Triple Feature

Body of Evidence

Dangerous Game, & Evita December 18, 2019


Three better-than-expected Madonna movies 


he popular narrative is that Madonna is a terrible actress. Most of her movies have been poorly reviewed and commercially unsuccessful; she killed it

at the Razzies in the 1980s and ‘90s, the decades during which she was most eager to add “actress” to her list of accomplishments. But as it goes for a lot of entertainers who’ve tried their hands at acting and have floundered at it at least in the public eye — e.g. Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson — I’ve come to notice with some hindsight that typically the bad performances in the so-called bad films are actually for the most part serviceable. The spat-out venom by the public is more so an overenthusiastic pile-on reaction. Effectiveness for some reason becomes synonymous in this case with straight-up badness. If a new-to-acting musical artist isn’t incendiary, then what’s the point? Madonna is indeed terrible in a lot of the features comprising her filmography — Shanghai Surprise (1986), Who’s That Girl? (1987) — but when she’s working with good enough material she can be winning.


That's a phenomenon experienced by people

Madonna in 1993's "Body of Evidence."

Madonna in 1993's Body of Evidence.

who act for a living, though, so what gives? In Madonna’s worst movies, her co-stars are also terrible but she gets the most vitriol. In her best stuff, praise typically is heaped more on other people in the ensemble, and if she’s at all positively mentioned, there’s an element of surprise invoked. But I find her not-so-controversially good-to-terrific in movies like Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Dick Tracy (1990) — and also, more controversially, in the two films she starred in in 1993, about which critics and audiences at the time were emphatically rancorous.


Madonna got some of the worst reviews of her career for Body of Evidence (1993), a wholly ridiculous erotic thriller made to capitalize on what was done by Basic Instinct (1992). In the film she plays a platinum-blonde femme fatale named Rebecca Carlson who is accused of — and then goes to trial for — fucking her lover to death. (How this is a crime, I’m not sure; the guy had a weak heart and her body was too much, I guess.) The film is ludicrous but a lot of fun — abounding with overlong and unintentionally humorous sex scenes and camp dialogue. (“That’s what I do: I fuck — and it made me $8 million,” a character snarls at one point.) The movie has a monotonous hamster-wheelness to it. The long and unconvincing courtroom scenes are dependably followed either by confrontations or vaseline-on-the-cameras rendezvouses. 


Body of Evidence is among the worst erotic thrillers of the 1990s (which isn’t saying much) but is also one of the most entertaining. That's because the narrative is senseless enough to be consistently funny and because it’s been made by someone (Uli Edel) who markedly knows the words but not the music. The movie often has the farcicality of an accidental parody. Body of Evidence looks like knock-off Verhoeven, too, which at a minimum ensures it’s still nice to stare at, with its shimmering lighting, high-ceilinged and expensive-looking interiors, and asymmetric camera angles. 


Madonna was most singled out as the film’s nadir in its

invariably terrible reviews. But I think she’s about as good, if not better than everyone else in the cast, which includes such should-have-known-better talents as Willem Dafoe (as Rebecca’s lawyer, who very-quickly gets seduced by her), Joe Mantegna, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, and Frank Langella. Madonna doesn’t have the persuasive sexiness cum villainy of the erotic-thriller grand dame, Sharon Stone. Still, she’s good enough here, even if the movie isn’t quite the companion piece I think she wanted it to be for her underrated 1992 album Erotica and its subsequently released photography book, Sex. It’s the epitome of a guilty pleasure, though the misogynistic ending (the original one was changed at the last second) does dull it.


Madonna was refreshingly candid about the reception from the outset and offered a fair analysis of her treatment. “I’m disappointed in it,” she said in a 1994 interview with The Face. “But I’m not sorry I did it. I think I did a good job. But I got the blame for everything. It was like I wrote it, produced it, directed it, and I was the only one acting in it, you know?”


n the same interview, Madonna offers her thoughts on the other film she made in 1993, Abel Farrara’s Dangerous Game. But whereas Body of Evidence was legitimately bad and she was on the money in how she

viewed it, I think Madonna is wrong about Dangerous Game. She sells herself short. In the film, which stews in meta-commentary, she plays Sarah Jennings, a ubiquitous celebrity (we assume a singer, like the woman playing her) who is trying to build a second career as an actress. The movie was the first production done by Madonna’s newly formed movie company, Maverick. It was selected by the singer because, when she received the script, Sarah was the main character. Her arc mostly consisted of her infiltrating the De Niro-Scorsese rapport of Sarah’s director, Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel), and her male co-star (James Russo).


But Farrara ultimately had final cut, and after it was edited the movie wound up being more about the Eddie character. The film, finally, is primarily about how the turmoil of Eddie’s personal life has infected the production of the movie focused on in Dangerous Game — a marriage drama called “Mother of Mirrors.” Madonna was pissed off when she saw the end result and decried the feature publicly. Speaking with The Face, she called it “a shit movie,” and characterized Ferrara as a Benedict Arnold sort of figure. “From Dick Tracy to A League Of Their OwnBody of Evidence, and this movie, I keep coming to the same conclusion: that I have to be a director. I feel like I’m constantly being double-crossed,” she said. (Madonna would eventually try her hand at directing with 2008’s Filth and Wisdom and 2011’s W.E., both of which were negatively received.)


Madonna knew she was good in Dangerous Game, but I’m not sure she realizes how good with the level of bitterness underpinning her belief. She’s staggering in the movie, traversing convincingly from the drugged-up and fed-up character played in “Mother of Mirrors” to the charming and conniving Sarah, who, like Madonna, is charismatic especially at gatherings and seems to be a bit above things, even when she’s being victimized. (During the shooting of “Mother of Mirrors,” Eddie increasingly insults his actress to try to get genuine reactions out of her during emotionally charged takes. Sarah’s male co-star is prone to inflicting violence “for real.”) You don’t really detect Madonna acting — a lot of the movie was improvised. So we enjoy watching her the same way we did in Desperately Seeking Susan and the Truth or Dare (1991) documentary. We see a lot of candid-seeming flashes of the star we’re used to and find ourselves riveted as she scopes out and navigates what’s laid out in front of her. 


One can understand why Madonna isn’t fond of the final version of the movie. No one likes a rug-pulling, especially when it’s like the one she describes. But Ferrara has nonetheless made a largely exquisite movie about how difficult a task it can be to separate art from the artist who’s made it. (Complicatedly, Keitel stands in for Ferrara and Madonna’s co-star stands in for Keitel. Eddie’s spouse in the movie is played by Ferrara’s own wife, Nancy.)


Though the movie has been methodically constructed, how it unfolds as a thrilling elasticity and capriciousness to it. The excitement of unpredictability never wears off; Dangerous Game has a queasy magnetic pull to it. The film made just $23,671 at the box office (against a $10 million budget), but I wonder if, had it been more widely seen, it would have resulted in a broader reevaluation of Madonna’s acting career. She got above-average notices for the Evita musical of 1996 (she even won a Golden Globe). But in Dangerous Game she’s more so a revelation — a bona-fide “serious actress” after all.


adonna is also wonderful in Evita, which is adapted from a 1976 concept album and 1978 play by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m not sold on the premise, regardless of the medium. It’s a

"biography" of the Argentine first lady Eva Perón made in the same style as Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). That is to say practically every word is sung, and the sights are supposed to dazzle in ways comparable to old Technicolor musicals. (Though  Evita marries lavishness with carefully constructed “realism.”) Musically it’s a wonder — “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is pretty great no matter the vantage point. And I was hooked on director Alan Parker’s way of moving through history and gigantically realized sets with a treadmill-like fluidity. There’s an infectious how-did-he-do-it-ness at play. But ultimately it's a protracted music video.


The sonics of Evita are in no doubt enhanced by what we’re seeing, but it’s more an art object than anything else. And the nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long movie shouldn’t be an art object. Like Cherbourg, it should first get our attention emotionally, then worry about how it’s going to engage us sensorily. It doesn’t help that the movie has a misogynist bent — it’s a bit like “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” writ large, only the Maria of Evita is exceptionally ambitious. (What the film’s obsessed with saying is that Evita slept her way to the top.) And the movie doesn’t dig into the political and cultural climate it depicts past the surface level: if there are any signs of unrest, they’re there to be eye-catching props — personifications of passion. 


Madonna is excellent, though — a certifiably skillful sing-actress. I also dug the performance of Antonio Banderas, who plays a sort of chorus figure: he’s a narrator who looks at the camera and morphs into several characters in the movie to guide the story. Like Madonna, Banderas credibly gets his singing and acting to feed off each other in a becoming way. It’s fun to watch them. (The trouble is that Banderas’s character also taps into that aforementioned misogyny the most; his disdain for Perón isn’t very much of the time founded in fair criticism.) Evita, in keeping with its actors, knows all the right moves when it comes to asking our eyes, ears, for attention. But it’s largely soulless. And the shallowness with which its political and cultural environments are characterized stoke its problems. 


Body of Evidence: B-

Dangerous Game: A-

Evita: B