From this point forward, the majority of this yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival will be made up of winners the festival’s People’s Choice Award. The award, which in recent years has helped to kick off Oscar buzz for the winners, was introduced at the third edition of the Festival of Festivals in 1978, in which the inaugural winner was Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. The film focuses on an aspiring photographer in New York named Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron). Susan is quite close friends with her roommate Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner), but things change when Anne marries a man named Martin (Bob Balaban) and moves out. Susan is left to learn how to deal with living alone, while also struggling to get her photography noticed.
Girlfriends was not a film that I had previously heard of, before I included it as part of this series, specifically for its distinction as being the very first winner of the TIFF People’s Choice Award. I think most would be forgiven if they were equally unfamiliar with Girlfriends, since it seems to be a film that somewhat slipped through the cracks upon its release in 1978, despite the acclaim it received at film festivals. The film had a big fan in the form of Stanley Kubrick, who commented in a 1980 interview that it was a rare American film that can be compared with the “serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe.”
Probably the film that came to mind for me the most while watching Girlfriends was Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. While the two films have a different visual aesthetic, the central friendship between Susan and Anne in Girlfriends is quite similar to the friendship between Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if Baumbach was partially inspired by this film. Girlfriends was also somewhat of an influence for Lena Dunham, which included Claudia Weill coming on to direct an episode of Girls.
Since Girlfriends has apparently influenced so much, it is a bit hard for me to see it on its own merits. I thought it was an OK enough story, built around a very timid, yet dedicated, performance by Melanie Mayron. Quite a few familiar faces appear in Girlfriends’ supporting cast, including a young and bearded Bob Balaban as Martin, Eli Wallach as the rabbi Susan photographs Bar Mitzvahs for, and a pre-Spinal Tap Christopher Guest as Susan’s love interest Eric.
Girlfriends is definitely one of the lesser known films that I lined up for this year’s Blindspot selection. The film is pretty much the only notable film for Claudia Weill, who directed only one follow-up, before moving into TV work. However, there is still a certain charm to Girlfriends and it can most definitely be seen as influential film.7 | FAIR