From the very beginning of my adoration of her, I have always viewed Madonna as an actress first and a singer second. Everything about her life is drenched in performance, and every performance she has ever given is drenched in her life. The lines blur in a fascinating way that no doubt plays a role in her longevity and ability to continually evolve both creatively and commercially. In fact, it is easier for me to understand people’s complaints about her singing than it is for me to get the whole “Madonna can’t act” stigma. She has managed to continually deflect criticism of her voice, at least publicly, but she has never been able to hide her vulnerability to critics' savagery about her performances on the big screen.
This paper was written in November/December 2005, when Confessions On A Dancefloor brought about a dramatic resurgence of interest in Madonna’s music after the relative failure of American Life. I was a student at Emerson College, and this was my final assignment in an “American Independent Cinema” course with the great Rachel Thibault. The course rejuvenated my love for indie cinema at the same time that Madonna’s “Confessions” rejuvenated my love for Euro-flavored disco. And when I revisited Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game on DVD that Fall, I bridged my in-class and out-of-class identities in celebration of the most criminally underrated work in Madonna’s filmography.
I was working on this up until the literal last minute, when I ran out the door after printing it out. Thus my hand-in version was rougher, and a lot less clear, than I would ever have wanted it to be. That’s why I have trimmed and polished it a bit more than my other Emerson College compositions previously resurrected for this blog. I’m not sure how effective it is in its current form, as it is essentially a condensed chapter from a book I’ve always dreamed of writing about Madonna’s screen career. Nonetheless, I hope it makes a worthy tribute to a film that is most deserving of celebration on its 20th Anniversary.
Robert E. Jeffrey 12/13/05
It could be said that the term “independent film” is an oxymoron. For an artist to make a film, the artist must accept the fundamental, perhaps shattering truth that they cannot be the sole creator of their work. Writing and live performance are forms of expression which can theoretically be executed anywhere, by anyone, with or without assistance. Cinema, on the other hand, necessitates that the most independently functioning of artists break free from a potential mindset of creating art solely for oneself and judging art solely by one’s own standards. Filmmaking is defined by constant interactions among a wide array of individual artists coming together to birth a work that will inevitably turn out to be quite different from what any one of them might have imagined on their own. This disparity between the vision and the aptly titled “product” probably serves to explain the careers of numerous artists whose work in film rarely, if ever, fulfills their artistic potential. In the case of Madonna, the world’s most famous artist of any medium, the perennial challenge of balancing the desire to control and the need to submit has resulted in one of the most high-profile yet almost universally dismissed film careers of any actor with two decades’ worth of leading roles under her belt.
People really need to see things now more than any time before. They want to build a fantasy around you. This is the age of escapism because the world is in such horrible shape right now. They want to enjoy looking at you and have fantasies about being with you, or they are going to have fantasies about being you. I did the same thing as a child. I do the same thing even now. I think it’s really important for people to have something tangible, and if it’s good looking, and interesting, then that’s even better.
Madonna, 1984 UK Radio Interview
Madonna, 1984 UK Radio Interview
From the beginning of her career, Madonna has continually sought refuge in the world of independent film, both to sharpen her craft as an actress and to shed, reveal, and reconstruct her media persona through self-financed productions. Excluding student films and avant-garde shorts that she filmed in New York, Madonna’s career in independent film began with the 1985 Susan Seidelman screwball satire Desperately Seeking Susan and peaked with Alek Keshisian’s Truth or Dare, a rockumentary cum sociological study centered around “Madonna ‘90” and her extravagant, cinematic Blond Ambition world tour. Both films are the most critically acclaimed of Madonna’s career. The low-budget “Susan” was one of the most profitable comedies of the 1980s, and Truth or Dare went on to be “the most financially successful documentary of all time” (Rettenmund 3, 48, 179) until the unprecedented success of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 over a decade later. They are also among the most analyzed American films of the past twenty-five years among post-feminists and media scholars—and, presumably, the incoming generations of young people who have been literally “growing up with” Madonna. Independent film, however, has rarely been discussed as a key component to the success of the world’s most recognizable female entertainer. Feminism, religion, sexuality, family, power, and American social mores are frequent points of discussion (or criticism) in the endless canon of books, magazine articles, and academic essays devoted to Madonna. Yet her role as “actress” has been so universally panned that acclaim or even serious discussion of this aspect of her career is as “uncool” as it is nearly unheard of.
Since the release of the 1986 critical/commercial flop Shanghai Surprise, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of periodical space filled by scathing commentary on Madonna’s supposed inability to act, or the low grosses for most of her screen work, or pleas from film critics begging that Madonna please stop making movies. This would seem to have resulted in an inherent taboo around discussing her work on the big screen with the same level of seriousness with which one might be allowed to write about her songs, live shows, or overall cultural impact. Part of the reason for this is inevitably because Madonna continually demonstrates an ability to remain omnipotent in the media, aided by the rise of entertainment coverage in print, on television, and all over the internet. Madonna has been a perennial staple of MTV for well over twenty years thanks to distinctly cinematic music videos which have defined her public persona more than any other aspect of her work. But music videos are rarely acknowledged as screen performances. In the public eye, Madonna thrives as “international icon” and “a legendary entertainer”. This makes Madonna’s task of forging a distance between audience perception and on-screen characterization an even more difficult challenge than for most other “stars”. Nowhere else in her film career was the desire to meet this challenge as apparent as in Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes), the most emotionally challenging film of Madonna’s career—for both the actress and the audience.
Excepting his director-for-hire job helming the 1993 Body Snatchers remake, Snake Eyes (Dangerous Game’s shooting title) was Abel Ferrara’s first film after the success of Bad Lieutenant the previous year. It was also the first project to be released by Madonna’s Maverick Films production company (“Interviews: Vol. 2”), and by all accounts Madonna went into Snake Eyes with nothing short of rabid enthusiasm. In a January 1993 American press conference to promote her upcoming film Body of Evidence, Madonna admitted that, in the years since her big screen triumph as “Susan”, she had made mistakes in selecting scripts based on a desire to be a movie star. She suggested that Body of Evidence and the upcoming Snake Eyes offered more substantive characters than the roles she had played in the past, and would ideally boost her reputation as a serious actress. “I love all of [Abel’s] movies. I think he’s a brilliant director and I love his unrelenting honesty about everything. [Snake Eyes] is written by Abel and Nick St. John, and it’s a psychological drama kind of like Truffaut’s Day for night”. (“Interviews: Vol. 2”) Ahead of production, Disney president Joe Roth personally told Madonna that Snake Eyes would only further damage her screen career when he forced her to choose between filming the studio’s Angie I Says or Ferrara’s “dark” new film, both of which began shooting at the same time. Madonna was forced to turn down the title role in what would ultimately be released as Angie—a vehicle written specifically for Madonna. (“Interviews: Vol. 2”)
In Snake Eyes/Dangerous Game, Madonna plays Sarah Jennings, a successful American television star looking to be taken seriously as a screen actor by teaming up with independent film director Eddie Israel and drug-addled method actor Francis Burns in a dark Hollywood drama chronicling the final, violent night of a volatile marriage going down in flames. Harvey Keitel plays Eddie Israel, a director modeled after Abel Ferrara, and James Russo plays Francis Burns, a character possibly modeled after Madonna’s ex-husband, Sean Penn (Rettenmund 45). The film weaves surreally between the dark lives of the actors and the dark lives of their characters, drawing parallels between the drug use, infidelity, sexual dysfunction, opportunism, and “spiritual death” going on in both worlds. The film rarely adheres to a narrative: it wanders aimlessly through the most uncomfortable sides of adult life, continually reminding its audience of how different the real world is from the movies we are raised on. Throughout its disparaging, boldly anti-commercial journey into Hollywood-as-Hell, Dangerous Game retains its ability to rivet due in large part to three of the most raw, explosive performances to be captured on film in the 1990s.
Madonna, in her first and last Abel Ferrara film, shed the mannered style of Old Hollywood goddesses with whom she had aligned herself in the past and delivered the most human, fearless performance of her career. The New York Times offered that “viewers may actually need to remind themselves that they’ve seen this actress somewhere before” (Rettenmund 45). Rather than attempt to subvert the audience’s past association with the film’s leading lady, Ferrara constantly finds sly, almost cruel ways to remind everyone that that is Madonna onscreen. The character’s sense of humor, fashion, and vampiric use of people to forward her career are all traits of the media myth of Madonna, the one born of scandal sheets and tabloid columns. Here, this unflattering image is satirized with an utterly realistic performance. As the New York Press put it, “Madonna has either learned how to act or finally found a character not so different from herself…either way, she’s terrific”. Madonna agreed with the sentiment, but was so horrified by the differences between the film she thought she was making and the final cut Abel Ferrara delivered that she refused to promote the film. (Rettenmund 45)
It was an entirely different movie when I made it—it was such a great feminist statement and she was so victorious at the end. I loved this character. I thought I could take the role and do a great performance. It was going to be this great thing for me. And even though it’s a shit movie and I hate it, I am good in it. But the way Abel edited it completely changed the ending. It was like someone punched me in the stomach. If I’d have known that was the movie I was making, I would never have done it, and I was very honest with him about that.
(St. Michael 104, 105)
Since the beginning of her career, Madonna's persona in film and on television has consistently equated sexuality with power and self-assurance. But in Dangerous Game, her character of Sarah Jennings is a stereotypically whorish wannabe movie star, one with so much disdain for herself that she uses sex and a lack of empathy as a means to an end in furthering her film career. In Mother of Mirrors, the film-within-a-film, we see this young actress being beaten and raped and humiliated, sometimes in character and sometimes out. This performance is a stark contrast to the “pornography-as-power” exercise in gender reversal that had caused an uproar one year prior with the release of Madonna’s Sex book, a work that she oversaw from conception to release—unlike Snake Eyes/Dangerous Game. “I don’t have the power in the film industry that I have in the music industry. The director is the one in control, and everyone else is a pawn. [The director] can take [your] performance in the editing room and completely change the character.” (
In the years since its notoriously unsuccessful release, Dangerous Game has largely been overshadowed by Abel Ferrara’s subsequent films outside of Hollywood and Madonna’s subsequent achievements outside of film. It is scarcely touched upon in retrospectives of Madonna’s career, but Ferrara himself has no desire to mince words when it comes to Madonna. "She's a fuckin' jerk! Like we sit around taking out the best scenes in the movie to spite her. You know how paranoid you gotta be to fuckin' say something like that?" (Jones 3) Abel Ferrara’s ex-wife, Nancy Ferrara, who played the character of Eddie Israel's wife, Madlyn, recalls the vitriolic reaction Madonna gave Abel upon seeing the rough cut. Being interviewed for Andrew Morton's 2001 biography Madonna, she recalled a series of fuming fax letters that Nancy Ferrara felt revealed more about Madonna than about what was "wrong" with the film.
She was so angry about the movie. The faxes were just nasty. “You fucker, you’ve fucked my life”, that sort of thing. The whole tone was about her, “I” and “me”, “I” and “me". She looked very vulnerable and that was really pulling her apart. At the end she revealed that when she is not in control, she is not as secure or confident as she would like everyone else to think. She revealed something of her humanity. That is why she wouldn’t endorse it. It hit too close to the bone. She hit on all that emotion and couldn’t face it.”
Nancy Ferrara (Morton 257, 263)
Madonna has clearly been influenced by Hollywood legends like Bette Davis in her attempts to build a body of cinematic work as both an actress and an icon. But Madonna never worked as often before the camera as stars like Bette Davis, making movies only sporadically and rarely making two films back to back without an album or tour in between. Thus the results of Madonna’s attempts to have a great screen career have more often than not been disappointing. Madonna has never been one to shy away from this, but in the case of Dangerous Game, a tremendous work was unfairly deemed a failure by none other than Madonna herself. One might theorize that Madonna’s violent hatred for the final cut stemmed from being unable to construct her own identity within a film that was, seemingly, the antithesis of values she had come to represent. Yet her dual turn as Sarah Jennings and Sarah’s movie-within-a-movie character, Claire, oozes with the “relentless honesty” that drew Madonna to Ferrara in the first place. One cannot help but wonder why she dared not embrace a performance that was so memorably uncompromising, especially when Ferrara’s assaultive approach to cinema was what prompted Madonna to put faith in his ability to bring out the best in her.
“In an interesting artistic inversion, the perceived realism of Madonna’s documentary, Truth or Dare, merely recorded the essential artifice and staginess of her Blond Ambition tour, while in Ferrara’s movie, supposedly an exploration of make-believe, Ferrara ripped away her carefully contrived mask, the director literally wrenching a draining and difficult performance out of her. Madonna never saw it coming.”
SPOILER ALERT: Don't watch this unless you've either already seen the film....
or never intend to.
Abel Ferrara certainly did bring out the best in Madonna: she’s arguably never been better onscreen. At least as much as her Golden Globe-winning turn in 1996’s Evita, Dangerous Game is celluloid proof that a gifted actress lay within the seemingly fearless, seemingly unstoppable multimedia megastar cum superheroine known worldwide as “Madonna”. The film reveals human frailty behind the shining armor of a warrior goddess, but like a general snatching back plans before they can fall into enemy hands, Madonna was not ready to let down her guard. Perhaps, now a more evolved artist than ever, Madonna will be so willing to once again be this forthright and revealing on the big screen, as she continues to be in other mediums. Regardless, the immortality of film insures that Dangerous Game, like Desperately Seeking Susan before and Evita after, will live on as proof that “Madonna, Queen of Pop” could very well have been “Madonna, Queen of Hollywood”.
Madonna. Interviews. Baktabak Recordings. 1995.
Madonna. Interviews: Volume 2. Baktabak Recordings, 1997.
Morton, Andrew. Madonna.
York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
Rettenmund, Matthew. Encyclopedia Madonnica.
New York: St. Martin’s
St. Michael, Mick. Madonna: In Her Own Words.
Omnibus Press, 1999. Great Britain