Director: Claudia Weill
Screenplay: Claudia Weill, Vicki Polon
Starring: Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban, Amy Wright
Running Time: 88 min
Claudia Weill and her friend Elaine May got admitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as directors in 1981. They were only the third and fourth women in history to achieve this honour. This was close to 30 years after Ida Lupino became the second and Dorothy Arzner the first, prior to that. Sadly, Weill left feature filmmaking around this time, after having a terrible experience making her second fiction feature, It’s My Turn. Weill describes the male-dominated world of the studio system as being unbearable and she chose to get out straight away, moving into the more open world of television instead.
This story paints a damning picture of the state of Hollywood at the time, and as we’ve heard in recent years, not enough has changed. It’s also a crying shame for film lovers, as Weill’s fiction feature debut, Girlfriends, is a remarkable piece of work, particularly coming from someone who had only previously made documentaries. Weill describes how, on the first day of the shoot, she was confused when everything was set for the scene but nothing happened. She didn’t realise she had to say “camera, sound, action” etc.
Despite this inexperience, Weill crafted an independent film with very little money (shot over three years due to the limited budget) that managed to be sold to Warner Brothers after being well received at a number of film festivals. It wasn’t a big commercial success but did better business than its makers expected, given the film’s humble beginnings. Critically it was very well-received though and in 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
It’s surprising then that the film isn’t better known these days. I guess it’s not that surprising, given the poor treatment the work of female directors has had over the years, but I certainly hadn’t heard of the film before receiving a press release about the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray of Girlfriends. Looking up the film’s reviews online though, I was impressed and got my hands on a screener. My thoughts on the film follow.
Girlfriends opens with two roommates, Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner), getting set to move into a new apartment, before Anne announces she’s moving out to get married to her new boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban). So, the two go their separate ways, with Susan feeling very much alone and struggling to make ends meet as a photographer, being forced to take on wedding and bar mitzvah shoots to keep afloat.
Anne, meanwhile, struggles to fit her writing into her new life, particularly after having a baby. The pair experience several ups and downs, with Susan having a brief affair with a married rabbi (Eli Wallach) and a more successful relationship with a man named Eric (Christopher Guest). Susan and Anne fall out too but, on the night of Susan’s first photography exhibition, the pair reconcile their differences.
It’s a slight story perhaps, but is beautifully told and has a lot to say about what being an independent woman means and takes. It also offers a rare examination of female relationships on screen. Relationships with men are given a fair bit of time here too, but the ending and title remind us that the story’s main focus and arc concern Susan and Anne’s friendship and how they need each other in different ways.
Girlfriends feels ahead of its time too. Though there’s more than a hint of Woody Allen in the New York setting and blend of comedy and intimate drama, a subtle tonal difference and the female protagonists (chiefly Susan) help the film step out from that shadow. In fact, Girlfriends feels more like recent films that followed in its footsteps and tackle a similar theme of women struggling to find themselves, like Frances Ha and Ladybird.
The script is sharp too, with keen observations on top of some very funny lines that never feel forced. The humour, in this way, is fairly subtle and natural, whilst still managing to elicit the odd belly-laugh.
Aiding the script are some wonderful performances. Melanie Mayron is a revelation as the lead, offering some wonderfully subtle reactions and pathos on top of an understated but highly effective comic delivery. It’s a surprise she didn’t become better known, though she spent a lot of time in television, so perhaps she’s more famous in America.
The three key male performers are the only cast members I knew of previously and it’s quite a trio, consisting of the chameleonic Eli Wallach, who was the only ‘star’ in the film, the ever-dependable character actor Bob Balaban and Nigel Tufnel himself, Christopher Guest (I’m a massive This is Spinal Tap fan, so it was a joy to see him here).
* SLIGHT SPOILERS The ending initially feels a bit abrupt and brings the story to a close without tying up some major loose ends. However, give it a minute and you realise Weill has said all she needs to say. According to her interview on this disc, she wasn’t quite sure what to do about the ending though. Originally both the couples were to reconcile but Weill wasn’t convinced. In the end, she just shot the bit with them getting drunk (which they did – it was real tequila) and that final freeze-frame came to her when she saw the footage in the edit suite. She realised it was perfect, as the real main relationship (Susan and Anne’s) was patched up. It worked as a mirror of the first portion of the film too, where Anne left and Susan was unhappy. Now Anne is getting up and once again leaving to see her husband, but Susan is now happy.* END OF SPOILERS
Overall then, it’s a beautifully natural, quietly amusing drama about female friendship and independence. It’s definitely a product of the independent Hollywood new wave of the 70s, but also feels quite modern and timeless. It’s a real gem that deserves much more attention. Hopefully, this release will help.
Girlfriends is out on 16th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is decent, managing to handle the heavy grain without issue. Audio is strong too.
Special features include:
– New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Claudia Weill and director of photography Fred Murphy, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– New interview with Weill
– New interview with Weill and actors Melanie Mayron, Christopher Guest, and Bob Balaban
– New interview with screenwriter Vicki Polon
– New interview with Weill and writer and filmmaker Joey Soloway
– Joyce at 34, a 1972 short film co-directed by Weill and Joyce Chopra
– Commuters, a 1970 short film by Weill and Eliot Noyes
– Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: Essays by film critic Molly Haskell and scholar Carol Gilligan
All the interviews are excellent. Weill’s solo piece is particularly good. She runs through her career history as well as the process of getting the film made and seen. Vicki Polon provides a detailed look at her writing process in her interview and the group pieces offer warm yet thought-provoking discussions on the film, its merits and importance.
The documentary shorts from earlier in Weill’s career are welcome additions too. Joyce at 34 is a refreshingly frank look at the issues of becoming a mother and how it affects one’s life. There are some engrossing debates within it, making for an exceptional film. Commuters is less substantial and impressive, but has a nice observational style.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.