Claudia Weill’s 1978 movie Girlfriends is the kind of story rarely seen in today’s Hollywood landscape.
A slice-of-life indie film disguised as a mainstream studio movie, it was initially grant-funded with a modest budget before receiving worldwide distribution from Warner Bros. It’s a feminist romantic comedy, where the romance is intense, platonic, and between two women. But perhaps most notably, the protagonist Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) is Jewish and the almost matter-of-fact representation of her Jewishness makes for a refreshing twist to that era’s popular trend of character-driven movies centered around struggling 20-somethings.
I watched Girlfriends for the first time last summer and was immediately struck by three things: 1) It shares a similar tone, aesthetic, setting, and running time with one of my favorite films ever, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha; 2) Young Bob Balaban can absolutely get it; and 3) Its portrayal of Jewish culture is small but significant, in the sense that Judaism isn’t so much practiced as it is an integrated part of Susan’s artistic identity and character motivations.
The tale begins with Susan and her best friend Anne (Anita Skinner) living together in a New York City apartment. They’re both ambitious and career-focused — Susan works as a freelance photographer for weddings and bar mitzvahs, while Anne struggles to carve out a path as a writer. But quickly, Anne moves out and marries her straight-laced beau Martin (Balaban), leaving Susan lonely and financially desperate.
Susan’s main source of interpersonal solace, previously occupied by Anne, is replaced by Aaron Gold (Eli Wallach), an older, friendly rabbi who facilitates the bar mitzvahs and weddings Susan photographs. They develop a close relationship, filled with mild flirtations, intimate exchanges about their aspirations, and plenty of Jewish-laden jokes (“What’s a wrench? It’s a place where Jewish cowboys go”).
Though their screen time together is brief, their subplot is engaging and reflects the film’s overarching conflict of pursuing one’s dreams versus settling down with a family and kids. Susan wants to maintain her personal and creative autonomy and Rabbi Gold encourages her independent spirit, even confiding to her at one point that he wanted to be an actor when he was younger but was coerced by his parents to become a rabbi instead.
In addition to showing an earnest, atypical connection between two explicitly Jewish characters, Girlfriends reveals how Susan’s own Jewish background informs her quest for upward mobility. After working an event, Susan tells Rabbi Gold about her Orthodox grandparents, how as a child she once saw her grandfather davening (praying) and talking to God and thought, “I wanted to talk to God, too.” But when she grabbed the Torah and started reading from it, her grandfather discouraged her from doing so, leading her to want to become a rabbi.
Of course, Susan didn’t become a rabbi, but her actions still resonate. Throughout the film, Susan maintains a persistent mindset as a working professional, despite pressure to relent to the financial burdens and restrictive gender norms imposed upon her. Rather than fabricate a contrived conflict involving her parents wanting her to marry a nice Jewish man, Girlfriends subtly and effectively accepts Susan’s desires and flaws without judgment.
In a 2014 interview with the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Weill spoke about how she modeled Susan based on her own experiences as a Jewish American woman in the ‘70s, mentioning how Susan’s self-doubt and awkwardness play into a kind of Jewish neurosis that audiences aren’t used to seeing.
“It was important to me that Susan be the girl that’s not normally the protagonist — not the pretty, blond, breezy one that everybody loves and adores,” Weill said. “I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out.”
While the film does embrace Susan’s search for independence, it also examines the emotional consequences of her self-involvement. Susan’s life appears to be much more liberating than the lives of Rabbi Gold and Anne, both of whom feel the intense weight of demands as parents and spouses. Consequently, Susan’s need to provide for herself creates friction within those relationships, particularly with Anne, who envies Susan’s freedom, and Susan’s flighty boyfriend Eric (Christopher Guest), who resents her for wanting to keep her own apartment.
The clash that occurs in managing creative endeavors with personal ones is something that has always been pertinent for young people but especially so now, during a time when millennials are constantly exhausted trying to pay their dues while navigating romantic and platonic relationships. It’s why Girlfriends makes such a compelling companion piece to Frances Ha. The arc of that film’s titular character, played by the great Greta Gerwig, parallels almost exactly with Susan’s. Both Frances and Susan deal with economic uncertainty and being alone in a world where everyone seems to have their shit together, but they ultimately grow into more confident, determined women because of these difficult experiences.
Even with recognition from the Criterion Collection and the United States National Film Registry, it’s a shame that Girlfriends isn’t as well-regarded today as, say, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which came out the year before and is considered one of the best Jewish films of all time. While Annie Hall undeniably influenced both indie and Jewish cinema, Girlfriends should also be credited with laying out a blueprint for current Jewish stories, especially ones about modern, independent Jewish women like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It is as poignant as it is witty, narratively simple as it is emotionally complex, and unabashedly, wholeheartedly Jewish.
Girlfriends is available to stream for free on the TCM website.