Madonna and New York. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. As the story goes, Madonna Louise Ciccone dropped out of school at the University of Michigan, arrived in New York with $35 in her pocket, and told her cab driver to take her to the center of everything. He dropped her off in Times Square. The year was 1978 and it was love at first sight. New York quickly became her town, a place she said gave her the rush of sticking her finger "in an electric socket."
Madonna's status as a musical legend was established decades ago. She still sells out arena shows. She played the Super Bowl. She's the Queen of Pop.
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Her reputation as an actress, on the other hand—not quite so stellar. Now, a retrospective opening August 27th at the Metrograph Theater on Ludlow Street is re-examining Madge's career on the silver screen. Titled "Body of Work"—a play on Body of Evidence and a promo for the 1990 compilation "The Immaculate Collection"—the retrospective is taking on perhaps the most maligned musician-cum-movie star in recent memory. The criticism Britney and Mariah faced for Crossroads and Glitter pales in comparison to the flak Madonna got for films like 2000's The Next Best Thing or 2002's Swept Away. (Wisely, Metrograph is not showing these films).
What's distinguished Madonna, though, has been her persistence. Britney and Mariah called it quits on Hollywood after racking up the Razzies. But Madonna has kept at it, trying after each dud movie to redeem herself as an actress. She really cares about acting—on several occasions, she's said she identifies most keenly with the art form. In fact, after dancing, acting was the first art form she pursued in New York. Within a year in the city, she secured the lead role of the dominatrix Bruna in the ultra low-budget Stephen Jon Lewicki film A Certain Sacrifice.
Madonna is at her rawest and most experimental in Sacrifice, exuding the vulnerability of a time when she was still finding her footing in the city. In a handwritten letter Madonna penned to Lewicki after responding to his ad in the back of a newspaper, she admitted to a dream of hitting it big in Hollywood. "By the time I was in the fifth grade, I knew I either wanted to be a nun or a movie star," she wrote.
(The film, which won't be shown at the retrospective, came back to haunt Madonna in the mid-'80s, when Playboy and Penthouse dug up photos from her starving artist days as a nude model. Wanting to capitalize on the ensuing tabloid frenzy, Lewicki re-released A Certain Sacrifice, much to Madonna's chagrin.)
So began a lifelong quest for a woman who has always demanded total excellence of herself. That's the personality trait that made her a superstar—and it probably explains why she has tried to carry off so many starring roles in the face of near universal contempt. She's appeared in more than 20 movies, if you include cameos in films like Vision Quest, Blue in the Face, and Die Another Day.
Opinions on Madonna's acting abilities may vary, but her on-screen presence is always memorable. And for New Yorkers, or those who just love the city, Madonna's films are enriched by her love for her honorary hometown—in spite of how many times it may have done her wrong in the early days. "New York wasn't everything I thought it would be. It did not welcome me with open arms," she once remarked.
Many of the films Metrograph has selected to showcase are love letters to NYC. There's Desperately Seeking Susan, Who's That Girl, and Dangerous Game, as well as the requisite Woody Allen, Shadows and Fog.
Desperately Seeking Susan is one of the great films of 1980s New York and it capitalizes on Madonna's post-"Like A Virgin" fame. Madonna shows off her inimitable street urchin look in the film, which also features her club classic "Into the Groove." With cameos from iconic downtown club Danceteria and numerous scenes of Susan barely getting by on charm, smooth talk, and connections, the film is a perfect snapshot of a certain moment in New York. It will make any viewer a little nostalgic for the old days.
Madonna followed her role in Desperately Seeking Susan with the disastrous adventure comedy Shanghai Surprise, then sought redemption with James Foley's screwball comedy Who's That Girl. The film tanked, but it's notable for Madonna's Nikki Finn, an archetypal street-smart, audacious, and abrasive New Yorker who has no qualms about boosting a few tapes or taming a wild cougar. Who's That Girl also gave us "Who's That Girl" and "Causing A Commotion," plus an eponymous world tour.
In 1990, Madonna played one of her greatest dramatic parts—herself—in the music documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. Truth or Dare chronicles the Blond Ambition World Tour and features Madonna playing the dual role of a genuinely vulnerable artist and an over-the-top send-up of her public persona. In a memorable New York scene, Madonna and her dancers form a prayer circle backstage to honor the late Keith Haring. The show was dedicated to Haring and part of its proceeds were donated to the HIV/AIDS non-profit AmFAR. Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian will appear at select screenings at Metrograph for audience Q&A's.
The inclusion of Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog in the retrospective seems a bit of an odd choice, as Madonna's role is small, really just a cameo. (Allen is reported to have cut quite a few of Madonna's scenes from the film.) Still, M's turn as a seductive tightrope artist sets off a pivotal sequence in the film. While Madonna has an almost blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene, it's the most salacious and overtly sexual moment in the film—and perhaps in any Allen film.
A gem in the lineup at Metrograph is the 1993 Abel Ferrara flick Dangerous Game, excoriated as tasteless and offensive at the time but featuring a terrific performance from Madonna. M stars as actress Sarah Jennings, who has an affair with her director, Eddie Israel, a New York intellectual-type played by Harvey Keitel. Art begins to imitate life as the abusive relationship Jennings' movie character has with her co-star, portrayed by Jame Russo, parallels her relationship with Israel.
After Dangerous Game was crucified in the press, Madonna, with characteristic sarcasm, complained by fax to producer Joe Roth, "How foolish of me to think I had the ability to play a vulnerable character unlike anything I've done to date. I should just stay in the gutter where I belong working with low lifes like Abel Ferrara and being hated by the general public."
Ultimately, what's clear about Madonna's life on screen, through the ups and downs, is that New York was always her best co-star. And that makes sense. It's the city where she became Madonna.