Is Madonna’s acting really that bad? A career retrospective lets you be the judge
As a pop star, Madonna is the undisputed queen. Her recent albums Rebel Heart and MDNA may have sold poorly, but she’s still the highest-grossing solo touring artist of all time. As an actor, however, most critics agree that Madonna has got some way to go before she makes it into the royal family. Or even, some would say, the servants’ quarters.
It’s not for want of trying. Back in 1979, four years before the release of her self-titled debut album, Madonna starred in barebones indie drama A Certain Sacrifice. She played a Lower East Side resident living with three “love slaves” (one male, one female, one transgender). Capitalising on her first flush of fame, the film-makers rushed it out in 1985, but it’s safe to say that it wasn’t exactly acclaimed as a lost classic.
Nonetheless, for years Madonna maintained an acting career alongside her musical one. Some of of her films performed decently at the box office and – shock horror – even got good reviews, like the 1985 comedy Desperately Seeking Susan. More frequently however, her efforts were widely ridiculed. Besides voicing a character in 2006’s family cartoon Arthur and the Invisibles and appearing opposite Lady Gaga on a Saturday Night Live skit, Madonna has laid her acting career to rest after enduring a weapons-grade trashing for her turn as a snooty socialite in then husband Guy Ritchie’s 2002 romance Swept Away.
It’s therefore little wonder that Swept Away isn’t included in Body of Work: A Madonna Retrospective, a season of films at New York’s Metrograph purporting to showcase Madonna’s “calculated, cohesive canon”. Together, the seven selections (Desperately Seeking Susan, Who’s That Girl, Dick Tracy, Shadows and Fog, A League of Their Own, Body of Evidence and Dangerous Game) prove that while she never threatened to become the next Meryl Streep, Madonna’s acting might not actually be that bad.
Her first major vehicle, Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, makes the most of her megastar charisma. Released when she was in peak Like a Virgin mode, Madonna plays Susan, a free-spirited live wire whose identity gets usurped by a bored housewife (Rosanna Arquette). It capitalized on her edgy public persona; the role essentially required Madonna to be the same brassy pop starlet the world knew her as anyway. Susan’s ragtag-chic wardrobe meant that she barely even had to get changed.
Yes, she plays herself (in the non hip-hop sense) – but maybe that’s not as easy as she makes it look. Skating over 1986’s Shanghai Surprise, a notorious bomb in which Madonna played – of all things – a missionary, the season next alights on 1987’s Who’s That Girl. OK, the 1987 comedy from director James Foley (he’s helming the upcoming two sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey) is pretty awful, but Madonna emerges more or less intact. In her comfort zone as another street-smart girl, she’s effortlessly engaging, even as the convoluted hijinks can’t keep pace with her zany energy.
Madonna slowly gravitated to more mannered performances, beginning with Dick Tracy in 1990. As sultry club singer Breathless Mahoney, Madonna relied upon all the glamour from her Express Yourself era to conjure a textbook femme fatale: erotic (“I sweat a lot better in the dark,” she coos to Dick Tracy) and mysterious. Director Warren Beatty was wise to afford her a handful of original musical numbers, written by Stephen Sondheim, that proved she could sell a show tune with the best of them.
The following year, Shadows and Fog saw her collaborate with Woody Allen. While her role as a seductive tightrope walker in his sideshow murder-mystery only amounts to a cameo, Madonna holds her own opposite John Malkovich and a raging Mia Farrow, brashly delivering the line: “Nothing wakes Peter up, certainly not the sound of two people moaning.”
Madonna returned to the tough city broad type in Penny Marshall’s hit baseball comedy A League of Their Own (1992), bringing a ton of zest and a thick Westchesta accent to no-nonsense player Mae Mordabito. However, disaster was soon to strike. Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence (1993), part of a three-pronged sex fest that also included her Erotica album and softcore photobook Sex, is unadulterated trash with none of the sly wit of its inspiration, Basic Instinct.
Madonna is as flat as a cycling holiday in the low countries as Rebecca Carlson, a sex-crazed gold-digger with murderous tendencies, but the the film’s failure can’t be entirely laid at her door. Brad Mirman’s script is a true clunker. It’s hard to imagine any actor who has ever lived convincingly delivering lines such as: “Have you ever seen animals make love? It’s intense, it’s violent. But they never really hurt each other.”
Both Madonna’s performance and the film overall were lambasted by critics: Roger Ebert declared it as one of his most hated movies of all time. (“It has to be seen to be believed – something I do not advise,” he wrote.) But give the girl some credit – few celebrities would throw themselves into the sex scenes with the kind of gusto Madonna exhibits. The infamous scene in which she drips candlewax on a naked Willem Defoe is sexy because it’s done with such conviction. And hats and everything else off to the opening scene, in which she rides her supposed victim like a bull – stark naked.
In fact, Madonna is at her best in Body of Evidence when she’s relying upon her body language to do the job rather than the atrocious dialogue. She also gets slapped across the face by Julianne Moore in a bathroom – so there’s that.
She’s equally as unhinged – though clothed – in Dangerous Game, which came out the same year as Body of Evidence, though with considerably less fanfare. Directed by Abel Ferrara, Dangerous Game is inscrutable and defiantly messy, starring Harvey Keitel as a director shooting a marital-crisis drama as his own marriage implodes in real-life.
Madonna stars as Sarah Jennings, a Hollywood star forced to plumb new depths as one half of the warring couple in his film. Ferrara’s untamed approach suits Madonna, who is emotionally raw in ways she only hinted at in her climactic Dick Tracy scene, where Breathless Mahoney desperately pleads for Dick Tracy’s affection. Right through Dangerous Game, Madonna’s on edge, reacting viscerally to the abuse hurled her way. A scene where she’s left crawling on the floor after being raped by her onscreen partner is deeply unsettling.
The grueling experience of confronting her demons in such a public forum purportedly proved too much for Madonna, who according to Ferrara “killed” the film by badmouthing it. It’s a shame, because the film proves that although Madonna is frequently heralded as the mother of reinvention, it’s her ability to dig deep and connect emotionally with her audience which has made her records, if not her films, endure.
Curiously, the Metrograph has opted not to showcase Evita (1996), in which Madonna proved her many detractors wrong with a full-blooded star turn as Eva Perón. She even got a Golden Globe. However, there’s no surprise that the series ignores The Next Best Thing (2000), her misjudged pair-up with then pal Rupert Everett. Madonna was indulging in her fantasies of being part of the English aristocracy, and her Downton Abbey-style tones are grounds alone for the movie to be consigned to the trash can (or dustbin, as she would no doubt then have said). Swept Away was, if anything, even worse, a critical and commercial disaster which torpedoed her reputation as an actor once and for all.
The scorn probably accounts for why in 2008 she tried her luck at entering another door in Hollywood by directing the London-set comedy Filth and Wisdom, followed by WE, her romance detailing the affair King Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson, in 2011. Unlike so many actors-turned-directors, Madonna opted never to star in her own features, probably fearful of how she’d be received. She needn’t be – Body of Work: A Madonna Retrospective shows that given the right material, Madonna could steal a scene for all the right reasons.
Body of Work: A Madonna Retrospective, runs 27 August to 1 September at The Metrograph in New York.