August 4, 2006
Edgy 80’s Director Takes A Walk on the Mild Side
At 15, director Susan Seidelman set her alarm for 2 a.m., and sneaked out her bedroom window to party. At her suburban Philadelphia high school, she was suspended more than once for wearing oh-so-short miniskirts.
At her Reform synagogue, she and her pals ditched confirmation class for socials in a rough part of town.
"We'd dance like crazy for two hours but return in time for carpool," the quirky, affable filmmaker said from her Manhattan home.
No wonder Seidelman grew up to direct rebellious punk classics such as "Desperately Seeking Susan" as well as the pilot and early episodes of HBO's taboo-busting "Sex and the City."
"Boynton Beach Club," opening Friday, seems an unexpected turn for a filmmaker best known as a chronicler of hip 1980s youth culture. The comedy-drama revolves around a grieving Jewish widower, Jack Goodman (Len Cariou), who experiences a personal and sexual awakening in his Florida retirement community, where he encounters singles preoccupied with "early bird specials, sex [and] sex after early bird specials," as Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel said.
Goodman gets his share of both as one of few males in this demographic. (Women show up on his doorstep with casseroles or bang on his car window to ask him out). So why did the edgy filmmaker, now 53, spend years scraping together the funding for this movie about 60- and 70-somethings?
"Part of me is a nice Jewish suburban girl, but the other part is a free-spirited nonconformist who wants to perpetually reinvent myself," she says. All her characters also reinvent themselves, from "Susan's" bored Jewish housewife-turned-bohemian to "Boynton's" reserved widower-turned-ladies' man.
Seidelman's new movie marks what is perhaps her most dramatic transformation -- from wild-child to good girl -- at least for those familiar with her early work. She closely collaborated with her mother, Florence, on "Boynton," avidly listening when mom suggested the story several years ago. Seidelman's now 75-year-old mother proposed a film loosely based on her shy widower friend, David Cramer, who became extroverted after he joined bereavement groups run by Alpert Jewish Family & Children's Service in Florida. Florence was tickled by his descriptions of senior dating rituals: For example, the phrase "I can drive at night" was a major turn-on in personal ads, and women handed men their "card" as a demure way of offering their phone number. (Cramer, now 79, received stacks of such cards: "I felt like a teenager," he told The Journal.)
The filmmaker was so taken with the idea that she suggested mom buy a screenwriting book and write a first draft of the movie. While the director ultimately re-wrote the script with a partner, she made her mother a producer and harmoniously lived with her during the Florida shoot. Seidelman says that as she has aged, so have her characters (note the 30- and 40-somethings in her 1989 film, "She-Devil," and TV's "Sex and the City.") Her punk heroines would now be in their 50s, perhaps seeking sex with their early bird specials at this very moment. And if Seidelman's 1980s movies have become somewhat iconic, she's hoping "Boynton" will, too -- at least by joining the smattering of recent films (think "Something's Gotta Give") that depict seniors in bed.
Seidelman says most producers reacted "with horror" when she pitched "Boynton," perceiving the over-50 set to be commercially unviable (despite the fact that they've bought more than 20 percent of movie tickets since 2001, according to the Motion Picture Association of America).
"So I think my latest film is, in its own way, as subversive as the others," Seidelman says.
Rebellion, whether subtle or overt, has always been in the filmmaker's blood. Her mother, Florence Seidelman, recalls that while the young Susan was popular and creative, she simply couldn't be trusted.
"I knew she could tell a good story, because she told so many to me," Florence says with a laugh.
When Susan was 19, she was supposed to spend just the summer abroad, but finagled a longer stay when she phoned her mother from Israel. "She said, 'I'm spoiled, so the [kibbutz] life would be good for me. And as Jewish girl, I should get closer to my roots,'" her mother recalls.
Mom promptly sent more money -- only to learn that Susan had traveled to Turkey and that she would not return home until December.
It's a hustle one might have expected of one of the director's early protagonists, who were inspired by people she met while attending Ramones concerts, in tight black spandex and observing the East Village arts scene. After her 1982 debut feature, "Smithereens," made it to competition at Cannes, she received offers to direct "lots of dopey Hollywood teen films, but declined everything until she read "Desperately Seeking Susan" around 1984.
At the time, she says, she was desperately seeking her own inner Susan, confused about her direction and identity as an artist. The story's fictional Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) gets knocked on the head, develops amnesia and adopts the persona of a bohemian hustler played by Madonna.
Seidelman underwent her own hard knocks when "She-Devil" fizzled at the box office and her film career flagged for a time. Fifteen years later, potential buyers snubbed "Boynton." Rather than give up, the scrappy director decided to market the movie herself in heavily senior neighborhoods; as she called newspapers to place ads, her mother handed out flyers and plastered delis with posters, the Hollywood Reporter said. Festival screenings in cities such as Sarasota, Fla. and Palm Springs ensued, along with mostly good reviews. When the comedy outgrossed blockbusters at a Florida mall, distributors came around and bought the film, Seidelman says. So was the director rebellious while living in her parents' Florida vacation home during production?
"My mother sometimes had to tell me to make my bed," the director recalls. "But she actually asked me to leave the house one weekend because my presence was interfering with her sex life."
The movie opens Friday in theaters.