The Material Girl! The Ray of Light! The Rebel Heart! As MADONNA faces a special Birthday, James Murphy looks back at some of her contributions to Cinema..
What can one say about MADONNA that has not been covered everywhere else? Style innovator; inspired musician; top flight lyricist; humanitarian activist. One could go on and on. But you know the basic story and if not? Go and find out, now because it is an essential part of pop culture. What is perhaps less remarked upon, simply due to her prolific activities elsewhere, is the Madonna movie canon. And, this being MOVIE Viral (though yes we do music now too), it seemed an opportune moment to highlight Madonna moments on film.
I’ll try and avoid eulogy /hagiography/ sycophancy, as Madonna HATES that. But fair praise is just that and genius is genius. I’m concerned here not solely with her acting as cinematic legacy /impact ON film and relationship TO the art-form.
Here we GO!
MATERIAL GIRL VIDEO: Though strictly not a movie, this was a pop video made at the time the art-form was just developing. It was this sort of product that showed the dynamic emerging then between music and film promotion, whereby the best selling singles needed a strong visual aesthetic to really stand out. That same ethos would see Michael Jackson hire the likes of John Landis, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola to help with his music video production. In time, MTV and music video /adverts in general would serve as apprenticeships for the best action choreographers: David Fincher, Michael Bay, Simon West and also some distinctive voices in creation of credit sequences (Daniel Kleinman, who now handles Bond films’ opening titles). What’s particularly interesting here is Madonna’s ‘look’. To my mind it was her at the most alluringly feminine; echoing, perhaps deliberately, Marilyn Monroe. But one of the keys to an artist’s endurance is the ability to reinvent, whilst preserving some sense of individual and distinctive definition. VOGUE a few years later would also see Madonna reference Hollywood iconography on an even greater scale.
BRIDGET JONES, EDGE OF REASON: Ok I’m cheating a bit here. Madonna does not in fact ‘appear’ in this one. But it is to my mind a far nicer, better film than its predecessor though not quite as funny as its successor. Hugh Grant hilarious. Madonna trivia gets Bridget into trouble at a quiz night (‘Holiday’ as first hit?) then kinda saves Bridget from a Thai Prison c/o the song ‘Like a WERSION’.
DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN: Long before the days of wanting ‘strong women’ / ‘strong roles for girls’..here is a movie that..has strong women, in strong parts. Though there is some able male support here, most possible leading men balked at being potentially upstaged by Madonna and rightly so, because she shines onscreen here.
WHO’S THAT GIRL? Answer: MADONNA! This was a song and poster with a film attached. 80s action thriller visuals meet screwball classic Hollywood throwback. Charming stuff.
DICK TRACY: Our lovely muse not only sings here as Breathless Mahoney but holds her own acting against both Al Pacino AND Warren Beatty. Alluring, seductive, stylish, soft yet tough. And THE catchiest tunes that summer.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: A remarkably unselfish performance here, devoid of vanity. Moving without being mawkish and though it’s a sports movie it is also a human tale, that can touch anyone inspired by triumph against the odds. A period piece with timeless relevance. Signposted Tom Hanks’ then imminent rise to full star power (Sleepless in Seattle / Philadelphia came within a year and crowned him King leading man actor). A song accompanies the film: ‘This used to be my Playground‘.
BODY OF EVIDENCE: You may all loathe this. It is of course an attempt, of its time, to meet the trend of erotic thrillers in the wake of BASIC INSTINCT et al. And this is NOT Madonna at her sexiest. One very awkward sex scene features candle wax? Now quite HOW or indeed WHY anyone, even in a post 50 Shades anything goes in a consenting bedroom scenario, would find THAT sexy? Beyond me. But each to their own, in sex as in film. And as a fast, pulpy, well cast (Willem Dafoe and Julianne Moore also feature), trashy, Friday night 1990s channel 5 style /Blockbuster video rental? This was fine. And Madonna does LOOK amazing here. THAT car scene? Take out the nasty S/M stuff and you have one very warm, feminine..hang on I’ve talked more about this film than ANY of her others..sorry 😉
EVITA: This showed quite how great Madonna can be both as singer and actress, together. Immaculate fusion of potentially competing art-forms. Brings the musical to vivid, cinematic life. Once again: note the balance of strength and vulnerability, grit and beauty. I rarely watch films or theatre where the characters sing entire speeches because it feels so forced and almost comic, unless it’s an opera. But here the song feels natural and arguably works better than a purely spoken equivalent. Epic! The lady IS Eva Perón. And Alan Parker directs with his innate eye for music on film.
THE NEXT BEST THING: Progressive, radical, moving. A truly adult story that dared to treat a gay man as an equal to a straight leading lady, 20 years ahead of its time. What’s so fascinating is that the movie does not in any way shy from social /moral conflict. It is surprising and bold and therefore deserved far greater recognition than it received. The ‘gay best friend’ had been a staple of the times, when Hollywood thought that progressive. And here of course we do get that, with Rupert Everett (excellent, as always; saw his Oscar Wilde on stage a few years ago and it was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in a Theatre). The twist is that, rather than being played for comic relief, we get dramatic conflict; as Madonna and Rupert have an accidental affair, thereby leading her to have a baby, which in turn, threatens the friendship.
John Schlesinger directed the piece with singular vision and reconciles tones that would have undermined the whole in less able hands. I told him as much and he wrote a lovely letter back, thanking me. It’s apt that Madonna gives what I feel is her greatest performance on film, here. LONG before gay rights crusades were fashionable as some social/political accessory, it was Madonna that helped lead the charge of integrating ALL sexuality to mainstream popular culture. She did so with brash, brazen bravery but here we are given a glimpse of sensitivity and fragility with feminine sensuality; a raw awareness of the ticking of time and the value of friendship. Also a very natural comedy in some scenes so you will laugh as well as cry. Underrated gem; highly recommended.
DIE ANOTHER DAY: Oh how the Bond community may laugh. We are currently seeing them at both their best and worst in this Idris as 007 debate. Most of them unite in loathing 2002’s 40th anniversary celebration that proved to be Pierce Brosnan’s final turn as 007. And yes, it is a tonally muddled movie. But at its core, one sees the DNA that would become the excellence and confidence of the raw, dramatic Daniel Craig era. Bond is on his own, cast out and must acquire skills at speed to work his way back to favour. Take out the sci-fi twists and CGI parasurfing campness and one has the bare bones of a decent entry in the series that simply got bloated by trying to please everybody.
Christian Wagner’s editing gives the film visual flair and pace, coinciding with one of David Arnold’s most playful scores. So what you see is an experiment in transition and fusion of tradition to trend and innovation. Madonna gets caught in the middle of that and yet manages to be a highlight rather than drawback. As Verity, the fencing instructor that just MIGHT be a lesbian, we get a glimpse of the KIND of female cameo that Ian Fleming crafted in his novels. Bond women in the books are largely competent, classy and crafty as much as they are Damsels in distress. They rescue Bond as much as he returns the favour.
And, in one little cameo: Madonna manages to brief Bond on a baddie, introduce another leading lady and school our hero in the finer points of fencing. Short, sexy and to the point. I’d have gladly watched a whole film where Verity fences Rosamund Pike (I had, Oxford legend has it, auditioned with Ms Pike for a play on the amateur Thespian circuit once and got distracted by her beauty..but I don’t believe that..that would NEVER happen to me..right? ;)) Where was I?
Oh yes. Madonna. DIE ANOTHER DAY. I love her title song for this, too. BIT unconventional for Bond but it matches the themes /motifs /story of the opening credits and wider movie and has a fabulous beat to it. Two icons. Together. Bond and Madonna. Bring her back as a Baddie. They ARE looking at a female antagonist, I hear.. so who better, than the Queen of popular culture and personification of truly feminine power? 007 would truly have met his match were he to encounter Madonna, again.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MADONNA! Have a great day. We look forward to seeing you on film again soon. Lady Macbeth? Morgan LeFay? So many juicy, brilliant parts await!
JAMES MURPHY is Editor in Chief at MovieViral. Loves Madonna.