SUSAN SEIDELMAN knows all about New York women. She's one herself, and her movies have been full of them - from the offbeat ``Smithereens'' to the hit ``Desperately Seeking Susan,'' the recent ``Cookie,'' and the brand-new ``She-Devil,'' starring Roseanne Barr as a vengeful homemaker and Meryl Streep as a glamourous rival for her husband's affections. ``She-Devil'' had its world premi`ere in ``Projections of the New York Woman,'' an exhibition on-screen recently at the American Museum of the Moving Image here [see article at left]. Several women have invaded the male-dominated world of movie directing in recent years, and Ms. Seidelman is the most active and successful of them all. During a recent interview at the museum, I asked her if it is difficult to work in such a gender-skewed environment. In response, she pointed out that her position has always been a little removed from the filmmaking mainstream.
``I tend to be slightly outside the industry,'' she says. ``I choose to live in New York instead of Hollywood; so I don't have to play the game. I started out as an independent; in other words, I gave myself my own opportunity. I decided no one was going to hire me; [so] I'm not going to even waste my time knocking on doors. If I don't do it for myself, it's not going to happen. I didn't even attempt to try the `normal' route. I think a lot of women who have ended up being directors have gone a circuitous route, because - let's face it - most of the studios are still run by men.''
How can Seidelman claim to be an ``outsider'' when most of her films are full-scale Hollywood productions?
``I do get my funding from Hollywood studios,'' she admits, ``but I tend to see myself as riding that thin line: I am not really part of the system, but I can't pretend to be totally outside the system. ... I make only films I want to make. Thus far, I don't really consider myself a director for hire. I am not attached to a studio where they say, `You have got to do this movie.' So I still consider myself pretty independent.''
Why did she want to make ``She-Devil?''
``I actually think it's sort of a political film,'' she says of the comedy. ``That's what it's about, and [that's] the reason it was cast with two incredibly different types of women. It's really about the politics of femininity, and about how one's looks affect the kind of power that you have. There are certain ways a woman is supposed to look and behave. And I think that's an issue that hasn't been discussed much on film.''
Why has Hollywood dodged this subject?
``Most directors of films about women have been men,'' Seidelman answers. ``They have shown a very glamourized version of what women are like. The whole purpose of this movie is that one of the characters is very glamourous, and the other is very deglamourized. I think people are going to be surprised by the housewife character, the Roseanne Barr character, because she really is very different from a lot of the women we've seen on screen.''
This issue goes beyond films into real life, Seidelman adds. ``I was looking at a magazine article,'' she recalls. ``I think it was about Malcolm Forbes's birthday party. And I was struck by the number of couples where you see a successful, powerful, 60- or 70-year-old man with a beautiful 25-year-old model on his arm. So often, men are thought of in terms of power and success and money. But women are thought of, and valued, in terms of their physical appearance.''
Seidelman feels women have a different approach from men when it comes to depicting female characters. ``Women making movies about other women have a kind of insiders' point-of-view,'' she muses. ``It's a less romanticized point-of-view, because we know the flip side. When men make movies about women, they are often slightly romanticized. Also, women get the little details of womanhood.''
Have movies tended to help or hurt the progress of women in society? ``It would be hard to answer that,'' Seidelman says, ``but I do think they have reflected something about the journey that women have gone on over the past 30 years. When I think about movies of the '50s, the main concern seemed to be ..., if it was a career women, how is she going to snag a husband? The relationships between girlfriends in those films are often very competitive, fighting over some guy.''
By contrast, she continues, ``When you look at the films of the late '60s and early '70s, which reflect something about the women's movement, the protagonist had changed.'' The characters played by Diane Keaton in ``Annie Hall'' or Jill Clayburgh in ``An Unmarried Woman,'' for example, ``are a lot different from the Marilyn Monroe character of the '50s.
``Then, if you extend it to the '80s,'' Seidelman goes on, ``you have the working women, like Sigourney Weaver and Melanie Griffith, and that again says something about the time we're living in - where women are very much in the workplace and are very ambitious and are trying to figure out how to deal with a personal life and a professional life at the same time.''
These characters and movies notwithstanding, many people feel American society has become more traditional in recent years. How does this affect Seideleman's theory that things have been improving in films?
``The times we're living in have gotten a little more conservative,'' she acknowledges. ``In a way, the movies have reflected that, too. For example, `Working Girl' is probably a slightly more conservative movie than one like `A Woman Under the Influence''' (1974).
This doesn't stop her from putting a social and political subtext into her pictures, however. ``It certainly is there ... in all the movies I have made,'' she says with conviction. ``All have to do with a woman who comes from a certain milieu and is trying to break out of it. ... In each case, they come from an environment where they feel a little bit stifled, and by the end they've liberated themselves in some way. I have an optimistic view, definitely. [But] I think the issue of identity has been a theme in every movie I have made: Who am I, and how do I fit in?''