Madonna is the gift that keeps on giving.
If you love her, there is ample evidence to support that she is one of the world’s most important, memorable, exciting, versatile, and yes, talented performers of the 20th Century. For me, her greatest era is 1989-1994. From that “Vogue” performance at the VMAs in full Renaissance regalia to the epic brilliance of the Blond Ambition and Girlie Show tours and the underrated successes of her three forgotten albums (I’m Breathless, Erotica and Bedtime Stories), Madonna pushed sexual and artistic boundaries to their edge of glory, culminating/tailspinning with the infamous book, Sex.
And if you hate her, there is ample evidence to support that she is a shameless, horrible person that fucked her way to the top, treating everyone like a used tampon along her never ending quest for more fame, more adoration, and more money.
If you belong to the latter camp – where even a lifer like me is finding himself these days – there is a schadenfreude effect when it comes to her “acting.” Since “Madonna” (whoever this person is) lives, as Warren Beatty said, her whole life on camera, it is most ironic that she is so unbelievable on film. You see the wheels turning, trying at (most) every moment to remain in control of the character, the other actors, and her most sacred image. It reads as hilariously false, putting us at a football field’s length from any kind of genuine emotion; possibly because Madonna herself can no longer (if she ever could) differentiate the public’s persona from the real McCoy (watch Truth or Dare and see the ridiculous blurring of the lines on full display).
*I will grant Madonna two passes: Desperately Seeking Susan (where she is playing herself) and A League of Their Own (where she is allowed to rely on her comedic chops and is blissfully not the star). Even Evita is heavily affected and if J. Randy Taraborrelli is to be believed, she was a hot bitch who demanded control of the film after practically begging to be in it in the first place.
And then there is Body of Evidence, the trifecta in the overexposed sexual crown of Erotica and Sex. It is impossible to mention one of these without grouping them together (which is a pity for her neglected masterpiece, Erotica, featuring the magnificent “Rain”…watch the end of The Girlie Show‘s first act and tell me she’s not radiantly legendary)…
…causing her critics to yell foul with claims that she had gone too far (which she had…past the point of camp to just plain laughing at her).
Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a sexy art curator that is charged with fucking a man to death, making her the titular weapon. She claims their sadomasochistic activities were merely games, mutually beneficial and all about love; the prosecution paints her as a cold blooded femme fatale, out for the old guy’s money the minute she found out he had a heart condition and millions in the bank. Willem Dafoe is her court appointed attorney, sucked into her web of seduction, even to the point of cheating on his wife, Julianne Moore (in one of her last slumming-it roles before Short Cuts catapulted her to stardom).
Body of Evidence is a blatant rip-off of Basic Instinct in style, form, and content. Both films begin at the scene of the crime, witnessing the murderesses in flagrante dilecto. The snarky detectives make snarky comments about the lewdness of the crimes that read somewhat misogynistic and forced in their “daring” and the authority figures are “transformed”/manipulated by their quarry. But while Sharon Stone mops the floor with Michael Douglas and gives us a fully layered, Oscar worthy turn as the best modern day Stanwyck since Kathleen Turner, Madge turns in an embarrassingly flat, calculated performance that demands we see Rebecca as Dita, her dominatrix character from Erotica and Sex, right down to the sexy voice from “Where Life Begins” and that silly beret from the “Bad Girl” music video, taking us out of the film at every turn, yet avoiding the obvious parallels in interviews.
*I grant Madonna TWO moments of good/believable acting: the strawberry scene in the restaurant, explaining her lust for pain, and her tearful testimony on the stand, confessing she caught her lover in bed with another man. What could read as Madonna-being-Madonna moments, we temporarily see past her bullshit and lock into the character’s psyche (I am dying for a great director to break her down and call her on her foolishness!)
But Body of Evidence does not (completely) fail because of Madonna. The script is laughable with lines like, “Have you ever seen animals make love, Frank? It’s intense,” lacking Basic Instinct or even a lesser erotic thriller’s requisite humor. BoE takes itself way too seriously and doesn’t have the gravitas to back it up, no matter how much you want to light Madonna like she’s Dietrich. (Incidentally, the end of the film is heavily inspired by the finale in Witness for the Prosecution, one of Dietrich’s most iconic roles – drawing a subtle comparison to one of Madonna’s idols and most obvious inspirations…). And as hard as Willem Dafoe tries – and he is trying his best, folks – we simply do not care about him, his career, his case, or his relationships with his wife and client. Maybe if Rebecca were played by Rebecca De Mornay (watch it again and imagine THAT!) we would have felt something. Or maybe if the writer had taken any time at all in developing the characters’ wants and needs instead of just relying on the “scintillating” nature of the material to engage the audience, we wouldn’t be checking our watches 20 minutes in.
While Madonna intended Sex to be ironic, Body of Evidence unintentionally carries over its antiseptic sexual vibe. We are so assaulted with being told what we are seeing is sexy and shocking, that is ceases to be either.
***RIP VAN WINKLE***
*The best moment in the film…