Soulmates January 12, 2021
On Girlfriends and Old Boyfriends
irlfriends (1978), documentary filmmaker Claudia Weill’s feature debut, begins at a precipice of major change. Susan (Melanie Mayron) and
Anne (Anita Skinner), its leads, are roommates and best friends living in New York City, fresh out of college — in an era where you could be fresh out of college and manage to pay for a spacious apartment without the help of your parents. Both women are in the “aspiring” phases of their careers of choice: photographer and poet, respectively. Susan makes it by shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs. We don’t hear of Anne getting her work published, but there are plenty of moments where she will read something she’s working on aloud to Susan and ask her how it sounds. (Usually like the work of an aspiring poet.)
Shortly after the action starts in the movie, Anne announces that she thinks she may not just like her boyfriend, Martin (Bob Balaban).
Anita Skinner and Melanie Mayron in 1978's Girlfriends.
She thinks she almost might love him. “You think you almost might love him?” Susan asks quizzically. Soon Anne is declaring that she and Martin are going to be married; soon Anne, a newlywed, is moving out of her and Susan’s flat and into a home out in the country with her beau. It all feels like it’s happening so fast that Susan can barely process it. The movie doesn’t even show the wedding. Maybe Susan was too lost in her thoughts when she was there — a ghostly maid of honor. She knows it’s irrational — you can’t logically conflate personal growth with abandonment. But she can’t help but feel a little betrayed by her friend. When she and Anne subsequently hang out, it’s just not the same. Martin’s always there, and over every conversation hang specters of what Susan and Anne used to be and how they'll never get there again.
Mayron’s performance is engrossingly exposed. Susan is a young woman who is for the most part self-aware; you can tell she knows better than to pity herself the way she naturally wants to. But Mayron’s performance subtly translates what Susan is trying to bury: that just because she knows and can perhaps envision how she should be reacting, it’s difficult to suppress her instinct to feel deserted and unloved. This wasn't a transition she'd been preparing for — at least one she didn't think would announce itself so soon. She’d been ready for her last big life change (graduating from college), but she’d taken for granted this friendship that means more to her than she realized. She doesn’t fully digest how much she’s taken it for granted until it has lost its usual presence in her life. It’s like getting a part of her removed, and though she had been given enough warning of that removal coming, the side effects are worse than she’d anticipated.
At the same time Anne is drifting away, Susan struggles to find work. She has those weddings and bar mitzvahs to fall back on, and recently she sold three photos to fairly high-profile publications. But it’s like the universe conspired to have her professional opportunities dry up just as her personal life lost its color. She has romantic relationships in the course of the film — one with a much-older (and married) rabbi (Eli Wallach) and one with a guy closer to her age who gets her until his impatience gets the best of him (Christopher Guest). Both are pretty disappointing. Susan’s circumstances are not universal, but the cruxes of their pain come close.
Girlfriends observantly dramatizes an unavoidable part of young adulthood you don’t want to have to prepare for: that you should expect that some of your friends will “grow up” faster than you — or the other way around — and that losing what once was might feel a little like mourning. The movie, shot with documentary-like bluntness and slaked with dialogue that feels harvested from experience — many lines make little incisions — feels real enough to warrant being called “too real," an age-old compliment directed at movies that feel uncomfortably familiar. Weill captures Susan’s adjustment to her new normal with such a recognizable ache that you feel like what’s happening in the movie is happening to you.
We don’t see very much of Anne and Susan’s friendship at its peak, which at first seems a missed opportunity. How are we supposed to mourn along with Susan if we don’t know what she’s lost? But as the movie wears on we find that it doesn’t matter that much. (And besides: when Susan tells Anne early in the movie that “I take you more seriously than you take yourself” after Anne says Martin seems to think she’s a dilettante, the offhanded comment almost says more than what a detail-heavy prologue could.) Most viewers will be familiar enough with a similar dissolution of friendship to get the idea of what came before, and it’s the idea of what Anne and Susan’s friendship was that makes living without it so difficult. An extended depiction of their friendship might even reveal that it wasn’t as special as it was remembered (it’s only human to embellish and romanticize your memories the farther away they get), or something that was special to Anne and Susan might not seem that way to an audience. As I watched the movie, I thought about my two roommates, who are also my longtime friends, sitting in their rooms right next to mine in our little apartment, and considered for a moment how easily and quickly everything could change.
n Old Boyfriends (1979), the directorial debut of Joan Tewkesbury (who had established her screenwriting prowess earlier that decade by writing Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, from 1974, and 1975's Nashville), a
a therapist named Dianne (Talia Shire) is on a mission. With martial discontent and general existential restlessness gnawing at her, she decides as the film opens that she’s going to put her life on pause for a little while to visit her three ex-boyfriends. She believes these drops-by will help her better understand herself and bring some closure to unaddressed traumas. (One of the exes, played by John Belushi, is now a women’s-clothing businessman by day and a bar singer by night, and when he and Dianne were younger he told the whole school that they had gone all the way after she rebuffed his advances. Dianne has never been able to get over it.)
The movie, written by Paul and Leonard Schrader, is meant in part to function as a feature-length catharsis for its lead. As the movie opens wider and reality starts to leak into Dianne’s notions about what she’s going to find on her quest, we’re meant to be increasingly crushed by our sympathy for her. It’s disappointing to realize something you believe might solve a problem you’re having actually could be useless after all. But there’s a coldness to Old Boyfriends that makes it hard to get attached to anything going on. Dianne is played with near-roboticism by Shire, to the point that when we learn new details about her (usually through secondary parties — it seems we’re to view Dianne the same way we would an archetypically unreliable narrator), it doesn’t feel like they belong to her. Shire gives a performance so impersonal that we half-expect Dianne to be revealed as a killer seeking revenge, or a ghost haunting the paramours who wronged her to teach them a moral lesson.
Success hinges on the lead performance in a feature like Old Boyfriends, regardless of how evocative or intelligently laid out its conceit is. Shire’s performance is superficially manicured, but it’s so aloof that it’s like she doesn’t want us to identify with her. Her dispassion is matched by the writing, which also does everything superficially “right” but without any feeling. The segment with Belushi is at least emotionally satisfying — he plays his character’s fundamental nastiness with a well-thought-out amount of brio, and the segment’s arc apes that of a revenge drama-style plot effectively. But the movie keeps us at a distance. I know that if it had pulled me in, I would have loved the ending, which is outwardly happy but has an undercurrent of ambivalence. But I had moved on by then.
Old Boyfriends: C+