Girlfriends was re-released in the UK in July 2021. It is also available on a Criterion Blu-ray with an array of supplementary material. It’s an important film in the history of US cinema and its appearance now reminds us that ‘films made by women, about women and their stories’, is not something that has suddenly become an important issue in the US since the impact of the #MeToo movement. In August 1978 the studio picture An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh as a divorcée in New York, was a critical and popular ‘hit’. But it was directed by a man, Paul Mazursky. A couple of months later Girlfriends, directed by Claudia Weill, was released in the UK and in his Monthly Film Bulletin review in September 1978, Geoff Brown compared the two films, noting that the central character of Girlfriends, Susan Weinblatt, was not played by a star. Melanie Mayron was a ‘supporting actor’ in features and ironically she had a supporting role in Gable and Lombard (1976) in which Jill Clayburgh played Carole Lombard. (Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh were also known by Claudia Weill, I think). Brown’s review of Girlfriends goes on to discuss how Susan is presented on screen, suggesting that Mayron makes an unconventional lead because of her weight, teeth, hair etc. This seems an unnecessary description and it’s probably sufficient to say that she is not the usual Hollywood lead. Brown goes on to recognise the ‘feminist commitment’ of the filmmakers, by which I assume he means the producer-writer Claudia Weill and her writing collaborator Vicki Polon. What was slightly problematic for film reviewers at this point is that Girlfriends was distributed in both the US and UK as a Warner Bros. film. We would tend to see it now as an American Independent (wholly produced for Cyclops Films, the company set up by Weill and Eli Noyes).
There have been many different attempts to categorise ‘American Independent Cinema’. There were several important ‘independent’ producers working during the studio period and there have always been independent films. One of the first independent filmmakers of the 1950s was Ida Lupino. She was one of the first to tackle distinct ‘social issues’ and to implicitly link the idea of ‘independence from the Hollywood studios’ with some form of social commentary – though she still needed a studio to distribute the films. Second wave feminism in the 1970s saw several attempts to make films that in some way told women’s stories differently from those produced by (or for) the studios. I would see Girlfriends as one of the films in the late 1970s that suggested that it was possible to make low budget films that offered an alternative to studio films but which could appeal to a broad audience (i.e. not only to an avant-garde audience). The first film from John Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, Return of the Secaucus Seven appeared in 1979. The documentary Rosie the Riveter, about women workers during the Second World War by Connie Field appeared in 1980. Harlan County USA, the powerful documentary about a mining community by Barbara Kopple was a 1976 release. There are other titles as well. I’m just making the point that films like this appeared in the late 1970s and preceded what has now come to be seen as the new ‘American Independent Cinema’ of the 1980s, often seen as marked by the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1989. Soderbergh’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and several other prizes. This was undoubtedly significant for independent filmmaking but it’s worth noting that Girlfriends was also screened at Cannes in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ strand and after the screening it was acquired by Warner Bros.
What makes Girlfriends different? The narrative offers us vignettes of two or three years in the life of Susan Weinblatt. She’s a young woman in her early 20s trying to make her way in New York as a photographer. As the title suggests, the main concern in the film is Susan’s relationship with her girlfriends. The most important of these is Anne, arguably because she is almost Susan’s opposite in some ways but also someone looking to fulfil herself on her own terms. Anne is a slim WASP with conventional tastes who hopes to become a poet and a writer. Susan is a Jewish New Yorker with would-be Bohemian tastes. Their friendship is important to both young women. Susan has different kinds of relationships with three or four other women, mostly concerned with her photography which will eventually see her achieve a small exhibition. She also has relationships with a couple of men, one her own age and one much older. These relationships are important too, but the narrative will return to the central relationship with Anne. The focus on Susan obviously means that the film relies heavily on the performance by Melanie Mayron and she is very good throughout. The film began as a low-budget production financed by various public funds (something which clearly marks the film as having European-style backing for an independent). The $80,000 budget was soon spent and Claudia Weill had to look for private investors. The shoot actually began in 1975 but the few weeks of filming had to be spread over a couple of years to make the 88 minute feature. There was no money to spend on complicated outdoor set-ups and much of the film is therefore set in New York apartments, offices and on street corners. The success of the film depends on all the performers and crew but crucially on the remarkable Claudia Weill. I’ve been able to learn a great deal about her, partly from online archive material such as this New York Times piece and this from ‘Harvardwood‘. Claudia Weill studied at Harvard but became so interested in working with her camera that she entered the film industry as a ‘craft apprentice’ and gradually learned filmmaking from the ground up. This way she met Vicky Polon, a writer who also worked on shoots as an editor.
The extras on on the Blu-ray include a couple of Weill’s earlier short films, Joyce at 34 (1972) made with and about the filmmaker Joyce Chopra and Commuters (1970) made with Eli Noyes. There also several interviews and discussions about the film, featuring Weill and Polon and the leading players. The Criterion website for the film also includes essays by Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan. Claudia Weill’s later career is also interesting. She did go to Hollywood and made a feature with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas written by Eleanor Bergstein. This was It’s My Turn (1980) released by Columbia. The film was not a success and I don’t think Claudia Weill enjoyed the experience. She turned to theatre direction in New York for a few years and then returned to Los Angeles when she married. What happened next again takes me back to Ida Lupino’s career. Weill began to get work in television directing single episodes of several well-known series plus TV movies. She found TV work practical when her two boys were young. She also felt it gave her more freedom: “If it’s not ‘yours’, you can be more creative about how to solve problems,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you’ve always seen it in your mind.” (from the ‘Harvardwood’ interview by Dayna Wilkinson, 2015, see above.) In 2013 she directed an episode of Girls for Len Dunham who had seen Girlfriends a few years earlier and this connection helped to make a new connection with a contemporary generation of young women making films and television drama. In recent years she has returned to theatre direction in the North East and has also spent time teaching film, television and theatre direction in California and in New York.
Let’s get back to Girlfriends. The film is successful on many levels. At its centre are the relationships between Susan and her girlfriends and for many audiences it is the novelty of a film in which these relationships are central that has proved so inspirational. Why has it taken so long to return to this kind of storytelling? On a more general level Weill and Polon succeeded in putting on screen the kinds of people who were their friends and colleagues, ‘real’ people not Hollywood creations. Finally, in terms of representations they put on screen New York as it was in the late 1970s, a scruffy but vibrant city with young creatives in cheap apartments. It is a low budget film but it is very well-made. Claudia Weill was an accomplished documentary filmmaker when she started making the film but she had to learn how to deal with actors. She was a quick learner. Many of the cast were not experienced actors at the time but later went on to have long careers. Two leading Hollywood actors, Eli Wallach as a Rabbi and Viveca Lindfors as a gallery owner fitted in very well for me. What I’ve noted with my male gaze is that it is the small actions and snatches of dialogue that really resonate with female audiences. This film was genuinely revolutionary and it’s great that it is widely available again. I saw it twice over 40 years ago and it stuck with me. I enjoyed watching it again. If you get the chance to see it, I recommend it highly.