Ah, the awkward allure of a low-budget debut feature film. The Criterion Collection is so rife with debut films from directors who would go on to direct movies with bigger stars and bigger budgets that John ended up doing exclusively these types of films one year. It’s a genre of movie that has a certain scrappy appeal to it, where not everything is as fine-tuned as you’d expect from a big studio film with set decorators and costume designers and make-up artists. But there’s still something very pure and honest about it, even if the film is imperfect in many ways. And when a debut film of this sort happens to be made by a director who never got to go on to direct bigger movies, due to the all-encompassing power of Hollywood sexism, the film becomes something you want to grab onto and give a big hug, not unlike you’d do to an old dependable friend.
At the start of Girlfriends, it’s hard to tell exactly how long Susan Weinblatt (played by Melanie Myron) has been friends with her current roommate Anne (Anita Skinner), but you have to imagine it’s been for a while. Susan is an ambitious young photographer who wants to get her work shown in art galleries but is working a day job as a bar mitzvah photographer. On the day that Susan tells Anne that she finally sold some of her photographs to a magazine, Anne hits her with the news that she’s getting married to Martin (a young Bob Balaban) and plans on moving out.
After Anne moves out, Susan still has her eyes on a gallery showcase, but her life otherwise starts to meander a bit. She strikes up a romance with Eric, another young Christopher Guest regular, as he’s played by Guest himself, though the relationship never quite goes anywhere. Susan then starts to develop a crush on the rabbi she shoots bar mitzvah photographs for (Eli Wallach), and the two kiss once, though this also peters out after Susan meets his wife and son and is a bit put off by the whole situation. Through all of this, Susan and Anne remain friends, and continue to hang out even after Anne has a child, though something has clearly changed. Susan is frustrated with the way that Anne has settled into married life and seemingly lost so much of her independent self, meanwhile, Anne seems both pitying and jealous of Susan’s more bohemian lifestyle.
This juxtaposition of the two different types of lives women were newly given a choice of living in the liberated ’70s feels very of its time, and yet it’s still something women grapple with constantly in both fiction and the real world. In fact, it’s such a common conundrum in modern female adulthood that its a little easy to take a film like Girlfriends for granted. But when you think about it, there weren’t a ton of movies about the independent working woman in the (mostly male) auteur-driven ’70s, even if The Mary Tyler Moore Show cannily brought it to the small screen. There’s also something very potent about combining this kind of new female freedom with the coming-of-age aesthetic, as Girlfriends very plainly highlights the ways in which your 20s are often just as important and formative as any other period in your life.
But better than any film of this era that I can think of, it understands female friendship. It understands that female friendships are often just as crucial as romantic ones in this male-dominated world where the odds are stacked against them, which is a dynamic I’ve always been fascinated by, but for obvious reasons will never truly understand. It’s a subject that has been explored in other New York-centric movies and TV shows, like The Last Days of Disco, Frances Ha, and Lena Dunham’s Girls. I can’t be sure how influential Girlfriends has been on other “young women trying to make it in the big city” movies, but I can at least speak for Girls, since director Claudia Weill was hired to direct an episode of that HBO series, I have to assume as an affectionate tribute.
Weill spent most of her career directing TV and teaching, since her movie career was derailed after her more mainstream follow-up to Girlfriends, 1980’s Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas-starring It’s My Turn, turned out to be a critical and box office disappointment. Furthermore, one of the producers on the film, Ray Stark, seemed to have made the whole process of directing a nightmare for Weill, resulting in her being so soured by the experience that she never directed another theatrical film again. Still, whatever care and attention that Weill brought to Girlfriends clearly rubbed off on its star, the effervescent Melanie Mayron, who would become a prolific TV director in her own right. Maybe it’s not quite the careers they deserved, but at least in Girlfriends you can see them modestly inspiring a generation of women indie directors, and at least it beats shooting bar mitzvah photos.