In honor of Francis Ford Coppola's reportedly less-than-triumphant return to filmmaking (Youth Without Youth, due out in mid-December), I was going to write about One From The Heart today, but since this is shaping up to be sex week here at Ye Olde A.V. Club, I figured shee-it, if this gonna be that kind of party, I'm gonna stick my dick in the mashed potatoes. Alas, that would be both impractical and unsanitary, so I am instead going to engage in the literary equivalent of sticking my dick in the mashed potatoes: writing about 1993's Body Of Evidence for the first and last entry in Madonna day here at My Year Of Flops.
It's a film that combined something audiences have historically always responded positively to (Madonna being titillating, sexually provocative, and nekkid) with something audiences have historically never responded positively to (Madonna starring in a film). It sure can seem like Madonna appears in nothing but flops. But she's actually racked up a few modest hits: Desperately Seeking Susan, A League Of Her Own, and Dick Tracy. Alas, those films are generally considered successful films in which Madonna just happened to appear while her ginormous bombs Swept Away, Shanghai Surprise, and Who's That Girl? are all considered Madonna movies.
In Jose Canseco's autobiography, Juiced, he writes that Madonna pursued him relentlessly during his baseball heyday, but that he refused to have sex with her because he didn't find her attractive enough. This struck me as ridiculous. In what universe is Madonna fatally under-qualified to give Jose Canseco a handjob?
Yet there's nothing particularly natural about Madonna's sex appeal. It's largely a matter of attitude and lighting, iconography and shrewd calculation, exhibitionism, and a finely honed gift for provocation. It's telling that many of Madonna's most fruitful artistic collaborations are with photographers and music video directors. Depending on the angle and the outfit, Madonna can look like Marilyn Monroe reborn or the boogeyman's grandma.
In Body Of Evidence, Madonna's costume designers shoot for Old Hollywood glamour, but dead end at dowdy and unflattering. Naked, Madonna is so flawless and creepily synthetic that she looks like a sentient sex doll and while it may sound unseemly to dwell on Madonna's appearance, Body Of Evidence plot turns on Madonna's sexual desirability. Even the title is a panting double entendre about Madonna's character.
It's never an encouraging sign when a film repeatedly has to broadcast how sexually desirable its femme fatale is. That should be evident in the way she walks, in the sway of her hips, and in a flirtatious glance, not in stiffly recited dialogue. Yet early in Evidence, opposing lawyers Willem Dafoe and Joe Mantegna both feel the need to assert Madonna's attractiveness before the jury.
"[Madonna's character] is a beautiful woman. But when the trial is over you will see her no differently than a gun or a knife. Or any other instrument used as a weapon. She is a killer and the worst kind–a killer who disguised herself as a loving partner," Mantegna thunders to the jury. Now, far be it from me to challenge the veracity of anything said by a character played by Joe Mantegna, but I would argue that the worst kind of killer is one who wears a necklace made out of puppy skulls and a rain poncho made out of the stitched-together torsos of murdered kittens. That, to me, is worse than a killer disguising herself as a loving partner.
Madonna, you see, is accused of killing a wealthy lover with a bum ticker and an appetite for light bondage through Awesome Erotic Over-Stimulation. Yes, it's murder by sex as Mantegna tries to convince a jury that Madonna fucked her elderly lover to death (no, not Warren Beatty) by willingly inducing a fatal heart attack during kinky, drug-fueled sex.
Half moribund courtroom thriller, half erotic thriller (that dim-witted stripper cousin of the nobly sleazy film noir), Evidence alternates between florid scenes of sex-saturated courtroom shenanigans and endless, graphic sex scenes in which Madonna introduces Dafoe to the joys of public handjobs in crowded public elevators, rough sex atop broken glass on the hood of a car in a parking garage, candle wax, champagne, and masturbation/bondage.
Alas, by the time Evidence flopped in theaters, Madonna nudity was a wildly degraded commodity due to overexposure. Evidence tries to one-up Basic Instinct through the sheer quantity and length of its sex scenes, but it backfires. I never thought I would ever think this, especially in my hormone-crazed adolescence, but deep into the film I found myself getting bored looking at Madonna's naked breasts.
Sexsploitation movies like Body Of Evidence fail at the box office in no small part because people enjoy masturbating in the comfort and privacy of their own home. How successful would even the funniest comedy be if audiences were legally forbidden from laughing in public? Would you want to pluck down ten bucks to see the new Judd Apatow laugher if there were a chance you'd be arrested, hauled off to jail, and publicly humiliated for shamelessly pleasuring your funny bone in full view of the general public? That's not such a problem if a dirty movie has artistic aims or social relevance, but Evidence is clearly intended as masturbation fodder first and entertainment a distant second.
With Evidence, Madonna finally encountered the limits of her sex appeal. I imagine investors panting deliriously at the box-office potential of a sex-filled Basic Instinct knock-off whose murder weapon and villain was Madonna's fantabulous body of joy, but Madonna just doesn't hack it as femme fatale. Forget Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth: she's not going to make anyone forget Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction. She's sub-Jade, dammit. Yes, I went there.
Though it'd be nice to report that Dafoe elevates the whole sordid enterprise with a transcendent, uncompromising performance, the truth is he sinks to the level of the material and wallows in filth. He's not the only one prostituting his gifts for a paycheck. If nothing else, Body Of Evidence serves as an indelible document of the time Julianne Moore was just the other naked woman in that terrible Madonna movie.
Then again here's some of the dialogue cast-members Mantegna, Dafoe, Moore, and Frank Langella have to deliver: "It's not a crime to be a great lay." "Have you ever seen animals make love, Frank? It's intense. It's violent, but they never really hurt each other." "We're not animals." "Yes, we are." "I wanted to keep my job. That didn't involve telling him his girlfriend was a cokehead slut." "She said she was going to fuck me like I'd never been fucked before." "She started masturbating and telling me how much she wanted me inside her." "Frank, take the last donut."
For some reason that last line, delivered by Mantegna to Dafoe while pointing to the last donut, made me laugh out loud. The two lines before it, meanwhile, inspire gasps of shock and horror from a very easily shocked and horrified courtroom audience when Langella delivers them in court as examples of Madonna's pillow talk. Christ, even the extras overact here. Apparently folks in Oregon, where this takes place, prefer sex-talk along the lines of "Let us have missionary sex with the lights off, Dearest Wife, and then only for the purpose of procreation so we can have additional help harvesting come fall."
Like the mutant offspring of Cinemax After Dark and Court TV, Evidence alternates artlessly between legal pulp and soft-core porn until a big shocking final twist reveals that Madonna's strangely robotic sexual con artist is, in fact, the evil, duplicitous villain she appeared to be all along. Cue Madonna's violent death by gunfire and roll credits.
With Evidence, one of the world's preeminent sex symbols bombed spectacularly as a screen vixen. Then again, I'm not entirely convinced that Madonna wasn't somehow willed into existence some time in the late '70s by Camile Paglia. It's as if Paglia was sitting around one day and thought "Wow, if only there was one virgin-whore-bitch-goddess-sinner-saint-icon-God who could embody every pretentious idea I've ever had. Then I'd be set." Bam! Suddenly a full-grown Madonna would materialize out of thin air and masturbate with a big black crucifix while dressed as Elvis.
Maybe they can include this film in a Paglia-taught class on, I dunno, Madonna, Androgyny, Gender Subversion, and Sado-Masochism in Popular Culture As a Form of Social Protest as part of an elective credit devoted to colossal wastes of everyone's time.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure