No one doubts that Madonna is a marketing genius, so how did she overlook the most obvious tie-in to her new movie? Right next to the popcorn counter at each theater showing “Body of Evidence,” she should have put a little stand selling handcuffs, candles, belts and other playthings inspired by the film’s on-the-edge (but cautiously R-rated) sex scenes. The Sex ‘R Us concession is a wasted opportunity, but then movies are still the weak link in Madonna’s otherwise flawlessly planned career.
As a suspense film, in which Madonna is accused of killing a rich older man using sex and drugs as the murder weapons — too much for his weak, diseased heart — it is possibly one of the worst ever made. But as a tongue-in-cheek Madonna movie, it’s a hoot.
Who can keep a straight face when Madonna explains to her lawyer why the jury is out to get her? In the flat, matter-of-fact tone she uses throughout the film, she says: “The women hate me. They think I’m a whore. The men will get back at me for every chick who ever blew them off in a bar.” Making a movie so bad that it’s almost good is tougher than it seems, but “Body of Evidence” is just that entertaining. And it suggests what’s wrong with Madonna’s film career: she will never let her Madonna image go.
Part of the problem with “Body of Evidence” has nothing to do with Madonna and everything to do with a rock-bottom dreadful script. Madonna plays an art dealer in Portland, Ore., who looks like a bleached-blond floozy and lives on an extravagant houseboat. She swears she loved Andrew, who wanted to be handcuffed to the bed he died in and who lied about the seriousness of his heart condition. “I never know why men lie,” she says. “They just do. Men lie.”
Somehow that loopy plot and laughable dialogue attracted a wealth of wasted talent. Willem Dafoe plays Madonna’s lawyer, who quickly tumbles into bed and hot sex with his client. It is literally hot because she drips melting candle wax on his body. The prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna, and you’d think such first-rate actors would make Madonna look good. Instead, they are dragged down to her level of flatness.
The director, Uli Edel, made the gritty, intelligent, powerful “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (1989). But here he is fond of cliches, like the hokey reaction shot in which Mr. Mantegna sits in the courtroom, frowning and biting a knuckle.
Everyone seems to be playing this bad movie straight. Yet Mr. Edel also shamelessly exploits Madonna’s established image. Given such a laughable script, maybe that was the smartest thing he could do. He must have recognized how many of the film’s lines seem to belong to Madonna, not her fictional character. The art dealer she plays, Rebecca Carlson, is vilified as a “bad girl” because of her unconventional sexual attitudes. At times she becomes preachy about the harmlessness of sado-masochism between consenting adults.
“People here have very conservative views about sex,” Mr. Dafoe says. “No, they don’t,” Madonna answers. “They just don’t talk about it.” At such times, “Body of Evidence” seems like the movie version of “Sex,” Madonna’s best-selling book of erotic photographs and writings, promoting the kind of sex games the film’s heroine thrives on.
“It was different, but it was still making love,” the movie-Madonna says of her handcuffed sex life, sounding much like off-screen Madonna defending “Sex” or the “Justify My Love” video.
“Body of Evidence” exists for the erotic scenes, including one on the hood of a car, and for the deadpan Madonna one-liners that owe quite a lot to Mae West. What were the deadly handcuffs doing in the house, Madonna is asked on the witness stand. “Andrew bought them for Valentine’s Day,” she says.
Throughout her career, Madonna has made noise about becoming a serious actress, and for a blip of time in 1988, when she appeared on Broadway in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” she seemed headed in that direction. She got away with a shallow performance because she was playing an apparently shallow character, but at least she was not playing Madonna.
As “Body of Evidence” suggests, though, she has never yet lost herself in a screen character. Her best movie role is still her first. In “Desperately Seeking Susan,” she erased the distance between her “fictional” persona and her “nonfictional” one, much as she does in “Body of Evidence.” But in 1985 that image was not as familiar as it is today. In fact, the movie helped establish the early lingerie-as-outerwear phase of her career.
Since then her film career has been a largely disastrous pattern of bad scripts and coy jokes. In “Shanghai Surprise” (1986), the joke was that she played against type as a missionary. Madonna did not sink this film alone; she had help from Sean Penn and the irredeemable script.
In the uneven screwball comedy “Who’s That Girl?” (1987), she seemed game but too inexperienced to pull off her role as a brassy ex-con involved with Griffin Dunne and a cougar. The heroine’s tough, platinum-haired look became the new Madonna look, too, making the distance between the movie Madonna and the nonscreen Madonna harder to believe in.
And though she dyed her hair black for her small part in last summer’s “League of Their Own,” she was still clinging to her image when she played “All-the-Way Mae,” the man-crazy member of an all-women’s baseball team.
It makes sense that she was good as Breathless Mahoney in “Dick Tracy” (1990) because the role called for the flatness and exaggeration of a cartoon character. Playing a cartoonish femme fatale, Madonna didn’t have to make another whole person believable. Of course, if Madonna were ready to become a serious actress right now, she wouldn’t have made “Body of Evidence.”
Body of Evidence (1993)
Directed by: Uli Edel
Starring: Madonna, Willem Dafoe, Joe Mantegna, Julianne Moore, Charles Hallahan, Anne Archer, Ross Huffman-Kerr, Richard Riehle, Frank Roberts, Aaron Corcoran
Screenplay by: Brad Mirman
Production Design by: Victoria Paul
Cinematography by: Douglas Milsome
Film Editing by: Thom Noble
Costume Design by: Susan Becker
Set Decoration by: Jerie Kelter
Art Direction by: Michael Rizzo
Music by: Graeme Revell
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and a scene of sexuality.
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release Date: January 15, 1993