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COMMENTARY : Madonna as Actress? The ‘Evidence’ Is In

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why isn’t Madonna a star in the movies? She’s managed to do the hoochie-koochie with practically every other form of show biz. She bestrides the pop-cult world like a colossus, albeit a colossus with nipple clamps and manacles. But Hollywood remains her Waterloo.

She must feel the heavy weight of ingratitude. After all, she has most reluctantly taken it upon herself to define sex for the ‘90s. Now, with the release of “Body of Evidence,” everyone’s badgering her about her acting .

Her detractors are missing the point. Since she is always playing a species of herself, the real question about her acting ought not to be, Is she any good? The question should be, Is she any good as Madonna ? Even in that light, her “work” in “Body of Evidence” is sub-prime.

Still, there are moments. Hemmed in by a ratings board that must have disallowed her groovier fantasias, she nevertheless manages to drip hot wax on Willem Dafoe, whose gargoyle sneer doesn’t jibe with the get-me-my-agent look in his stricken eyes. She can overenunciate a line of dialogue like “Have you ever seen animals make love?” until she sounds as portentous as Lon Chaney Jr. noting the arrival of a full moon. As an actress, Madonna is a stranger to subtext. She’s blatant or she’s nothing.

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This may explain why, in most of her movies, including large swatches of “Body of Evidence,” she’s nothing. In “A League of Their Own” she seemed to be marking time as a supporting player. Did anybody--including Madonna herself--get a tingle from “Who’s That Girl?,” where she played a loopy free spirit who disrupts a high-society marriage, or from “Shanghai Surprise,” where she’s a buttoned-up good-bad-girl missionary? Even if the scripts for these films had been better--not a tall order--they would still have been wrong for her. Who wants to see Madonna acting adorable and feisty in ‘30s retreads?

The kitschy filigree of her best music videos, like “Material Girl” and “Vogue,” which drew on everything from “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” to Visconti’s “The Damned,” emphasize what a rag-tag pop-cult concoction she really is. She’s an agglomeration of oddments from Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Judy Holliday, Betty Boop, Vampira. But the styles and moods are so promiscuously assembled that nothing carries a charge. That’s why she’s such an exportable commodity; she dejuices her role models by glamorizing whatever it was that made them special.

She’s completely unself-conscious about being self-conscious--that’s what’s so distinctive about her. Except for her first film, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” where she was essentially playing herself, Madonna’s best onscreen performance has probably been in the documentary “Truth or Dare” playing--well, herself. But the self she serves up to the camera in that film has about as much density as a hologram. She’s a true performer all right: Every wiggle and wink tells us “If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in public.”

Most movie stars remain stars only as long as they supply the same fantasies to the same audiences. If, like Sylvester Stallone or, possibly, Eddie Murphy, they can’t adapt to changing times, they’re out. Throughout movie history the essence of movie stardom has been the single, fixed persona. Madonna’s pop-cult stardom represents something new: What’s fixed about her is her changeability. She understands that the media use you up so fast that the only way to survive is to keep changing your look. This sort of thing propels literary pop cult priestesses like Camille (“Sexual Personae”) Paglia into Dionysian dithyrambs, but it’s not so mysterious, really. It’s essentially a marketing ploy. Even Madonna’s famed gender-bending is basically just another way of rejimmying her image.

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But all this changeableness works against her in the movies. She’s not enough of an actress yet to get by as a conventional performer and, with her peekaboo sexuality and omni-derivative role-playing, she can’t really be a conventional star either.

But how about an unconventional star? Whenever new stars have come along to break the mold (Dean, Brando, Stallone, Streisand, Midler), their stardom usually turns out to be all-of-a-piece with the rebellion they personify; they instinctively zone in on the Zeitgeist. Madonna’s very inauthenticity--the sense that she is always “selling” her outrages instead of experiencing them--could be what puts her over. It seems to fit with the look-but-don’t-touch ‘90s. (With Madonna, it’s never sex, it’s “sex,” or, more to the point, “Sex.”) But she needs a script and a director and co-stars with the brass and the wit to recognize how to make her pop appeal work for the movies. It’s not tremendously promising that her next tour of duty is for director Abel Ferrara, whose last film was the serioso grunge-fest “Bad Lieutenant,” which has as its centerpiece a nun who is raped on the altar. (It’s the archetypal Madonna role. No wonder she wants to work for Ferrara.) But, more promisingly, she is also reportedly talking to Pedro Almodovar, whose hot-pink universe in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” would have housed many mansions for her.

Other movie stars have seemed to “comment” on their own dramatic displays--Steve Martin and Mae West, for example. They built a recognition of the fakery of acting into their performances. But Madonna doesn’t play around with her appeal; she doesn’t often bring us in on the joke. When she does, as Breathless Mahoney in a few scenes with Warren Beatty in “Dick Tracy,” what a difference it makes in her acting! She’s best when she’s funny. (So was Monroe.)

But she still holds out the sentimental dream of actually becoming one of her camp-vamp glamour queen models--"Body of Evidence” tells us that she wants to be the Lana Turner of the MTV generation. And her special blend of steam-heat may not even be the most up-to-the-minute of temperatures: The perfumey, vacuous erotica of a movie like “The Lover” has all the art-house humidity right now. The bite-and-swoon Grand Guignol of “Dracula” mainlined Madonna’s core audience of hot-to-trot teens. Sharon Stone and Drew Barrymore, and not Madonna, are the new camp Hollywood sirens. They don’t bring as much baggage to the orgy.

Most of the current female stars, like Julia Roberts, specialize in dewy victimization, so an iron-stemmed passionflower like Madonna is always welcome in the movies--at least in theory. But Madonna could use a dollop of vulnerability. Without it she’s just too uninviting for movie audiences. And, paradoxically, too unsexy. The abandonment that goes with erotic passion isn’t a part of Madonna’s control-freak makeup. It may not be possible to be a movie star without it.


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