The term "women's picture" used to have a specific and more than slightly patronizing meaning. It suggested a film of such weepy and romantic sentimentality as to reduce any gents in the audience to a squirming restlessness touched with hostility.
It was not simply that the stories featured valiant and long-suffering women instead of valiant and long-suffering men; it was that the operative tone was carefully engineered to evoke floods of appreciative tears.
After much too long a wait, the "women's picture" has a new definition. With any continuing luck, the first meaning will be a film made by women, and then possibly but by no means certainly about women.
By now there is at least a short festival's worth of good films by and about women, including Gillian Armstrong's "My Brilliant Career." But the romantic comedy, "Desperately Seeking Susan," which I caught up with the other day and which has been highly favorably reviewed in these pages, seems in a superior class by itself for its skill, its charm, its performances and its appeal to the whole audience without regard to gender, age or previous condition of servitude.
The movie is something of a sleeper success, whose wide and continuing appeal evidently took even its distributor by surprise. But the fact is that although some of the candor of language and the presumptions about prevailing life styles are thoroughly up to date, "Desperately Seeking Susan" is an old-fashioned madcap comedy in the sleekest and most endearing Hollywood tradition.
It could hardly be better qualified as a women's film in the new sense: produced by Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, directed by Susan Seidelman from a first script by Leora Barish.
It is also about two women principally--the estimable Rosanna Arquette as a bored and desperately fantasizing Jersey housewife, the raucous Madonna as a nomadic survivor in mesh hose and sequined boots. But the film is as well, in subtle and unsubtle ways, the world as perceived by women.
I mean, the nice guys (two) are a degree and half north of nerd, about as macho as hair spray. But they are gentle, winsome, loving and attractive, which are the points to be taken. Aidan Quinn is handsomely sympathetic and vulnerable as the dazed savior in Arquette's new life, but it seems significant that as we meet him he has been dropped and stripped of her worldly possessions by a vivid lady who has opted for a new lad who looks even more submissive. You do get the feeling that the ledgers are being re-examined.
The supporting males, as you might call them, are a sheaf of indictments if there ever was one, from Arquette's insensitive, egocentric and two-timing husband (done to a toothy T by Mark Blum) to a snoring slug of a thug who is never seen awake, a simple-minded stalking assassin and other dimwits from various walks of life.
At that, what you have in "Desperately Seeking Susan" is not a tract but a slyly observant comedy of plot and personality, with its attitudes worn lightly. The tricky and eventful plot involves not least a welcome return for that ancient but ever-serviceable story device, Convenient Amnesia.
The time-tested "Who am I?" ploy is all, or almost all, Ms. Barish requires to set in motion a chain of events that lie on the preposterous side of improbable but that, in the context of forgetfulness and serene coincidence, have a gorgeous and nutty logic of their own.
Where you have to hope a kind of artistic evolution is leading is toward a day when a film's gender will be a matter of record and possible interest, but not of astonishment and special note. "Desperately Seeking Susan" is a warm entertainment of beguiling ingenuity. It also seems a small, cheerful milestone on women's long, rocky road toward equal and unself-conscious access to the screen.
In the matter of films-caught-up-with, I second Sheila Benson's motion in favor of Richard Donner's medieval romantic tale, "Ladyhawke." The movies make magic look so easy that it has sometimes been paradoxically difficult to make magical fantasy seem truly magical and not just technological trickery. It also gets harder all the time for anyone beyond infancy to play make-believe; we're all too crammed with information, reality and grounds for skepticism.
But "Ladyhawke," by wearing its magic lightly, taking it for granted (as if wicked curses were a fact of everyday life) and salting it with a mischievous and rather contemporary-flavored humor, makes the suspension of disbelief as easy as falling off a drawbridge.
The movies don't say "Once upon a time" as often as they used to, partly I suppose because the past is very expensive. But when fantasy works, and invites our acceptance of wolf-into-man and lady-into-hawk, of lovers glimpsing each other only in the tantalizing moments as day becomes night, and night day, you are reminded again how well the movies can cast their own spells.