Trigger warnings abound…
1993 was a busy year for Madonna. She released Body of Evidence early in the year, but she also created Maverick Films in order to have even more control over her films. The first film released under Maverick was not Body of Evidence, but was Abel Ferrera’s Dangerous Game, a take on the 8 1/2 formula where a director is making a movie, and the process both informs and is informed by his personal life. The movie at the center of Dangerous Game is a drug-addled guy who can’t control his vices is in an abusive relationship with his wife and they have a destructive breakdown. Madonna plays the actress who also plays the wife.
In February, Madonna released the music video for Bad Girl, which combined her look from Body of Evidence with a story gleaned from Dangerous Game. Directed by David Fincher, Madonna plays a depressed, boozing, smoking executive who sleeps with random guys. She’s looked over by her guardian angel, but doesn’t hit bottom. She keeps sleeping around, and losing herself until Walken gives her the kiss of death and her final trick strangles her with her pantyhose.
In the comment section of Body of Evidence, we discussed the regressive sexuality on display. Madonna uses sex to manipulate men. For all the kink and woman power that’s on display, female sexuality is still repressed. Anne Archer’s sexuality is used against her (she’s in love with the dead guy), Madonna is murdered, and Julianne Moore is still tied to Willem Dafoe’s lawyer. Of course, Madonna’s death feels like a pre-MPAA finale where the villain of the movie is rightfully punished for killing somebody, yet it feels totally out of place with the rest of the movie.
In Bad Girl, Madonna’s sex negativity is back on display. Here, she’s acknowledging that not all sexuality is healthy, and in fact can be quite self-destructive. Madonna’s rampant sexuality destroys her soul and ultimately is the death of her. The self-destruction on display in Bad Girl mirrors the self-destruction of Dangerous Game, except, in Bad Girl, Madonna is self-destructing, where is in Dangerous Game, it’s Madonna’s character’s husband who is destructing and taking Madonna with him.
Compared to the joyousness of Erotica, Fever, and Deeper and Deeper, and even The Girly Show tour, Dangerous Game and Bad Girl presented a negative side to sex. It’s hard to deny that Madonna was being sex positive throughout this era, but her statement wasn’t pure positivity. Madonna was addressing the complications of sex, even if she was shouting over herself with her nudity.
At the time, neither this movie nor the song made an impression on me. But, Bad Girl is one of my favorite songs by Madonna, especially of her non-dance portions. It’s sad and wistful, about the loneliness and depression that happens after a breakup. Few songs have captured the self-destruction that can happen after a devastating breakup.
Dangerous Game really didn’t make an impression on anybody. Madonna had been hurt by the reviews of Body of Evidence, where she was rightfully eviscerated in the press. This time around, Madonna owned the production company, and buried Dangerous Game before it even came out. The movie was reviewed in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice, but failed to make even $30k in its box office. It kind of died on VHS, and there hasn’t really been a cult that developed around this movie.
By the time I caught up with the movie, I was well into my Madonna as actress obsession. I had a leery eye toward Abel Ferrara as I didn’t particularly care for Bad Lieutenant (I still think its one of Ferrara’s lesser films), and couldn’t watch Ms. 45 due to an atrocious transfer on VHS (and I mean ATROCIOUS…they should be ashamed). I was kind of flummoxed by Dangerous Game, and it’s one of the most fascinating movies Madonna has been involved in. If not the best, it is certainly the most intentionally artsy and high concept.
Madonna as Sarah Jennings in Dangerous Game
The main character of Dangerous Game is Harvey Keitel’s Eddie Israel. Eddie is a relatively influential Hollywood director living in New York. He’s married with a kid, whom he leaves to film a new movie in LA. The new movie is about the destruction of a marriage where Frank Burns (James Russo) plays a guy self-destructing on drugs and alcohol. Burns’ character is married. He and his wife had been a drinking and drugging couple who also had sex with multiple partners. When the husband self-destructs, he pulls his wife down with him.
Sarah Jennings is the actress who plays the wife in the movie within the movie. Since Dangerous Game plays both sides of the story, Madonna has to play both sides of the role, as actress and as the actress playing the role. The screenplay forces Madonna to be two people, and it actually pays off. Neither of the characters have much emotional range, but putting them together gives Madonna a chance to act.
Even though Ferrara introduces us to Sarah Jennings through a screen test, I think to better understand Madonna’s range we should start by looking at Madonna as Sarah Jennings the Hollywood starlet. The first time we see Madonna off the set, it’s at a dinner with Eddie Israel and a bunch of execs where she’s telling terrible jokes very flatly to the semi-amusement of everybody at the table.
The sheer flatness of the scene plays like an indictment of the surface fakeness that Hollywood delivers on a daily basis. It feels almost like Ferrara is commenting directly on Madonna and the act that she, as well as many others, may give when she’s at a business meeting. Madonna, in turn, is happy to play along by giving an extremely naturalistic performance of acting fake for the benefit of her career, something which probably comes naturally to all power players in Hollywood.
This contrasts with the complicated character that Ferrara introduces us to earlier in the film. During the screen testings, Sarah Jennings has to act out an early screen with Frank Burns, where he verbally abuses her. But, then Madonna, as Sarah Jennings, has to act out what she sees in the character.
The juxtaposition of role and actress plays out constantly through Dangerous Game, as Ferrara constantly plays with the metatext. He’ll have an emotionally difficult scene play out right before we see the actors retreat into their fake Hollywood personas in order to shield themselves from the emotionally difficult material they are frequently having to engage with. Madonna actually holds her own, playing the naturalistic parts with ease, and the emotionally distraught parts with hard-fought rawness.
In an extended sequence I’m choosing not to include, the wife is raped by her husband in the film. Its a shocking moment that is as earned or unearned as any of the other moments of the movie within a movie. But, when Eddie yells cut, Sarah Jennings has a fit at Burns, asking him why he has to go method with everything, saying that he can’t play drunk without drinking, insinuating that he can’t play a rapist husband without fucking. After the on-set fireworks dies down, Sarah tells an intimate story of her first molestation/rape. Madonna goes for broke. She gives herself to this part and it pays off.
Her rawness is aided by the director who constantly demands more from her. In this scene, the wife is being threatened with death by the husband, and Madonna is having a breakdown herself. At first, she doesn’t give everything she can, but she’s abused into it by Eddie Israel. Both of whom are probably getting badgered by Abel Ferrara. It’s one of my favorite meta scenes.
Still, Madonna’s fakeness off screen is never questioned. Even when she’s sleeping with Eddie Israel, she’s still putting on a persona. In this earlier scene, she never breaks her frame, and she keeps a wall up around her off-screen persona.
Is Dangerous Game a successful movie? It depends. It’s a fascinating movie, but it seems muddled in what it is trying to say. But, we’re not here to judge the movie, but to judge Madonna. And, Madonna actually does well here. She has range, depth, and cracks the surface that she was never actually able to crack, even in her comic relief moments. This is the one dramatic movie where she’s completely successful. And, it’s one that few people ever actually see.
Good Actress – Average Actress – Bad Actress: 5 – 1 – 4