Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha brought memories of Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends to mind almost immediately. The movie’s soundtrack includes snippets of legendary composer Georges Delerue’s score for King of Hearts, Philippe de Broca’s classic anti-war cult film, another feature I practically memorized after repeated viewings at the old Granada theatre. It was startling to hear Delerue’s familiar tunes in an all-new context.
Well, Michael and I just saw the much buzzed about Frances Ha, the latest offering from indie writer-director Noah Baumbach, whose credits include an Oscar nominated screenplay for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach co-wrote Frances Ha with Greta Gerwig, who also stars as the title character. I gather that some folks don’t love Frances Ha so much, but, overall, I think most of the reviews have been positive. Indeed, the enthusiastic write-ups I’ve been reading–for awhile–prompted my curiosity. I can scarcely believe that I caught the movie in only its second weekend in Dallas. Lucky me.
Here’s the thing. As much as I enjoyed Frances Ha, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, I kept having, as the late great Yogi Berra reportedly exclaimed, “…deja vu all over again.” In this case, while watching Frances Ha, I kept flashing back to Girlfriends, the 1978 feature debut of filmmaker Claudia Weill. Now, I’m not accusing Baumbach and Gerwig of stealing from Weill. Hell, I don’t even know if either Frances Ha collaborator has ever seen Weill’s film; however, I HAVE seen Weill’s film, more than once, rest assured, and I can’t shake the urge to compare it to Frances Ha. In so doing, I hope to alert audiences to a true gem of American independent cinema.
Okay, here we go…
- 1A. Frances Ha shows what happens when two roommates, best friends since college, go their respective ways. One woman (‘Sophie,” played by Mickey Sumner) is settling comfortably into a monogamous relationship with a seemingly buttoned-down corporate guy whose career aspirations lead the couple to Japan of all places; the other woman, the Frances of the title (Gerwig), is socially awkward and struggles to stay afloat in New York City. Without her bff, she feels untethered.
- 1B. Girlfriends shows what happens when two roommates go their respective ways. One woman (“Ann,” played by Anita Skinner) is settling comfortably into married life with a seemingly buttoned down corporate guy and enjoying the occasional weekend getaway to the country; the other woman, Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), is socially awkward and struggles to stay afloat in New York City. Without her bff, she feels untethered.
- 2A. As Sophie and Frances are separated, they each build up petty resentments toward the other based on what one wants that the other already has.
- 2B. Ditto with Ann and Susan in Girlfriends.
- 3A. Money is so tight for Frances that she can barely keep a roof over her head. She basically couch-surfs in order to survive.
- 3B. Money is so tight for Susan that she can barely make ends meet. Things get so bad for her that the electric company disconnects her service; she also allows a waifish hitchhiker to couch surf with her.
- 4A. Frances’s goal is to make it in NYC as a professional dancer-choreographer. She even teaches children’s dance classes just to make ends meet.
- 4B. Susan’s goal is to make it in NYC as a professional photographer. She even works bar mitzvahs and weddings just to make ends meet.
- 5A. Frances and her boyfriend have a tense heart-to-heart talk about moving in together, but Frances is reluctant to commit.
- 5B. Susan and her boyfriend (played by no less than then little known Christopher Guest) have tense heart-to-heart talk about moving in together, but Frances is reluctant to commit. Plus, she questions her bf’s mashed potato skills.
- 6A. Spoiler! Someone is faced with an unwanted and/or unplanned pregnancy.
- 6B. Spoiler! Someone is faced with an unwanted and/or unplanned pregnancy.
- 7A. Christine and Gordon Gerwig, presumably Greta’s parents, appear as Frances’s parents.
- 7B. A woman named Norma Mayron, presumably Melanie Mayron’s mom, is listed in the credits as ‘Mrs. Weinblatt,’ for her cameo as Susan’s mother. For real.
Discrepancies: In this original 1-sheet, the tile appears as two words though it appears as one word in the opening credits. Plus, everything I’ve ever read about the movie, on the Internet, a review in Variety, and in Danny Peary’s book Alternate Oscars, features it as one word as I do throughout this blog piece. Additionally, in at least two interviews with Weill that I recently found online, she states that Warner Bros. bought the rights to the film in 1979 though its US release date is listed as 1978. My memory also tells me it was 1978 as do most of the awards news of the time, that is the 78/79 awards as opposed to 79/80. Look closely in the lower left corner: that’s the Warner’s logo in black.
Girlfriends represents a seminal moment in my development as a filmgoer. While not a big hit, the well-reviewed flick arrived with a lot of buzz after screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it won the audience award) as well as the annual Cannes shindig. (I thought it won an award at Cannes, but I cannot verify that.) Not bad, not bad at all. Weill had previously worked as a documentarian, including collaborating with Shirley MacLaine on the Oscar nominated The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. Anyway, she earned at least a partial grant for Girlfriends, collaborating with Vicki Polon on the script. Now, I can’t find any credible sources to corroborate any of the following info, but I have a pretty good memory, so here’s the backstory as I recall reading about it back in the day. Fully financing Girlfriends was touch and go to the degree that the movie was shot mostly on weekends whenever funding was available. I also have a notion, I want to say from a 1978 Rolling Stone cover story, that Gilda Radner, then at the peak of her Saturday Night Live popularity, was an early candidate to play Weinblatt. Besides Mayron, Skinner, and Guest, the cast also includes Bob Balaban, Amy Wright, and esteemed veterans, Eli Wallach and Viveca Lindfors. Pretty impressive given Weill’s limited budget and newcomer status.
At any rate, the story famously goes that Weill filmed the whole thing in 16mm, and after it wowed audiences in Cannes, Warner Brothers snagged the rights, transferred the original to 35mm, and released it stateside in late summer/early fall of 1978. Locally, it played at the old General Cinema Northpark III & IV, across the expressway from the mall and the original GCC Northpark I & II where almost everyone saw Star Wars. Let’s think about this for a moment. These days, we take alleged indie films for granted; likewise, today’s films directed by women, while still only a fraction of their male counterparts’ output, are hardly the novelty they were back in the 1970s. Imagine what an enormous coup it was for a grainy low budget–basically independently financed–film directed by a woman, “rescued” by a major studio, to play in one of Dallas’s premiere first-run houses. Amazing. My friend Rhonda and I saw it right after it opened. We loved it, and we chatted about it afterward with a woman who worked at the theatre. She liked it as well and confessed that it had been a hard sell for a lot of customers who were put off by the title, concerned as they were that they might see a show about lesbians.
I’m pretty sure that this November 1978 issue of Rolling Stone is where I read that Radner had once been linked to Claudia Weill’s acclaimed Girlfriends. It’s fun to imagine Radner in the role of quirky New York everywoman Susan Weinblatt, but the SNL player’s stardom might have very well overwhelmed the project.
Anyway, that particular era was magical for me as I started seeing movies at the rate of one or two a week, and not just the latest fad blockbuster. Instead, I was seeking out the films I’d read about in fancy magazines and newspapers: Girlfriends was one; Days of Heaven was another. I felt so grown-up–I was 18 at the time–and I could not get enough. That same period is when I was spellbound by Woody Allen’s stark Interiors, which seemed quite profound at the time. Oh well. Despite Allen’s overly schematic screenplay, Interiors still holds value as a style exercise, not to mention an incredible showcase for such actors as Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton (both Oscar nominated), Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, E.G. Marshall, Richard Jordan, and Sam Waterston. But I digress. Other movies that I caught for the first time that year were Julia, Coming Home (both still popular in second run houses), Harold and Maude, and Midnight Express. In early 1979, when the same friend and I stumbled upon the Granada theater–after a fortuitous visit to the old Peaches Records and Tapes on Cole–Girlfriends was the first movie we saw at what would soon become my home away from home. I found out several months later than two of my best friends from h.s., that I’d lost touch with for about a year after graduation, had also seen Girlfriends around the same time and fell in love with it also.
Girlfriends was different from most so-called career girl movies that Hollywood once cranked out regularly. For starters, Susan Weinblatt is was not conventionally WASPy pretty. Instead, she has dark frizzy hair and schlepps around in shabby boho chic clothes yet not quite as camera ready as, say, the garb sported by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall or Ali MacGraw in Love Story. Furthermore, Weinblatt’s body is proudly, well, average. She’s neither too thin nor comically heavyset. Sometimes she looks a little chunky, but I attribute that to her layers of baggy clothing; it’s also possible that over the protracted shooting schedule, Mayron’s own weight fluctuated. My point is not to obsess over this woman’s body but to emphasize how refreshingly normal she appeared in the same era that produced the likes of Farrah Fawcett, Susan Anton, and Cheryl Tiegs–all of them blonde, bronzed, and toned. Also, even though Weinblatt modifies her hairdo over the course of the film, she does not subject herself to one of those phony Ugly Duckling/Cinderella Swan Princess makeovers that are commonplace in so many movies about women today.
Additionally, the Big Apple of Weinblatt’s era is much different from the New York City depicted in Frances Ha. In contrast to the colorful picture perfect views that were once purely Hollywood, New York in the 1970s was perceived as cold, dirty, and corrupt, and that’s apparent in Girlfriends. After all, this was the era of Serpico and Taxi Driver. Not only does Weinblatt’s city look uninviting, it also seems strangely underpopulated. Furthermore, despite Weinblatt’s best attempts to brighten her pad, she basically lives in a dump. Her fridge is also understocked. On the other hand, the NYC of Frances Ha, in the post Sex and the City era, is glittery, lively, and relatively hospitable. There’s bustling nightlife, of course, and the characters all eat well. Also while Frances definitely struggles financially, most of her friends, some of whom are being subsidized by their parental units, live in comfortable if hardly deluxe. dwellings. Frances does not undergo a makeover, but in in contrast to the earlier film, the roommate is dark-haired, and Frances is the blonde. She’s a dancer, so she’s slender, but she’s also not reed thin. She still looks real. One more thing: Girlfriends is low-budget, and it looks every cent of that. I don’t know what the budget for Baumbach’s film was, and I don’t guess it matters since securing funding doesn’t ever get easy; however, I do think the fact that Baumbach shot in black and white is deceptive. Yes, the final product looks low-budget, but that whole sequence in Paris, yes, Paris France, hints at healthy coffers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Interestingly, there’s much more graphic discussion about sex in Frances Ha than there is in Girlfriends though the latter actually comes closer to depicting sex as in a brief post-coital nude scene with Mayron and Guest and flashes of nudity of Ann and her husband on their honeymoon. (Weinblatt’s photography includes a surprisingly frank for-the-times nude as well.)
During the 1978/79 awards season, Girlfriends made a little noise, including a spot on the National Board of Review’s Top Ten honor roll, Italy’s David di Donatello accolades for Weill, a Globe nomination–Best Film Debut–for Skinner, and a British Academy nod–Most Promising Newcomer–for Mayron, whom I was really hoping to see as a finalist in the Oscar race for Best Actress. (Given the times, I probably had much less hope for Weill.) Mayron’s was my second favorite leading actress performance of the year–after Jane Fonda who ultimately claimed the Academy’s trophy for Coming Home. I have always been less enamored of Fonda’s reported strongest competition that year: Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (too self-conscious for my tastes). Mayron’s Susan Weinblatt got to me not because she was so dramatic or emotional or any of that stuff. Instead, I was captivated by how “lifelike, ” how nuanced, she was. By the end of the movie, I felt like I truly knew and understood the character, who, don’t forget, was maybe only a decade older than I was. I also had dreams of running off to New York–to either be a writer for SNL or a reporter/graphic designer for Rolling Stone. So, yeah. An aside: besides Mayron, I would have been happy to see Susan Sarandon in the game for her striking portrayal of Eric Roberts’s scandalously young mama in King of the Gypsies, the film that was supposed to launch the crazy good looking Roberts as the next big thing. Again, I digress. Not surprisingly, Mayron is included in Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, not as the actual alternative choice but as one of only two runners-up as he takes the Oscar from Fonda and gives it to Clayburgh, demoting Fonda to the same status as Mayron in the process. Well, that’s certainly not bad company. It’s still too early to think about next year’s Oscars, but I can imagine that Gerwig is, for the time being, well-positioned for a Globe nod in the Musical or Comedy category. She’s also likely to figure in the race for a Spirit award as well.
Besides aforementioned Peary, do you know who else was a major champion of Girlfriends? No less than Stanley Kubrick, that’s who. It seems funny that Kubrick, such a meticulous master of controlled cinema, would be so taken by a little indie, but it is what it is. (If you don’t know who Kubrick is, I can’t imagine why you would be reading this blog.) Here’s the oft-repeated quote from a 1980 interview with Kubrick conducted by Vicente Molina Foix: “I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood – American films – that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American’s films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe. It wasn’t a success, I don’t know why; it should have been. Certainly I thought it as a wonderful film. It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else” (qtd. in Castle 2). Hmmm….yep, we’ll see if any of today’s cinema legends look back fondly on Frances Ha in a year or two–or if anyone will care over thirty years after the fact.
One reason that I’m so happy to write about Girlfriends today is because it is now available on DVD through Warner Archives, which means it’s issued on-demand from the best available print (and it never looked all that great in the first place); of course, there are no extras, but that’s beside the point to me. I think this particular motion picture is too important to ignore–important not only on a personal level but also as an artifact of both 70s era indie filmmaking and the emerging role of women in cinema. I’ve even given copies as gifts.
Funny thing, I have not read a single review that compares Frances Ha to Girlfriends even though the similarities are so obvious. What I have read are comparisons between Lena Dunham’s Globe winning HBO series Girls and Frances Ha. Interestingly, Weill has directed at least one episode of Dunham’s hit show. Weill’s follow-up to Girlfriends was 1980’s It’s My Turn starring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. Clayburgh was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses by that time, and It’s My Turn is a particular favorite of mine. I try to watch it at least once a year. It’s also available as a print-on-demand DVD from Warner Archives. Oh, and in 1981, on the heels of It’s My Turn, Weill reportedly became only the third woman in history (likely after Dorothy Azner and Ida Lupino) to be invited into the directors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Again, that only underscores to me what an important film Girlfriends is and why it deserves to be remembered. For the past few decades, Weill has worked more frequently in TV rather than in the movies. Her resume includes the likes of Cagney and Lacey, Caroline in the City, Once and Again, and thirtysomething.
Mayron, of course, played a character named Melissa–a photographer don’t forget–on ABC’s groundbreaking thirtysomething, earning multiple Emmy nominations for her work and actually winning the trophy once. Girlfriends, to clarify, wasn’t exactly her first credit as she had also appeared in the buzzworthy Car Wash (1976) as well as Valerie Harper’s successful Rhoda sitcom (which is where I first saw Mayron), and even the Emmy nominated TV movie about prostitution Hustling, starring Lee Remick and, again, Jill Clayburgh in a breakthrough role. After Girlfriends, Mayron segued to the heralded TV event, Playing for Time starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. In 1988, Mayron co-produced, co-wrote, and starred in the independent feature Sticky Fingers, a punchy comedy about shopaholics, that reunited her with Christopher Guest. Not surprisingly, the movie performed better in Dallas, home of Neiman Marcus, than many other U.S. cities. These days, Mayron still acts, but she’s also made her mark as a director with such features as The Babysitters Club and the locally filmed Slap Her, She’s French. Most of her work behind the camera is for TV, including Providence, Dawson’s Creek, Army Wives, and Pretty Little Liars. Her work has brought her a Directors Guild nod for “Toothless,” which originally aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney, whereas Weill boasts a Daytime Emmy nom for “The Great Love Experiment,” an entry in the old ABC Afterschool Specials.
For the moment, Frances Ha registers as a pleasant diversion though there are no doubt restless suburban youth who will see it and begin plotting their own escape to New York; meanwhile, the significant, if virtually forgotten, Girlfriends deserves to be revisited all over again. Maybe it’s time to investigate how to nominate a film for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Thanks for your consideration…
Link to online version of Kubrick interview as it also appears in the Stanley Kubrick Archives edited by Alison Castle:
Vineyard Gazette article which credits Weill a one of the first female directors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.mvgazette.com/news/2009/08/14/big-screen-small-stage-claudia-weill-keeps-it-real
Trying to verify the location of that long shuttered Peaches Records and Tapes. I knew it was either McKinney or Cole:
Gilda Radner photo shot by Franceso Scavullo for Rolling Stone featured at Fine Art America: http://fineartamerica.com/
Frances Ha’s soundtrack credits on the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2347569/soundtrack