Women About Town

Alan Moyle, Times Square, 1980, 35mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

WHENEVER I WATCH Allan Moyle’s teen girl coming-of-age screwball comedy Times Square (1980), I remember the real-life story of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and the radically queer underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin meeting in the psychiatric hospital to which, in the early 1960s, their respective families (Sedgwick’s was Boston Brahmins, Rubin’s middle-class Queens Jews) committed them for drug use. One of Warhol’s most memorable screen presences, Sedgwick died of an overdose in 1971. In 1963, at age seventeen, Rubin made Christmas on Earth—the all-time most subversive American avant-garde film—and became a creative force at the Silver Factory by introducing the Velvet Underground to Warhol (one of many brilliant alliances she instigated). Only a few years later, she embraced Hassidic Judaism, and died after giving birth to her fifth child in 1980 (the year of Times Square’s release). Rubin’s work has received a second life thanks to its discovery by contemporary genderqueer artists and because her long strange trip is documented in Chuck Smith’s Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground (2018), now on the festival circuit.

Christmas on Earth did not make the cut for the Quad’s “The New York Woman” series, although the delirious, semi-musical Times Square, about two runaways differently in love, did and should not be missed. (Unavailable except on used foreign-region DVDs, it’s showing in 35 mm this Sunday at 8:25 PM.) Perhaps the close-up of a vagina, against which the action throughout the film is superimposed, didn’t meet the series’s primary requirement—that the central “character” be a woman—although the film fits the other two conditions, of being made in the twentieth century and at least partly on location in New York City. Those looking outside the mainstream narrative box might content themselves with Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), a sixty-six-minute Sedgwick portrait, which poses the question of whether more is revealed when its subject is in focus than when it’s not. Since Sedgwick is the only person on-screen, the film fails the Bechdel test—that a movie has two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man—but almost all the other forty-eight films in the series pass it with flying colors. This includes some outré entries: Rosa von Praunheim’s Survival in New York (1989), in which adventurous German expats Ulli, Claudia, and Anna get lost in in the Big Apple; Von Praunheim’s other entry, Tally Brown, New York (1979), a portrait of the cabaret and opera singer at work and cutting loose with friends Holly Woodlawn and Divine; and Chantal Akerman’s mother-daughter discursive and pictorial masterpiece, News from Home (1977).

The focus of the series, however, is theatrically released narratives of every genre, ranging in time from Allan Dwan’s 1924 silent clothes-conscious comedy Manhandled, starring Gloria Swanson, to Whit Stillman’s 1998 The Last Days of Disco, nominally set in the early 1980s publishing world and starring Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. Even if you’ve seen many of the films more than once, they might change on you today because of the volatility of the discussion around the representation of gender, sex, love, and power. Regardless of your feelings about Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a spot-on feminist horror film about a woman whose pregnant body becomes a pawn in other people’s struggle for power. George Cukor’s It Should Happen to You (1954), a satire on New York as a magnet for empty fame, is also an ode to the honesty and generosity of Judy Holliday (the actor and the character she plays), and Cukor’s tough-ass coded gender comedy Girls About Town (1931) is always a pleasure. On the other hand, the condescension and mansplaining that made me loathe Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) when they were first released are just as noxious today.

Richard Brooks, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1977, 35mm, color, sound, 136 minutes.

John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980) showcases Gena Rowlands (the director’s wife) in––for both of them––a rare foray into crime melodrama. Rowlands’s character, a former gangster’s moll, goes on the run with a young boy whose mother is a victim of mob violence. If Gloria presents an inspiring, streetwise heroine, Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961), which stars Garfein’s wife Carroll Baker as a suicidal rape victim, reflects the opposite pole of what method-trained New York directors viewed as juicy roles for actresses. Baker deserved better, but Garfein’s vision was more in line with the fantasies about women that for decades dominated New York’s serious theater and movie creative endeavors, compared to than that of Cassavetes.

High on the list of any woman’s cautionary tales are Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and The Best of Everything (1959). The former is a fairly typical women-who-want-sex-wind-up-dead reaction to feminist independence. The latter, based on Rona Jaffe’s bestseller and directed by Jean Negulesco, now looks like a corollary to Mad Men and should be a study object for the #MeToo movement. Set in a semi-schlock publishing house where the female secretaries and fledgling editors have no choice but to submit to daily ass-pinching and occasional rape attempts by male executives (the abuse outside the office is even worse), it depicts the female characters as so hungry for love and marriage that they refuse to see the truth—that most of the men who pursue them lie to their faces and, when confronted, blame the women for believing them. I saw the film at an impressionable age, and embarrassing as it is to say, it warped choices I made for far too long.

Eleven of the fifty films in this series are by women directors. I’d like to tell you that you can’t go wrong with any of them, but that’s not the case. Therefore, here is my list of must-sees, in alphabetical order: Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990); Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That (1994); Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992); and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983). And, of course, the aforementioned News from Home.

“The New York Woman” opened on June 29 and runs through July 19 at Quad Cinema in New York.