As I prepare to spend the holidays alone in New York City, I can’t help but feel like a cliche. Hundreds of women before me moved to this sprawling city in search of their dreams and hundreds will do it after I am gone. This idea is so ubiquitous in our culture, conjuring images of Nora Ephron films, Sex and the City, Frances Ha, and Girls. However, it was Claudia Weill’s 1978 feature Girlfriends where this journey was sensitively brought to the screen, forever changing the cinematic landscape. Released on Blu-ray for the first time this November as a part of The Criterion Collection, Weill’s monumental film feels as poignant as ever with its intimate and nuanced portrayal of ambition and friendship between women set against the backdrop of 1970s Manhattan.
Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) just moved into a new apartment when Anne suddenly moves out to marry Martin (Bob Balaban). Left on her own for likely the first time, Susan continues to pursue a career in photography while adjusting to the seismic shift in her and Anne’s friendship. Admirably, Weill does not set up Anne and Susan as opposing forces. They both want careers in the arts, Susan as a photographer and Anne as a writer. They both at some level desire affection from men. They both are coming of age during the second wave of feminism and struggling to balance the traditional desires of their parents’ generation while embarking on a journey their mothers could barely dream of. It would be easy to make Anne hypertraditional and Susan a headstrong career woman, but Weill’s resistance to this often false binary is what makes Girlfriends particularly powerful. The two are not heading in opposite directions but instead circling each other, occasionally meeting in orbit.
When Anne first tells Susan about her upcoming nuptials in a laundromat, Susan asks “Are you sure?” before hugging her friend in a state of shock and excitement. This moment comes after Susan rejoices for finally getting paid as three of her photos are accepted for publication in a magazine. While Susan is not openly bitter about Anne leaving her for a life with Martin, you can sense the fear on her face. She knows their friendship will change and that she will have to build a life for herself without Anne in the next room over.
This is made visually clear with Anne’s black-and-white wedding photos juxtaposed with Susan painting her wall bright red, a sign of a new and nervous start. In this moment, Susan becomes the protagonist. When asked about this choice, Weill said that she wanted to see “the person who doesn’t get married right away, the person who’s not living the dream life,” at the center of her own story instead of being relegated to the sidelines.
Beginning her life alone, Susan seems comfortable at first. Her sense of humor, frizzy hair, and general awkwardness set her apart from the typical young woman protagonist. Arriving at a party solo, everyone asks Susan about Anne’s wedding. “I caught the bouquet,” she exclaims before adding “then I dropped it.” The woman next to her laughs loudly at this joke responding “Don’t tell your mother!” while Eric (Christopher Guest) nervously sips his white wine. Susan and Eric end up leaving the party early and hooking up at his place. When Susan leaves in the middle of the night, Eric is confused by her behavior. Susan says “I just want to go home, that’s all” before heading out the door. Weill creates an equally compelling character in Eric, who is simultaneously confused and intrigued by Susan’s difference.
As Susan lives alone, she is constantly shifting between loving and hating it. She leaves Eric’s early to go home and then the next day is sobbing while watching a dating show. Weill chooses to honor the complexity of living alone instead of treating it as a sort of feminist arrival point opposite to Anne’s domesticity. One day, Susan runs into Julie (Gina Rogak), another photographer. Recently split from her partner Neil, she loves living alone. When Susan asks what’s so great about it, indicating her own struggle, Julie rejoices “…eating when you want, coming home when you want, doing what you want when you get there. I love it.” Julie confidently carries her portfolio while Susan awkwardly clutches her own under her arm. Julie then jets off to a meeting, leaving Susan feeling deflated and insecure. Eventually, these roles will reverse with Susan standing confidently holding her portfolio while Julie asks for help with folders tucked nervously under her arm. Later, Susan confesses to an older Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach) with whom she has a brief flirtation, “I’m gonna be old before I get to do what I want. Then I’ll have forgotten what it was.”
One evening, she stands alone in her apartment, muttering manifestations of a fancier life before screaming about hating her current one. These ups and downs, both professional and personal, were perhaps new at the time for women yet still persist to this day. A recent graduate, I find myself struggling with the same aspects of city life as I try to navigate burgeoning adulthood and trying to work as a writer. I relate to Susan, comparing myself too often to others in hopes of better understanding myself in the process.
However, Anne is doing the same exact thing. She ponders inviting Susan over for the weekend while imagining her living this glamorous, busy metropolitan life. When Susan finally comes over, Anne shares she is thinking of going back to school in order to get more feedback on her writing. She feels isolated with Martin, separated from the artistic communities often found in cities like New York. Susan somewhat ignores Anne’s enthusiasm, dismissing it as a fine idea. Anne’s eyes light up and she asks, “What’s it like living alone, Suze?” Susan responds, “I like it,” somewhat unconvincingly and continues playing the piano. Both women feel slightly rejected by the other, as if being honest will cause irreparable damage. This tension of course builds and builds into one large argument where Anne reveals she resents Susan’s freedom and success while Susan resents Anne’s marriage and security.
As Susan and Eric begin seriously dating, he is continually confused by her resistance to moving in with him. He reminds her that many other girls would love to take her place. After an argument, Susan leaves abruptly like the first time and says she is going home. Eric struggles to accept Susan’s independence without feeling that it is a result of inadequate masculinity on his part. Home eventually becomes a place Susan can simply run away to. She realizes that if she moves in with Eric, she might get left again. At this point, keeping the apartment is less about the freedom of living alone and more about the freedom to leave.
While the film does not give the viewer an easy resolution, there is hope. Anne and Susan seem to forgive each other for their differences, Susan in a quiet moment of contemplation before the credits roll. Girlfriends gets better with each viewing, feeling the questions become more and more pertinent to my life as childhood friends begin to live in different towns, start jobs, move in with partners. I can’t help but feel like a bit of a Susan, scared to be left and often retreating into myself for safety. In Susan’s words, “I’m the biggest turtle I know.”
Yet, the legacy of Weill’s film reminds me I am not alone. Each time I rewatch Frances Ha, Sophie and Frances’ shared cigarettes, fights, and laughter makes it feel like Girlfriends distant cousin. Frances scrolls through Sophie and Patch’s blog about Japan with the same jealousy and admiration that Susan looks at Anne and Martin’s honeymoon photos. It is hard not to see the influence of Anne and Susan’s struggles manifest in those of Hannah and Marnie on Girls. While set in different cities, shows like Girlfriends, Insecure, Fleabag, and I May Destroy You are equally intimate portrayals of friendship. I am still moved each time I think of Arabella and Terry’s refrain “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death.” For brief moments, it feels like all these projects are speaking to one another, trying to find a resolution that may never come. For friendship, like living alone, is a complicated art that takes a lifetime to master.
by Hannah Benson
Hannah Benson (she/her) is a writer based in New York City. A graduate of New York University, she wrote her thesis on filmmakers Agnès Varda, Joanna Hogg, and Greta Gerwig. You can follow her on twitter @HannahMBenson and find more of her work on Contently.