A retrospective on Madonna — which ones of her movies worked and which ones didn’t

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Madonna is in the house.

The movie house, I mean. She’s directed a movie It’ called W.E. and I wish it were good. Or provocative. Or at least spicy. Or transgressive. Or any of the many Madonna-stamped attributes her Me-dia factory has been churning out for almost 30 years.

Actually, W.E. is her second directorial effort as they say. Her first, FILTH AND WISDOM, about three flatmates in London, was here and gone in less time than it took Madonna to kiss Britney Spears on nationwide TV.

Remember her documentary TRUTH OR DARE? It was Madonna’s “behind the scenes” look at her life on tour, with a drop-in by then-beau, Warren Beatty. He seemed sheepish about being her camera slave, but got in his dig when he said something like “She isn’t alive unless a camera is on.”

An earnest Kevin Costner — about to go from most beloved movie star in the world (DANCES WITH WOLVES and all those Oscars) to media punching bag (WATERWORLD) — came backstage to tell her the show was really “neat.” The minute he left, she stuck her finger down her throat and mock-gagged.

As usual, she Madonna was ahead of the curve.

Well, W.E., a thudding bore about the lives of Wallis Simpson (no relation to Jessica) and Edward 8th made me want to mock-gag. I have no idea what interested her about them…other than they spent a pretty good life not having to do anything. And she adds a parallel modern story…sorta like JULIE AND JULIA. Except, trying to re-create all of Julia Child’s recipes (plus Meryl Streep carrying ½ the movie as Julia) is a lot different from a present-day Upper east Sider slobbering over a bunch of W & E’s stuff about to be sold at auction. Does anyone REALLY want a hairbrush used by Wallis? Or Edward?

Anyway, I though I’d look back at a few of Madonna’s films…I mean the ones where she is “supposedly” playing a role and not just being herself. Though, that’s a mighty thin line. Folks like Jimmy Stewart and Marilyn Monroe made careers out of doing just that.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: My favorite Madonna movie. Directed by Penny Marshall and based on the true story of an all-girls baseball league during the 1940s it may be best known as the movie that brought Tom Hanks back from the abyss after the debacle of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. He plays the team’s sour, mangy, often dead drunk manager (he’s doing a version of Walter Matthau in BAD NEWS BEARS, but it’s a good one).

The movie itself is pretty much in a league of its own as a seriocomic tribute to some unsung heroines. Marshall and her cast load the bases with a unique blend of batter-up laughs, feminist schmaltz and smart-girl ensemble acting. It’s 1943 and those eternal boys of summer are all Over There, in Europe or the Pacific. With the stadiums as empty as the Ted when the Braves are having a bad season, a candy-bar czar comes up with a plan to make money and raise morale. That is, a league of female players who can run, hit, throw and look cute sliding into second in a short skirt.

Geena Davis plays the star-quality pitcher (she can throw a curve and HAS curves). Madonna is a wise-cracking bad-girl outfielder and she’s really a lot of fun, even if she does spend too much time buddy-ing around with Rosie O’Donnell who’s still “lovable Rosie,” with only a bit of the bulldog mean-streak showing. The film peters out with a good-hearted but not-good-movie-making final tribute to those real gals of summer (think, the end of SCHINDLER’S LIST). But overall, it’s a joy and about as audience-friendly as a movie can be.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN: Her first “real” movie, I guess you could call it. The picture opened the Atlanta Film Festival in 1985. Madonna wasn’t here, but then, she isn’t the star. She’s the Desperately-Sought Susan of the title. Rosanna Arquette, Patricia’s big, better-looking sister, plays a New Jersey Alice in a New Wave Wonderland called Manhattan’s East Village in the mid ‘80s.Addicted to the personal ads (remember them?), Arquette is intrigued by a guy who’s desperately seeking a certain Susan and decides to eavesdrop on their next rendezvous. In person. After a conk on the head, she thinks she’s Susan and plunges full-force into the let-it-all-hang-out lifestyle of her new identity.

The script has some soft spots, but director Susan Seidleman—who was in Atlanta –turns the picture into a triumph of energy, color and endearing good humor. Madonna basically plays Madonna—all slink and pout. But she’s surrounded by some of Off-Broadway’s (at the time) best. And Arquette’s sweet confusion gives the show an appealing air of jaunty geniality.

SHANGHAI SURPRISE: This is less a recommendation than a cultural curiosity. Madonna and then-hubby Sean Penn co-star. At the time, one could only hope they had better chemistry off-screen, in their marriage, than they did here. Of course, as it turns out, they didn’t…My point is, the only surprise in Shanghai Surprise is how little they bring out of each other. Set in, yes, Shanghai in the 1930s, the film casts Penn as a rumpled fortune hunter and Mrs. Penn —you-know-who—as prim missionary both on the hunt for a legendary lost cache of opium. The film is the sort of non-stop nonsense that can be kinda undemanding B-movie fun.

Remember ROMANCING THE STONE, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? But the Penns can’t work up enough of a mutual spark to set anything ablaze, least of all the limp script. She’s amazingly bland and Penn seems to be playing down to her level. A little while later, he was charged with domestic assault (the drink was the alleged culprit). They divorced in 1989.

DICK TRACY: Goodbye Sean Penn. Hello Warren Beatty. She played Breathless Mahoney to his Tracy. The movie is a comic-strip extravaganza—lovingly eccentric, superbly stylized and, in its way, highly personal. More like Robert Altman’s POPEYE than the Tim Burton BATMAN. Decked out in his trademark mellow-yellow trenchcoat and fedora, Beatty’s diligent Dick strides through a captivating gallery of human gargoyles—Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice and Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles. Glenne Headley –a wonderful and underappreciated actress; see DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS — plays Tracy’s true love, Tess Trueheart. Madonna isn’t bad, but handed a role perfectly tailored to her persona, she doesn’t do all that much with it.

EVITA: Hands down, her best move role. The one she was, perhaps, born to play, if Patti Lupone hadn’t already created it on Broadway and the part hadn’t already been offered to Meryl Streep, among others (Yes, Streep can sing, too; can’t remember why she turned it down). Anyway, Madonna ended up as Evita Perone in the world’s first music-video epic. Not only does Alan Parker (FAME, the movie) shrewdly solve the problem posed by an all-singing pop opera (there are about 4 words of dialogue in the whole thing), but he also figures out how to make it a show-stopping showcase for his star. Basically, one world-class icon meets another.

Madonna, the mastermind of modern media-driven self-promotion meets Eva Peron, the woman who rose from small-town slut to the most powerful woman in 1940s Argentina. How? By marrying President Juan Peron. Antonio Banderas, then not as well known as he would become, is marvelous as a kind of Argentine everyman named Che. So is Jonathan Pryce as El Presidente. Madonna gives less of a sustained performance than a series of MTV-buffed poses. Still, it works. And she makes it work. The movie never quite makes up its mind how we should feel about Evita, but Madonna sure knows how we should feel about her. Worshipful and then some. And we do.

That’s pure Madonna power.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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