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"A Commercial Piece of Shit": Madonna on Film

A retrospective of films starring Madonna provides an opportunity to consider the icon as an actress.
In his elephantine sixth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2014), critic David Thomson reserves his most scathing, uncharitable critique for Madonna. To him, her mere existence on film is an affront to the medium itself. He finds that she is incapable of understanding the art of acting, and spends the space of nine paragraphs belaboring the point. “There is nothing in Madonna to be advertised,”he writes, “except for her ironic, deflecting contempt. She is an ad for advertising.”
It is a curiously mean-spirited entry in a book filled with thoughtful, sympathetic reconsiderations of women whom critics wrote off in their time. Thomson’s entries on Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak are among his most articulate and impassioned. Yet Thomson is utterly heartless when it comes to Madonna, suspecting that “[s]he is disappointed about something, and hugely driven by resentment.” 
Thomson wasn’t exactly staking out a contrarian position. Debra Winger—an actress whose fastidious work ethic earned her a gendered reputation for being “difficult”—walked off the set of Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992) in a fury after learning of Madonna’s involvement, deeming it stunt casting.
At the end of this month, Madonna will be the subject of an eight-film retrospective, “Body of Work,” at Metrograph in New York. It begins with Alek Keshishian’s Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), a backstage road documentary filmed during her Blond Ambition World Tour. Common wisdom dictates that Madonna is a terrible actress, her attempts at serious characterization carrying a ring of false confidence. Her roles on celluloid are, at best, extensions of her ubiquitous public image. There is no subtext with Madonna; her roles speak their subtext out loud. 
“She is the auteur of her singular oeuvre, both the Svengali and muse of her enigmatic persona,” the notes accompanying the Metrograph retrospective read. This signals a curious tension—how often is she the orchestrator, and how often is she the subject? Indeed, of the eight films that Metrograph is screening, the two helmed by women—Susan Seideman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1984) and Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992)—indicate she’s more of the former. Her performances in those two films are wily, loose, and engaging. In Seidelman’s film, she is a free-spirited, gum-smacking vagabond; in Marshall’s, she is brash, indolent baseball player with a wobbly Westchester accent. She is hugely appealing in both, so much that one makes allowances for her deficiencies as a performer. Under the tutelage of male directors, though, it can often seem as if she’s more of a subject being posed, with hesitant directors tiptoeing around her limitations. In Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), “Madonna’s shape is pasted perfectly into the vibrant hues and sharp angles of this 1990 noir blockbuster.” In Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991), she is “the zeitgeist star who the auteur seems to always find a part for.” There’s an implication of passivity here – male directors shaping a persona skillfully so it doesn’t look like product placement in their milieus. They play it safe.
The one exception is Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993), screening on the last day of the retrospective. It is her finest performance on film. She plays Sarah Jennings, a famous television actress who is aching for attachment to prestige. Sarah spends the film fending off accusations that she is not much of an artist. (Sound familiar?) She is the subject of a ruthless auteur (Harvey Keitel) who tests the limits of his actors’ patience, scavenging for truth in a grueling marital drama. The production of the film is a torturous, emptying therapy session for her.
The film splays Madonna’s vulnerabilities open; her character begins the film diffident and teeming with anxiety, and she ends it completely exposed. There are a few instances in the movie in which Madonna appears as if she’s unaware that she’s being filmed. In the most memorable, Keitel’s character pelts her with insults, calling her “a commercial piece of shit,” causing her to flub her lines in humiliation. It’s a scene that reads like Thomson’s wet dream, wherein a sneering man who thinks he knows everything about this medium preys upon this woman’s weaknesses, strikes her where it hurts, and convinces her she’s trash – as if to ask, who are you to poison cinema?
It’s a sensational performance, now consigned to the annals of film history, in part because Madonna and Ferrara hated each other. Filming was hell for her. Add to this the fact that critics had just mercilessly skewered her for Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence (1993), a film that was a pale imitation of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). Madonna, fearing that the backlash to Dangerous Game would be as severe as it was for Body of Evidence, denounced Ferrara’s film before it was even released. Ferrara has been stewing ever since; to his mind, Madonna is the reason why few people speak of the film today.
Can Madonna act? Answering this question seems like a futile exercise. If the Metrograph retrospective is positioned as reappraisal, it comes with an asterisk, acknowledging that she is a performer of considerably limited range. A more useful question: Can we look to Madonna’s filmography to complicate our understanding of her? Dangerous Game is a logical starting point. Critics have turned a more appreciative eye to Ferrara’s filmography in recent years, and so Madonna’s work in Dangerous Game seems ripe for rediscovery. “As an actress,” Thomson wrote, Madonna was “the person who got out of the empty car.” He meant it as an insult, a metaphor that spoke to her vacuity. Watch Dangerous Game, where she reveals her wounds so openly, and you may see this very quality as a virtue.
Thank you. It seems almost an automatic reaction that people shit all over Madonna no matter what she does. It's the strangest thing.

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