In Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna’s introduction comes in the first 3 minutes of the film; she is seen taking a selfie with a Polaroid, laying on the carpet of the hotel floor, surrounded by cards, while Urgent by Junior Walker is playing. The easiness of her charisma exudes throughout that scene. Until the film ends, all that I can think of is her, and how her presence is so palpable, you would feel the sharpness of what she is. That feeling tells me a lot, yet not so, about the woman I am about to see; be it in the film itself or in her consistent career.
First, a little background about Madonna. She used to be a dancer and even received a scholarship for it in Michigan, where she was born and raised. However, she decided to drop out of college and later moved to New York. Working as a waitress and dancing backup for Patrick Fernandez, however, didn’t feel right for her. She wanted to be more. So she decided to go on a solo act by the name given to her – Madonna.
Madonna is best described as an enigma. She is the ultimate icon, consists of all the great flairs of what makes a star, a star. She has that certain je ne sais quoi quality about her that makes her the epitome of the 1980s aesthetic that everyone strives for. Being the multifaceted woman that she is, we should all thank her for her role in the creation of the pop culture canon that we all know now. Dabbling in music, film, activism, lifestyle (Hard Candy Fitness or MDNA Skin anyone?), and anything else you could ever think of cannot be easy. If we set aside all the controversy that she is a master of, Madonna’s appeal as a star is broad, encompassing generation after generation, and leaving each of them a legacy of the Madonna of their own time.
Having said that, her legendary stride doesn’t really translate into a steady film career. She started off just a cameo and then a super low-budget film, and was only known as the rising pop star with hits that stick like grits. It wasn’t until early 1985 that she knocked on the audition room door for one little film called Desperately Seeking Susan.
Director Susan Seidelman reminisces the first time she saw Madonna, thinking that she was ‘special’. When she propositioned this to the producers, they told her to audition Madonna first. The result of this process is finite. They shot the film for more than nine weeks, and by the time the film finished shooting, Like a Virgin had just released, featuring songs that we all know – Material Girl, Like a Virgin, Dress You Up, and from the soundtrack of the film itself, Into the Groove. By then, Madonna was helping to shape 1980s pop culture, having a cult hit of a film in her grasp as well as the deservedly earned international accolades of the aforementioned album.
The thing about Madonna is that she is a person of many bewildering qualities, but never quite the virtuoso in playing another role that requires normalcy. We can see this in Susan or A League of Their Own, both different films about different stories, one about New York and female fascination and the other about a women’s baseball league in the 1950’s, and she has played a woman so brash, so fearless and fierce with thick Long Island accent. Which one is which? We don’t really care, as we just want to see her prosper on the silver screen. Because of roles like this – roles that aren’t far removed from her persona as well as people’s understanding of her, people think of her as a terrible actress.
Evita is by far the greatest achievement of her film career. Alan Parker, the director of the film, revealed that Madonna had sent her a handwritten, four-page letter explaining that she is the best woman to play the titular role, and how she was willing to work hard on singing, acting, and dancing just so she could be in the film. She even gave him a copy of the video for Take a Bow as her ‘audition‘. Upon hearing the news, Andrew Lloyd Webber thought this was ‘intelligent’ but still worried about her singing, which made her go into intensive vocal training in order to prepare for the film. In the end, it worked. She went on to win awards for the iconic role of Eva Perón. Not only that, she’s also the one person who got through to the President of Argentina, encouraging him to grant permission for the film crews to shoot on Eva Perón’s famous balcony in the Plaza De Mayo. When asked by Roger Ebert, she simply said, “I think it was [my] excellent-smelling perfume.”
But for me, her cinematic legacy will always be Madonna: Truth or Dare, also known as In Bed With Madonna outside of North America – a much better title anyway, more intimate, salacious, and delicious. The film takes place during her 1990 Blonde Ambition World Tour. Styled in black and white, she bares it all like we expect her to in the beginning. I remember watching this in utter disbelief at how frank and truthful she was, but also in awe of her humour as well. There are numerous iconic moments that she has displayed here. My favourites are her rant about how celebrities assume friendships, followed by a dig at Kevin Costner, and this scene of her in the game of truth or dare (hence the title) with her dancers. Just watch it.
In the end, I would say this is her greatest performance. This is the performance that defines Madonna in the canon of cinema, by performing far beyond the extension of herself. She performs a heightened version of herself that has been illuminated and influenced by fame. Madonna demands a certain impact that only she can possess. In the prime of her career, she deserved to be documented in the most abrasive, bitchy, and real way possible. But she is also drunk from the need to be desired, to be admired, to be loved. Her sensitivity is obvious and we can see it clearly in this film, especially near the ending.
There are many of Madonna’s monumental roles and contributions in cinema where we can dissect the impact of Madonna. From Dick Tracy and her critically acclaimed Oscar performance, to Die Another Day and the unconventional soundtrack, all the way to the most Razzie-winning actress. We can also talk about her career as a film director. Or maybe we could talk about her television interview with Agnès Varda back in 1993 about her dream of remaking Cléo from 5 to 7.
Eventually, we couldn’t. The writing stops here, and so ends my explanation of why she is an interesting figure in cinema. While writing this, I even made a playlist containing some of my favorite songs of Madonna in order to relive my love for her. I only find myself to be even more in awe and in love with her. For all I know, there will always be her music, her poise, and her perseverance going through this world, and that will always inspire me.