Madonna by Liz Smith

“DO SOMETHING else! Do my eyebrows!”

That was our girl Madonna to one of her many helpers, in one of her many tender, lovely moments, via Alek Keshishian’s 1991 documentary, “Truth or Dare.”
MADONNA was approaching the pinnacle of her career with the release of “Truth or Dare” which had followed her successful pairing with Warren Beatty in his candy-colored “Dick Tracy” and would coincide with her dazzling performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later” from Beatty’s film — one of Madonna’s most assured live performances before her industry peers. She is famously, fearfully nervous at such events. (The song would win an Oscar.)

I recall being highly amused by the contradictory tone of the “Truth or Dare” reviews — was it a concert tour (fabulous color clips from “Blond Ambition”) … was it a cinema verite peek into the “real” Madonna (filmed in grainy black and white)? Or was it simply a narcissistic exercise by a practiced, unapologetic and relentlessly hard-working, disciplined provocateur? Answer, all three! How foolish to even have the argument. “Truth or Dare” remained the highest grossing documentary ever, for over decade. It is classic and relentlessly entertaining.

NO screen actress has enraged film critics as has Madonna from the day her second movie, “Shanghai Surprise” escaped. Her feature film work — 18 movies since 1985, ranging from cameos to carrying the load — has provoked almost unrelentingly negative, furiously offended notices. What began with such promise — her juicy second lead turn in “Desperately Seeking Susan” — reached its nadir with 2002’s “Swept Away” a movie consigned to the junk heap before a single frame had been shot. Connect the words Movie and Madonna and you might as well put up a sign: “Radioactive. Stay Away. This means YOU.”

Is it fair? Can she act? Well, yes, she can. No she can’t. She can. She can’t. My sister, my daughter! Perhaps only Martians could critique this woman’s efforts. The more you know of Madonna, the less plausible she is onscreen. She’s made some mind-bendingly poor choices, given frustratingly uneven performances — stiff one minute, convincing the next. She was even sabotaged by her own body while filming “Evita.” Her pregnancy became obvious, as did her concern, which inhibited her movements. Still and all, she’s not a cinema serial killer Really.

Where did it go wrong? What led her to box-office perdition? Part of the problem was that from the start, so much was expected of her. Watching those marvelous early music videos (so emotive, so photogenic) how could Madonna not become a major screen star? Everybody, including us, said so!

Like Elvis, Madonna achieved cultural icon status in an astonishingly short period of time. One minute just was just a voluptuous ratty-haired pop singer humping the stage at the MTV Awards. Within seconds her name had entered the American lexicon, as if she had always been there.

Elvis made a lot of movies. A lot of bad movies. But unlike Madonna, he didn’t look like he cared or was trying. At least not after his Army stint. Elvis became a puffy-faced somnambulist, doing it on auto pilot.

Madonna cares. Madonna tries. Madonna is not puffy. (She discovered the gym on her way to legendary status, which has not always been a beautifying obsession. The camera is not always kind to her sinew.) The problem is, we can tell she’s trying. We see the effort. She is not a timidly bad actress. (See Mariah Carey in “Glitter.”) She has a certain brazen confidence that drives reviewers crazy, There’s no sense of “I’m trying here, please be patient.” Nope, what you get from Madonna is, “Shhhh! Quiet! I’m acting!”
Madonna doesn’t beg. “I think I am a good actress” she has said several times. And, “I AM a movie star!” (The first remark is only occasionally true, the latter not at all. It is my belief she said she was a movie star to make the top of people’s heads explode. In the literal sense, it was true. She starred in movies.)

Relaxation is her problem. The more famous she became, the further she moved from the adorably brassy, loosey-goosey performance of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I hate to encourage substance abuse, but I think Madonna should smoke a joint or have a few cocktails if she ever acts again.

HERE’s the rub. She freezes only when she is the star, the object of the audience’s undivided attention. Also, she is required to fulfill somebody else’s vision. Autonomous on the concert stage and usually right about her music, Madonna is likely too independent, too restless to conform to the tedium of filmmaking or the dictums of a director.

Go back and look at her oeuvre — and her movies, too. Richly tarty in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Bloodhounds of Broadway,” “A League of Their Own.” She’s a sizzling, double-entendre-spouting femme fatale in “Dick Tracy,” has a charmingly trashy few minutes in “Girl Six.” She is superb, emotionally naked as the insecure abused actress in Abel Ferrara’s messy “Dangerous Game.” (Her best work, really.)

In all these you want to see more of Madonna. She even has impact in her moment as the fencing instructor in “Die Another Day.” That’s the way to do it — leave ‘em begging for more, and then don’t give it to ‘em!

The real starring roles? “Who’s That Girl” … ”Shanghai Surprise” … “Body of Evidence” … ”The Next Best Thing” … ”Swept Away.” Hot and very cold in all. Here’s she good, there she’s not. Sometimes she is very good and very bad within one line reading! Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but it comes in handy when acting. Her face is expressive, her voice too often entombed and artificial. (“Who’s That Girl” might have been much better; it’s a relaxed performance. But she was allowed to broaden a Brooklyneese accent to unbearable extreme.) There are extenuating circumstances — scripts, co-stars, inept directing — in the end, however, she does not sustain her characterizations.

In “Swept Away” she is surprisingly unconvincing as the entitled rich bitch, but once on a deserted island with her revenge bent servant, she has appealing and natural moments. (M should have known the Lina Wertmuller material was not screaming for a remake. Then-hubby Guy Ritchie should have been flogged for directing — at least he could have made her look better!)

“Evita” stands alone and apart. The movie has a delirious, sometimes chilling resonance because of her. Every song seems referential to Madonna — her life, her reputation, her career, even the success of the film itself! In some ways, “Evita” is more a documentary than “Truth or Dare.” Her singing is thrilling, the best of her career. The hitch comes with her not-entirely convincing pantomime, mouthing the songs while she “acts.” Did her unexpected pregnancy exhaust her? Was she already removed from the passion of her pre-recording to summon up the proper soul for the camera? Most likely it was simply her old inability to relax and allow the camera to find her, consume her.

Madonna redeems herself in the movie’s final scenes, confronting her fatal illness, the last balcony song, the deathbed. All were shot live, and deeply affecting.

“Evita” made some money. She took a Golden Globe and might have nabbed an Oscar nomination had hubris not reared its bleached head — she declared her work was good enough for that nomination. Screwed herself big-time.

MADONNA has been pretty much “voted off the island” (even directorial efforts such as “W.E.” suffer her reputation in advance.)

I’d like to see her swim back. With one realization — she is not a leading lady. The empress has acting clothes, and they are well-made. But not couture.

Madonna can be the gal next door, the sister, the friend, the shady lady down the hall, the incidental villainess, strung out junkie, pallid spinster. Offer her a hot 25 minutes spread out through a movie and watch people sit up and take notice. Give her a director with taste, patience and guts — “relax, for God’s sake!” — five pages of great dialogue, a voice coach and drop her (quietly) into a good indie, From such efforts Best Supporting nomination could be born. (She has shown herself willing to take small roles, in “interesting” movies.)

I think she’ll try again at some point. Her work ethic, ambition and diligence wants that approbation.

To complete this race, however, she’ll have to take a road less traveled and carry a dimmer torch.

As the lady herself said in the middle of her “Sooner or Later” Oscar performance: “A girl can get awfully … awful, up here in the spotlight.”

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