Susan Seidelman

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Susan Seidelman
Susan Seidelman.jpeg
Seidelman directing in 2004
Born (1952-12-11) December 11, 1952 (age 62)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Residence New York City
Education Abington Senior High School (PA)
Alma mater New York University
Occupation Director, producer, writer
Years active 1982–present
Notable work Smithereens, Desperately Seeking Susan, Making Mr. Right, Cookie, She-Devil, Gaudi Afternoon, Musical Chairs
Partner(s) Jonathan Brett
Children 1

Susan Seidelman (born December 11, 1952, Philadelphia) is an American film director, producer and writer. She came to prominence in the 1980s with Smithereens, which was the first independent feature to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and Desperately Seeking Susan, featuring Madonna in her first film role. Seidelman's films continue to mix comedy with drama, blending genres and pop-cultural references with a focus on women protagonists, particularly outsiders. She also works in television and is known for directing the pilot of Sex and the City.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Seidelman was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, the oldest daughter of a hardware manufacturer and a teacher.[2] She graduated from Abington Senior High School in 1969, and went on to study fashion and arts at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After taking a film appreciation class where she was inspired by the French New Wave, particularly the films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, as well as Ingmar Bergman, she switched her focus to filmmaking.[3][4]

Her first foray into movie-making at New York University resulted in a Student Academy Award Nomination for her satirical short film about a housewife's affair, And You Act Like One Too.[2]

Seidelman earned an MFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is an adjunct professor in the school's film department, overseeing students' thesis films.


Early 1980s[edit]

In 1982, Seidelman made her feature-film debut with Smithereens, a bleak and darkly humorous look at New York City's downtown Bohemian scene of the 1980s. It was shot on 16mm for $40,000 on location, at times "guerrilla style," as was the case for a subway scene. Smithereens captured the look of the post-punk music scene and was the first American independent film to be selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival.[5] With recognition from Cannes, Seidelman became a member of the first wave of 80s-era independent filmmakers in the American cinema.

1985 - 1999[edit]

Seidelman's second theatrical film Desperately Seeking Susan, featuring then-rising star Madonna, was a major box-office and critical success, launching the careers of co-stars Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn and introducing a new generation of actors and performers such as John Turturro, Laurie Metcalf, Robert Joy, Giancarlo Esposito, and comedian Steven Wright. Seidelman encouraged her producers to cast Madonna, who was a neighbor of hers with no acting experience, believing she would lend downtown authenticity and charisma to the role.[6]

Seidelman's subsequent movies of the 1980s were Making Mr. Right, a romantic sci-fi comedy starring Ann Magnuson and John Malkovich, who played dual roles as both a socially awkward scientist and his lovesick android creation; Cookie, a father-daughter mafia comedy starring Peter Falk, Dianne Wiest, and Emily Lloyd, written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen; and She-Devil, the film version of Fay Weldon's bestselling novel with Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep in her first comedic movie role.

In 1994 Seidelman and screenwriter Jonathan Brett received an Academy Award nomination for a short film they co-wrote and co-produced called The Dutch Master. The film was part of the series "Erotic Tales" produced by Regina Ziegler and was screened at both the Cannes Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. In the same year Seidelman was a member of the jury at the 44th Berlin International Film Festival.

2000 - present[edit]

In 2002, Seidelman returned to feature films with Gaudi Afternoon, a gender-bending detective story set in Barcelona, starring Judy Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliette Lewis and Lili Taylor.

Her 2006 film Boynton Beach Club was based on an original idea by her mother, Florence Seidelman, who while living in south Florida had gathered true stories of senior citizens who were suddenly back in the "dating game" after the loss of a spouse. It's one of the first movies to deal with sexuality and the aging Baby Boomer generation and had a theatrical run and acclaim at U.S. film festivals. The ensemble cast features studio veterans Brenda Vaccaro, Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, Joseph Bologna, Michael Nouri and Len Cariou.

Seidelman's next film Musical Chairs, opened in limited release in 2012. The story is set in the South Bronx and Manhattan and revolves around a couple taking part in a wheelchair ballroom dancing competition after the woman becomes disabled.[7] The film had its premiere at Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera Festival and played at the New York International Latino Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival, and the Havana International Film Festival, among others.

Seidelman's 2013 film The Hot Flashes is about middle-aged women living in small-town Texas, all former 1980s basketball champs, reuniting to challenge the current girls' high school team to raise funds for a breast-cancer treatment center. It stars Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, Wanda Sykes, Virginia Madsen, Camryn Manheim, and Eric Roberts.


In the 1990s and 2000s Seidelman garnered success as a television director, helming the pilot of Sex and the City, which involved some casting and developing the look and feel of the show. Seidelman thought the pilot script by Darren Star was bold, presenting then-taboo subject matter with humor, saying, "It was the first time that a TV show featured women talking about things they really talk about in private."[8] She directed subsequent episodes during the show's first season.

Seidelman has two Emmy nominations for the Showtime film A Cooler Climate, starring Sally Field and Judy Davis and written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman. She has also directed episodes of Comedy Central's cult hit Stella and PBS's The Electric Company.[4]


Seidelman was inspired early on by European directors Lina Wertmüller and Agnes Varda, who she studied in college in the 1970s—a time when there weren’t a lot of women directors in the American film industry.[8] The early feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, as well as the personal filmmaking style of the French New Wave, and directors Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and John Cassavetes were also early influences. Nora Ephron, who she collaborated with in 1987 for Cookie, was a role model as a writer and director who was able to combine family life with a successful film career.[9] Among contemporaries, Seidelman notes the cerebral stories of the Coen Brothers, mid-career Woody Allen, early Martin Scorsese and the films of Jane Campion are all favorites. She’s drawn to directors with distinct, slightly "outsider" points of view.

Seidelman is a fan of Billy Wilder for his social observation, drama and humor. On her frequent blending of comedy with drama, Seidelman says, "If I wasn’t a filmmaker I probably would’ve liked to be a cultural anthropologist or sociologist since I’m interested in human behavior. I like mixing comedy [with drama] because life is serious and humorous. . . . there’s got to be something underneath the humor. I like using humor as a way of making observations about how we live and what makes us human."[8]


Altering the formulas of traditional film genres, Seidelman explores issues of identity for women of varying ages and backgrounds.

Updated film genres[edit]

Seidelman spins established film genres, updating them by focusing on female protagonists, society’s outsiders and gender roles.

In Smithereens, set in the early 1980s, the trope of the plucky heroine trying to make it in the music world is upended by teenaged Wren’s goal to become famous despite having no applicable creative talents. Plastering fliers of her face around the city, Wren’s a precursor of the "famous for being famous" personalities of the Internet age. Seidelman says that Wren’s story "is about something broader: the fragmented nature of life in the 80's. It could have taken place in other settings."[4][10]

Desperately Seeking Susan is a screwball comedy inspired by Jacques Rivette's Celine et Julie vont en bateau, that explores identity-swapping among its two protagonists, Roberta and Susan. Instead of a traditional male/female role-swap, bored suburbanite Roberta trades personas with adventuresome Susan, and by doing so, recognizes her inner desires, both romantic and artistic.[11]

In Cookie, a mafia story, the primary focus is on the relationships between single mother, Lenore, her teenage daughter Cookie, and absentee crime-boss father, Dino, along with his wife, Bunny, reunited when he’s released from prison. In Dino’s absence, the women have learned to survive on their own and profane, independent Cookie supplies the solution to Dino’s desire to go straight—resulting in a feminist family comic-drama within a gangster story.[12][13]

Based on true stories set in an insular Florida community, Boynton Beach Club's romantic leads are all past retirement age. The members of a bereavement group experience classic romantic-comedy scenarios—awkward first dates, sexual insecurity, miscommunication and misunderstandings—after losing longtime partners. Seidelman hadn't seen older baby boomers dealing with loss, grief and romance in films and set out to create modern seniors without stereotyping.[14]

Further genre mixing is evident in Making Mr Right, which combines sci-fi with romance among an android, his maker, and a successful career woman whose job is to teach the android about emotions. Gaudi Afternoon blends the detective mystery with family drama. The Hot Flashes is an against-all-odds sports film with middle-aged underdogs going up against youthful champions.

Identity and self-actualization[edit]

Appearances and what they reveal and conceal is a recurring theme in Seidelman’s films, along with how women rebel against or create a place for themselves within society’s expectations.

Roberta in Desperately Seeking Susan takes on Susan’s mysterious and troublesome identity when she wears her clothes. Devoid of her usual suburban-housewife wardrobe and suffering from amnesia, Roberta embarks on an urban adventure by "trying on" the free-spirited persona of Susan. Susan, in search of Roberta, lives in her large house for 24 hours, trashing it, but appreciating the luxury and comfort therein.[15]

She-Devil is a revenge comedy/satire that pits homely abandoned wife, Ruth, against beautiful wealthy romance-novelist Mary. By revenging herself on her husband, Ruth finds power utilizing her skills as a formerly unpaid homemaker, and obtains success by employing other women in the same predicament. Mary, in contrast, saddled with Ruth’s children, discovers how difficult maintaining a household can be—at odds with the tropes of romance-fiction.[16]

Aspects of sexual identity and parenthood are explored in Gaudi Afternoon, set in Barcelona, Spain, where translator Cassandra, middle-aged, purposefully single, with no desire for children, finds herself enmeshed in a family squabble among a pansexual group of San Francisco transplants.

Pop culture, performance and transformation[edit]

Seidelman’s early studies in fashion have influenced her art direction, costumes and overall style as visual story elements in her films.

Fashion and reflective colors make downtown New York of the 80s a stylized East Village wonderland for Roberta in Desperately Seeking Susan. In contrast, her suburban home is presented in cool pastels and hard edges—an atmosphere where social mores and false fronts are more rigidly enforced. Performing as a magician’s assistant, where costume and artifice is a requirement, she hones her survival skills that lead to personal satisfaction on and off the stage.

Smithereens explored the same colorful downtown scene, but with more grit and squalor, reflecting its low-budget independent production. Wren has more desire than creative skill, but like Giulietta Masina's character in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, whom Seidelman notes as an inspiration, she’s a survivor and her wish for recognition within the local punk-rock scene is presented without judgment.[4]

A magic club is also a feature of Gaudi Afternoon where asexual Cassandra, through her attraction to openly bisexual Hamilton—an amateur magician—acknowledges her own sexual awareness. Antoni Gaudí’s eccentric, sensual architecture is the scenic backdrop to Cassandra’s deeper involvement with an alternative family and their young daughter, which ultimately brings about change in her personal life.

A diverse cast of dancers perform in Musical Chairs, where Armando and Mia’s relationship develops within the world of competitive wheelchair ballroom dancing—a dance form popular in Europe and Asia, but mostly unknown in the U.S.[17][18] The dance troupe, outsiders in the world of feature-film, include a transgender woman and an Iraqi veteran, highlighting dance as a form of self-expression available to everyone.[19] Laverne Cox, who is transgender, has said that playing Chantelle, a disabled African American transgender woman, in a feature film was a career milestone.[20]

Personal life[edit]

Seidelman has lived in New York City with her partner, screenwriter and producer Jonathan Brett, since 1986. Their son Ozzy is a producer and video editor.

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Student Academy Award nomination for dramatic short – And You Act Like One, Too
  • Golden Palm nomination, 1982 – Smithereens[21]
  • Cesar Awards nomination for best foreign language film – Desperately Seeking Susan
  • BBC's Best 100 Films of All Time – Desperately Seeking Susan[22]
  • Academy Award nomination for best live action short film (narrative short subject) – The Dutch Master
  • Astaire Awards nomination – Musical Chairs
  • GLAAD Media Awards nomination for outstanding film, limited release – Musical Chairs
  • Best Feature Film and Best Director, Feature - 2013 Massachusetts Independent Film Festival – Musical Chairs[23]
  • Lifetime Achievement Award - 2015 New Hope Film Festival[24]



  • The Barefoot Executive (TV movie, 1995)
  • Early Edition (1 episode, 1996)
  • Sex and the City (3 episodes including pilot, 1998)
  • A Cooler Climate (TV movie, 1999)
  • Now and Again (1 episode, 1999)
  • Power and Beauty (TV movie, 2002)
  • The Ranch (TV movie, 2004)
  • Stella (2 episodes, 2005)
  • Madonna: Celebration - The Video Collection (video "Into the Groove," 2009)
  • The Electric Company (4 episodes, 2009-2010)


  1. ^ Gaita, Paul. Susan Seidelman Biography, Retrieved on October 12, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Green, Michelle. "Since Making Madonna a Movie Star, Director Susan Seidelman Is No Longer Desperately Seeking Success", People Archive, April 29, 1985. Retrieved on October 11, 2015.
  3. ^ Seidelman, Susan. Smithereens DVD commentary track. motion picture released: 1982. DVD released November 16, 2004.
  4. ^ a b c d Lemire, Christy. "Susan Seidelman, Survivor," Balder & Dash,, July 12, 2013. Retrieved on October 14, 2015.
  5. ^ Insdorf, Annette. "'Smithereens' - The Story of a Cinderella Movie," New York Times, New York, December 26, 1982. Retrieved on October 12, 2015.
  6. ^ Audio Commentary: Susan Seidelman, director; Sarah Pillsbury, producer. Desperately Seeking Susan. 1985. DVD. MGM, 2000.
  7. ^ DeFore, John. "Musical Chairs: Film Review", The Hollywood Reporter, March 23, 2005. Retrieved on October 12, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c Hardy Butler, Simon."Interviewing Susan Susan Seidelman: From Madonna to Menopause," Curnblog, March 7, 2014. Retrieved on October 27, 2015.
  9. ^ Seidelman, Susan. A Director’s Memories of Working with Nora Ephron," New York Times – The Opinion Pages, June 28, 2012. Retrieved on October 15, 2015.
  10. ^ Insdorf, Annette. "’Smithereens’ – The Story of a Cinderella Movie," New York Times, December 26, 1982. Retrieved on October 15, 2015.
  11. ^ Simon, Alex and Keefe, Terry. "Gems of the 1980's: Susan Seidelman Remembers Desperately Seeking Susan," The Hollywood Interview, November 22, 2009. Retrieved on October 14, 2015.
  12. ^ Female Filmmaker Friday: Cookie, 1989 (dir. Susan Seidelman) the diary of a film history fanatic, February 1, 2015. Retrieved on October 28, 2015.
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent. Review/Film; "Father and Daughter, in and Against the Mob," New York Times, August 23, 1989. Retrieved on October 27, 2015
  14. ^ Audio Commentary: Susan Seidelman, Director. Boynton Beach Club. 2001. DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006.
  15. ^ Wolf, Karina. "Black Sheep Club – Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985," Bright Wall/Dark Room, Issue 29 - Lenses, October, 2015. Retrieved on October 21, 2015.
  16. ^ Female Filmmaker Friday: She-Devil, 1989 (dir. Susan Seidelman, the diary of a film history fanatic, February 28, 2015. Retrieved on October 28, 2015.
  17. ^ Rodriguez, Rene. ‘’Musical Chairs’’ (PG-13), The Miami Herald, March 22, 2012. Retrieved on October 25, 2015.
  18. ^ "‘’Musical Chairs’’ to Screen at The International Film Festival of Manhattan," ‘’Dot Dot Dot’’ Magazine, November 8, 2012. Retrieved on November 1, 2015
  19. ^ Streaming Film: ‘’Musical Chairs,’’ The Advocate, December 21, 2012. Retrieved on November 1, 2015.
  20. ^ Cox, Laverne. "Why My New Film, Musical Chairs, is a Career Milestone for Me," Huffington Post, March 27, 2012 (updated 5/27/12). Retrieved on October 25, 2015.
  21. ^ Festival de Cannes
  22. ^ Gilbey, Ryan. "Are these really the 100 best films?", The Independent, London, 22 October 2011. Retrieved on October 13, 2015.
  23. ^ Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, 2013
  24. ^ Hunterdon County Democrat. New Hope Film Festival honoring Susan Seidelman with Lifetime Achievement Award,, New Jersey, July 14, 2015. Retrieved on October 13, 2015.

External links[edit]