Why Madonna’s Film Roles Are Redeeming From a Feminist Standpoint

Madonna is not known for being a great actress–or even being an actress at all. The most people will ever give to her is Desperately Seeking Susan, Truth or Dare and Evita. Other than these three classics, very few are willing to acknowledge other of Madonna’s more panned roles, including Nikki Finn in Who’s That Girl, Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy and Mae Mordabito in A League of Their Own. What all of her roles have in common is a strong sense of female empowerment and playing by one’s own rules.

As screwball gamine Nikki Finn in James Foley's Who's That Girl
As screwball gamine Nikki Finn in James Foley’s Who’s That Girl
Even before she became famous as a singer, Madonna was determined to hone her acting skills, and auditioned for a part in Stephen Lewicki’s low-buget movie, A Certain Sacrifice. In it, Madonna plays Bruna, a dominatrix living on the Lower East Side with three sex slaves. When she tries to break up with them, they immediately attack her. However, Bruna ends up enlisting them to help her exact revenge on a man named Raymond who rapes her in a coffee shop. The story culminates with Madonna rubbing Raymond’s blood all over her. If that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is. Then again, it’s like Bruna says, “We’re living in a vacuum of dominance and submission.” One minute the woman’s on top, but the next she takes another tumble.
Madonna as the sensual dominatrix Bruna in A Certain Sacrifice
Madonna as the sensual dominatrix Bruna in A Certain Sacrifice
Her most well-received role as Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan is another prime example of Madonna acting as a woman who simply doesn’t give a fuck about catering to a fling’s needs. She leaves whenever she feels like it and can’t be bothered to be tied down by emotions. Even her next major role as a missionary named Gloria Tatlock in Shanghai Surprise was able to showcase a predilection toward female liberation with her effortless seduction of Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn, her husband at the time). In spite of the continued criticism of her acting abilities in Who’s That Girl, Madonna plays the screwball gamine to perfection, combining elements of Carole Lombard and Audrey Hepburn all at once–but perhaps it was a combination the world wasn’t ready for.
Madonna failed to gain attention as nightclub singer Hortense Hathaway in the ensemble film, Bloodhounds of Broadway, which came out in 1989. In between Who’s That Girl and Bloodhounds of Broadway, she also starred in the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow as Karen, the manipulative secretary of a Hollywood producer–again exhibiting that women can be just as cutthroat as men.
Madonna with her fellow cast members in 1988's Speed-the-Plow
Madonna with her fellow cast members in 1988’s Speed-the-Plow
The 90s saw several highs and lows in the public perception of Madonna as an actress. Although her role as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy generated many successful tie-in projects, including the album, I’m Breathless, which featured “Vogue,” the movie seemed to attract little in the way of recognition for Madonna’s acting talents. Plus there was the whole gossip mongering aspect about how she only slept with Warren Beatty to get the part. Following Dick Tracy was the widely acclaimed documentary about her Blond Ambition Tour, Truth or Dare. Equal parts real and manufactured in terms of what Madonna wanted you to believe about her at that point in her life, the movie is always entertaining because she remains consistently in the character of her pop star persona. And she doesn’t take shit from anyone, not even her dad.
As Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy
As Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy
After Truth or Dare, Madonna’s movie roles were mostly deemed throwaway ones by critics and audiences alike. Though, of course, there was the 1992 feel-good comedy of the summer, A League of Their Own, to sustain her in the eyes of some. As cheeky, unapologetic Mae Mordabito, Madonna also got to enjoy her friendship dynamic with co-star Rosie O’Donnell (another mark of feminism).
Madonna as tough-as-nails Mae Mordabito and best friend, Doris Murphy (O'Donnell)
Madonna as tough-as-nails Mae Mordabito and best friend, Doris Murphy (O’Donnell)
During her sexually charged period in the early 90s, Madonna starred in the erotic thriller, Body of Evidence, with Willem Dafoe. Because the 90s seemed to be such a specific time for this genre (see: 9 1/2 Weeks), perhaps director Uli Eidel thought that the philosophical question “Is a body a weapon?” would be taken seriously by audiences. Nonetheless, Madonna owns her sexuality as a candle wax-dripping sex kitten. She persisted in more independent dramas with the film that followed, Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, also starring Harvey Keitel. Perhaps mirroring the grittiness of her own love life during this era (she had recently broken up with Vanilla Ice, after all, and then started dating her bodyguard, Jimmy Albright), Dangerous Game is audaciously cynical, highlighting the mirrored plotline of a deteriorating marriage, with Madonna in the part of Hollywood actress Sarah Jennings.
Madonna as actress Sarah Jennings in Dangerous Game
Madonna as actress Sarah Jennings in Dangerous Game
For most of the mid-90s, Madonna acted in bit parts, though still maintained her aura of misandry in movies like Four Rooms, in which she played Elspeth, a domineering member of a lesbianic coven, and “Boss #3,” the owner of a phone sex company in Spike Lee’s under rated Girl 6. It wasn’t until 1996’s Evita that Madonna redeemed herself by re-creating the forceful, enchanting persona of Eva Peron, the wife of Argentinian demagogue Juan Peron. She won a Golden Globe for her performance, in addition to changing the entire style of her voice in order to sing on the soundtrack. It seemed almost as though she was going to have a film career Renaissance. Then came John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing four years later, solidifying critic and audience apathy toward Madonna. But still, only a feminist would have a child with her gay best friend, so at least she attempted to lay the groundwork for an alternative family lifestyle.
Madonna as Abbie Reynolds, a yoga teacher living in L.A., and Rupert Everett as her best friend, Robert Whittaker
Madonna as Abbie Reynolds, a yoga teacher living in L.A., and Rupert Everett as her best friend, Robert Whittaker
Her final narrative film in a lead role was Swept Away in 2002, a project that may have put a permanent nail in her coffin, in spite of the fact that it was one of her best–and even one of the best movies of 2002. Directed by then husband Guy Ritchie, Madonna imbues her character, Amber Leighton, with the authenticity of a castrating socialite as no one else could. Luckily, she returned to a role she knew everyone would appreciate in 2005 with the documentary I’m Going To Tell You A Secret, which followed her 2004 Re-Invention Tour.
Behind the scenes footage of Madonna going onstage to sing the opening song for the Re-Invention Tour, "Vogue," in I'm Going To Tell You A Secret
Behind the scenes footage of Madonna going onstage to sing the opening song for the Re-Invention Tour, “Vogue,” in I’m Going To Tell You A Secret
After 2005, Madonna put acting on the back burner in favor of directing. Her debut, Filth and Wisdom, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and starred Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz. The same year, she released a documentary called I Am Because We Are, detailing the conditions in Malawi. In 2011, Madonna unsurprisingly chose a strong-willed female as her subject for the movie, W.E. Telling the love story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy), Madonna contrasts it against the modern unraveling of a marriage between Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a woman who has yet to discover her own strength, and her abusive husband.
In the role of director
In the role of director
Whether or not Madonna will ever feel less gun-shy/camera-shy about taking on a starring role again remains to be seen. But if she does, you can rest assured it will inevitably be a take no prisoners sort of woman (or maybe even man. Gender-bending is another forte of hers).

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