich, complex, and arguably realistic female relationships characterize most of the selected films. 

In early April, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) hosted a series of films curated by Lena Dunham, the creator of the much-hyped HBO series Girls. Rich, complex, and arguably realistic female relationships characterize most of the selected films.

One of the series’s features, Claudia Weill’s 1978 comedy/drama, Girlfriends, certainly falls into this category, with its central depiction of female friendship amidst the backdrop of second wave feminism. The series brochure describes the film as “criminally underseen,” and I was likewise surprised that I had never heard of it before. A sold-out crowd was treated to a screening of the director’s own crackling, dull 16mm print since Warner Brothers no longer has the original 35mm copy.

After the film Weill and Dunham held a post-screening Q&A, where Dunham admitted that, although she had only seen the film a year ago, she still feels like it impacted her work. Perhaps surprisingly, both Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are fans of this little-known film.

So why is it so underseen? I don't know, but I suspect that Weill's marginal position as a female director in the 1970s might have something to do with it. Her filmography postGirlfriends (It’s My Turn, a 1980 Michael Douglas flop and multiple TV series) leaves much to be desired, but it’s clear from Girlfriends that Weill has a keen eye for comic observation and human relationships of all stripes, not just girl-and-girl. I am sorry there isn’t more of her work to be discovered.

Originally funded with a grant to depict growing up Jewish in America, Girlfriends is loosely autobiographical and highly relatable. The film is noteworthy not only for its discovery of Melanie Mayron, who sparkles as Susan Weinblatt, but also for the early film performances of Bob Balaban and a young (cute!) Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, This is Spinal Tap). As Weill noted during the Q&A, it’s Chris Guest “as you’ve never seen him before.”

Susan is a recent college graduate who wants, above all else, to be a photographer. She pays the bills (just barely) by photographing bar and bat mitzvahs and shares an apartment in SoHo with her best friend, Anne (Anita Skinner), who wants to be a writer. Although both girls share feminist impulses, Susan is further along on the feminist spectrum than Anne, who fairly early in the film announces her engagement to Martin (Bob Balaban), alleging, “I want Martin to take care of me.” Subsequently, Susan catches the bouquet at her friend’s wedding but drops it like it’s hot, onto the dance floor.

Like many young women in the 70s, Susan dreams of a career, and although the film follows her adventures in Women’s Lib, it retains a comic desperation that can transcend generations of women who still struggle to achieve balance in their professional and personal lives. Some of the film’s most touching moments occur not between Susan and Anne, but between Susan and Eric (Christopher Guest), a teacher whom she meets at a party downtown. One night, Eric loses his wallet and goes to Susan’s apartment where they share some of the most comic/romantic moments I’ve ever seen on film, specifically one scene involving an apartment hammock and another involving the mumps. An argument over mashed potatoes results in frank admissions of what each likes and hates about the other, reflecting the tender realism of Weill’s nuanced character relationships.

Perhaps the most surprising plot development is Susan’s brief romantic fling with Rabbi Gold (played by the great character actor, Eli Wallach), who is about thirty years her senior and married. The mismatched pair belies a closeness that actually works and Susan seems most herself when she is around the rabbi; if he were not married, I would gladly cheer the couple on.

Other reasons to see the film include its time capsule quality of 70s-era SoHo and the downtown arts scene, as well as its take on relevant social issues, such as abortion, lesbianism, and sexual freedom.

A DVD of the film is available for purchase on Amazon, but I was unable to find any rental outlets online. If you have the extra cash to spend, my advice is to buy it and share it with every feminist film buff (and Christopher Guest fan) you know.

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