Fair warning intrepid Archivists – this one is adult-themed and, well, (retro)(un)sexy. Be warned.
This week we pay a visit to a lightning bolt of 80’s and 90’s love/hate iconography; that vamp and Diva, strike-a-pose devotress: Madonna. For those of us who lived through the days of trying to determine if the aluminum clad, coffee table, button-pusher “Sex” was (self)exploitation or art, we know that any and all Madonna movies are to be taken with their own particular grain of salt(iness), and this week’s Raid to the Oregon Film vaults is no exception.
(And make sure you read to the end where a film this humble intro-host worked on oh-too-many-years-ago that he felt would never be mentioned again, is not only mentioned but lauded. Who knew Last Exit to Brooklyn had fans? I guess that makes standing on the freezing streets of Red Hook before it was hip…well, now hip. Thanks for that.)
And, don’t forget, Madonna may be just-this-side of a memory with a faux-British accent these days, but Willem Defoe was just nominated for an Oscar. And, not only that, Joe Mantegna’s daughter was in town last summer shooting a series here.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
When Macbeth heard the three witches’ dismal predictions about his future, he took care of business so that he might avoid losing his head on the way to the throne, making sure that their prophecy couldn’t come true. But in the back of his mind, he always knew that something was amiss: he can never shake his “horrible imaginings” of a vague dark fate waiting him in the future, regardless of how well prepared he thinks he is. He knows something bad is coming his way. He feels it and dreads it, until the day it arrives, carrying a sword with Macbeth’s name on it.
I must confess that your humble Raider has harbored horrible imaginings of his own. I’ve lived in fear of my own dreaded vanquisher, and like Mac’s nemesis Macduff, my specter is “no man of woman born” either.
It’s a woman. Madonna, to be precise. And even more specifically, her dreaded film Body of Evidence.
Body of Evidence (or BoE, as cultists might refer to it — or they would, if there were cultists masochistic enough to revere it) has a reputation that precedes it: it’s roundly scorned as one of the worst movies of the ‘90s. It was nominated for most categories at the 14th Annual Golden Raspberry Awards in 1994, although it only “won” for Madonna’s performance as the art gallery owner-cum-Black Widow, Rebecca Carlson (in retrospect, it’s a good thing for director Uli Edel that Razzies voters hated Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena slightly more). BoE has a Rotten Tomatoes score of “8%,” with most critics finding it unintentionally funny (at best) and an unsexy chore (at worst). Worst of all, at least to me, was the suggestion that it was a bore. Fearing its reputation, I’d grab at any junky movie to watch instead of confronting its infamy, and cracking open the DVD case. But I always knew that it was out there. And I also knew that, sooner or later, Madonna would be coming for me.
And last week, she did. The DVD found its way into my player, and I finally watched it, in time for the 25th Anniversary of its release (January 15, 1993).
Was BoE worth the decades of dread; was it as bad as it was purported to be?
Let me tease you with a tiny bit of context first. Three months before BoE hit theaters, Madonna had released her notorious coffee-table soft-core picture book, Sex. While it may be hard to believe for those of you who think of Madonna as someone your grandma used to like (she’ll be turning 60 in August, to GenXer’s horror), she was once widely perceived as an avatar of postmodernity by cultural critics, and her nekkid photo sessions for Sex, which included mild S&M (by contemporary internet standard) and leather play, were thought of as provocative and challenging. (Anybody else take books like Georges-Claude Guilbert’s Madonna As Post-Modern Myth seriously in Grad School?) In other words, when BoE was hyped, audiences were led to believe that the shocking Material Girl was going to bring pop-culture sexual provocation to an entirely new level.
I let Madonna’s envelope-pushing reputation and the film’s original promotional campaign lure me into thinking that BoE might be naughty fun, even if it were a little,uh, bad. Which is why it saddens me to report that after all of the years of anticipation and dread, after all of the hype and provocations, BoE fell a little flat; not good-bad or terrible, but mostly sort of tedious.
Oh sure, there’s lots of nudity, highlighted by plenty of celebrity skin — not just the birthday suits of Madonna and co-star Willem Dafoe, but those of Julianne Moore (!) and Anne Archer (!!) too — and plenty of kinky sex (if this sentence enticed you into checking it out despite my reservations, make sure you rent the unrated version of the film for a couple of more minutes of “adult” content). Most famously, there’s the scene in which Madonna’s character introduces Dafoe’s unfaithfully married attorney, Frank Delaney, to the alternative painful-pleasures of seared flesh by dripping hot candle wax onto his chest and nether region (a game which looks pretty unfun to me, but I suspect was added to the personal repertoire of more-than-a-few ‘90s cineastes nonetheless).
The sex scenes seem mostly unpleasant to me — especially a nonconsensual episode that resolves into a consensual one, rendering the sexual politics of the movie loathsome — but de gustibus non diputandum est, and if waxy coupling sounds like a fun movie rental to you, you won’t be disappointed. Really, it’s everything else in the film that’s boring. You may need a thumb on the FF> button to zip you through the plot, which is a dry courtroom drama that offers a series of uninteresting twists on the way to finding Rebecca guilty or not guilty of “fornicating a man to death.” Does the plaintiff target old, rich dudes with weak hearts, using her body as murder weapon to score their insurance money? Or does she just prefer the company of thrill-seeking, confident men, like defense attorney Dafoe, who crave a little jolt of S&M to spice up their sex lives? If you’ve seen any film noir, you will have guessed the end of the film’s mystery pretty quickly, perhaps even by the end of this sentence.
The good news, though, is that the movie’s Oregon setting and location is largely unscathed. We see lovely postcard views of Portland’s bridges and the Pittock Mansion, a glimpse of an herb shop in Chinatown, impressive vistas of the city’s architecture through the windows of a law firm’s windows, and lovely shots of Rebecca’s spendy-looking houseboat on the Willamette (I don’t know if it’s upstream or downstream from Raquel Welch’s dumpier houseboat in Kansas City Bomber, but it’s definitely several notches above it on the economic ladder). We hear about a “mental hospital” at Mount Hood too, but don’t see it (and the dull courthouse scenes were shot in Olympia, WA, so that’s their cross to bear).
BoE does suggest, though, that behaviorally Portland might be on the cutting edge (so to speak) of sexual experimentation. Frank opines that “people here have very conservative views about sex”; as Rebecca/Madonna counters, “No they don’t. They just don’t talk about it.” Rebecca can scan a room and let her sex-radar help pick out the kinkiest people within a 20-foot radius, while later she tells the prosecuting attorney that “Portland’s a small city. I even dated a man who dated a woman who you dated” (with “dating” being a coyly loaded term for Madonna’s weaponized body maneuvers). BoE hints that there’s no shortage of weak-hearted old men with too much money in Portland; it’s probably a good thing for the city’s upper crust headcount that BoE didn’t inspire either a sequel or real-world local copycats.
Body of Evidence is ultimately a ‘90s trash flick upgraded with some top-tier dramatic talent. And Madonna too. Rent it from those lowered expectations, and you’ll get what you want, if not what you deserve; and as a cop explains near the film’s finale, “People usually get what they deserve. Except for lawyers.”
Watch: Body of Evidence was released by MGM as a 2-DVD set in 2002; the first disc is the theatrical rated-R version, and the second is the “unrated” one. I’m assuming that no one who has rented the box set has ever actually watched the theatrical version. The set is apparently a collector’s item, and is currently going for almost fifty bucks on Amazon(!). I decided to rent the movie from Movie Madness. I searched the store for a “Madonna” section, then for an Uli Edel section (Edel had directed the fantastic and acclaimed Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1989; after BoE, he was relegated to 20 years of making TV movies). No dice. I gave up my own search, and asked the woman at the counter for help. “Oh, that’s in the EROTIC THRILLER section,” she announced to the store, loudly, so that every customer there could hear. “Yep, EROTIC THRILLERS. Go to the back of the store on the right, near the SPECIAL INTEREST section and the EROTIC section, and you’ll see the EROTIC THRILLERS.” Just try to get that kind of personal treatment(/scorn) out of Netflix!
Watch: Madonna and Willem Dafoe pay homage to their roles in Body of Evidence, kind of, in the singer’s music video for “Bad Girl,” which was shot the week that the film premiered in theaters (in January 1993). There are some people who like the music video, perhaps lured by David Fincher’s “moody” direction; I think it’s hilariously bad, as sex-negative-masquerading-as-“sexy” an execution as Looking for Mr. Goodbar. It’s worth watching, though, because you’ll get to see Madonna licking her finger after spooning out a bowl of cat food and Dafoe dancing around by himself (in two unrelated scenes; importantly, Madonna uses a breath spray before kissing Dafoe later in the video, masking an unpleasantly Friskie smooch).
Visit: If all of this violent “erotica” has turned you off of carnal pleasures, perhaps you’d like to detox with a nice, clean, platonic cuddle instead. Portland’s famous Cuddle Up to Me has you covered (so to speak), with a staff of cheery, “Certified Professional Cuddlers.” Me, I find my comfort in General Tso’s Arms, I mean Wings, at the Lucky House Chinese Restaurant a couple of blocks west of the Cuddlers, but to each their own …