Since leaving Sean Penn in January 1989, Madonna had started another high profile relationship with Warren Beatty. Rumors of whether it started on set or during the production of Dick Tracy surrounded the movie, and were a big tabloid headline throughout 1990. Regardless of whenever they started, because of the relationship with Warren Beatty, Madonna worked for wage on Dick Tracy.
Madonna’s usual corresponding album with Dick Tracy was I’m Breathless, the Dick Tracy soundtrack, which featured “music from and inspired by.” The songs from Dick Tracy were written by Stephen Sondheim, and they have an vintage vibe with a Broadway sensibility. Sooner or Later would earn Sondheim an Oscar for best original song. But, the real gem on the soundtrack is Vogue, which doesn’t appear anywhere in the film.
Vogue is the final video created with Madonna’s Classically Classy persona. It captures everything Madonna had been building in this persona since the rainforest sequence in Who’s That Girl? 3 years prior. David Fincher shot Madonna in a sleek black and white, and filled the video with modern versions of old Hollywood glamour. Fincher’s visual styling in Vogue is reminiscent of old magazine photo shoots, and Madonna frequently captures the essence of what made the Old Hollywood goddesses glamorous. Madonna would expand the Classic Madonna persona with her MTV VMA performance of Vogue, in which she put on a show using the 18th century stylings of Marie Antoinette, embracing the mix of fashion and power that Antoinette held.
Vogue, itself, was inspired by the New York gay phenomenon of voguing in the ball scene, as would be captured in the phenomenal documentary Paris is Burning. The ball scene is about poor disenfranchised homosexuals, mainly of color, dressing up as something they’re not. Whether that’s being an intellectual, a rich person, a jock, a drag queen, a butch, or any other stereotype, drag balls embraced reaching for the maximum portrayal of your favorite stereotype. Madonna was the queen of reinvention and seemed to favor posing as different personas in her various performances, so it seems natural that she would be most inspired by this phenomenon.
Vogue is simultaneously out of place on and an explosive finale to I’m Breathless. All of the songs before Vogue have a strict Broadway adherence to the vintage style, but Vogue is straight up one of the best dance songs of 1990. Although Vogue is full on synthesizer compared to the band and instruments of Sondheim, the clean sound and the extremely enunciated “rap” section keep Vogue from being completely disparate.
The Old Hollywood Madonna image combined with the affair with Warren Beatty to create Dick Tracy‘s Breathless Mahoney, a slinky noir performer in a comic book noir movie about 1920s crime syndicates. Dick Tracy was a neo-noir that got crossed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Tim Burton’s Batman. Beatty, who had been working on the film since the 1970s, fills a traditionally black and white noir frame with fully saturated primary colors to create a visual mise-en-scene that’s almost a Sin City dry run. Breathless represents that noir femme fatale who maneuvers her way through a man’s world while playing with the expectations of femininity.
I saw Dick Tracy in theaters, and promptly gave it a “meh” as a kid. I didn’t care much about it, and I didn’t have the frame of reference to appreciate it. I liked Batman and Roger Rabbit?, but they were the only noir exposures I had received up until that point. I wasn’t a big fan of the detective milieu, so Dick Tracy never really registered with me.
However, this was about the time I was beginning to notice Madonna. Vogue was all over MTV, and this was the year I was starting to watch that and VH1. I loved Vogue. Vogue was the first Madonna song I truly loved. I still think it’s Madonna’s single best track.
While writing the Bloodhounds of Broadway article, I learned that Vogue was actually on I’m Breathless and not Like a Prayer, as I had been thinking of using Vogue last week. Vogue was originally created to be a B-side for the last single from Like a Prayer, and ended up being great enough to be put on the I’m Breathless album. Since the album I normally play is The Immaculate Collection, which is chronological, it always came just after the perpetually skipped Cherish, and I completely forgot about I’m Breathless.
While watching Dick Tracy for the first time in ages, I realized just how amazingly strange the film is. Right from the beginning, the first villains to die have the weirdest plastic heads and faces. This is a carry over from the comic books, but the strangeness doesn’t stop. Warren Beatty was on a full-on bent when he created Dick Tracy, and the visual intensity is matched only by the strangeness of the script. Needless to say, I really REALLY enjoyed the hell out of it.
Madonna as Breathless Mahoney
In Dick Tracy, Madonna seems to have finally learned what being a movie actress is all about. Madonna is back to being straight-up Madonna playing Breathless Mahoney. It also helps that Warren Beatty was an established actor and Dick Tracy was his third movie (after Reds and Heaven Can Wait). I suspect the primary reason Madonna is actually good in Dick Tracy is that she was sleeping with the director, and, thus, was actually willing to be subservient to the director.
There is one main character in Dick Tracy, and that’s Dick Tracy. Warren Beatty made this movie as a vehicle for Warren Beatty. Dick Tracy is the title of the film, and he drives the movie. All other characters are practically tertiary to Dick Tracy and Beatty’s ego. There are no real co-stars in Dick Tracy, as even Al Pacino, as this week’s crime boss Big Boy Mancino, doesn’t get all that much screen time compared to Warren Beatty. As such, Breathless Mahoney has only a handful of scenes, albeit more than Madonna got in Bloodhounds.
Breathless is introduced as a Jessica Rabbit-style performer, crooning Sooner or Later in a nightclub soon to be taken over by Big Boy Mancino. The first time we hear it, Sooner or Later is merely a sexy siren song from a femme fatale who is trapped in a gilded cage of her own devising. Later, the song will be used in a montage where Madonna is wistfully thinking of Dick Tracy as Tracy is out busting all of Mancino’s crime syndicates. Still a siren song, but one that takes on a different meaning.
By the end of the first sequence, Breathless is shown to have no allegiances except to herself, a trope that’s fully explored in the hardboiled noir of the 20s and 30s. Although one might think this was a negative sexist trait, the life-saving reasoning for this in a male-dominated society is immediately present. Breathless’ misery at her situation is accentuated when Big Boy harasses and assaults her, her dancers, and the piano player during rehearsal. She can do nothing directly, can not escape with her life, and is trapped by the wealth she desires.
If this doesn’t seem like a metaphor for performing in America, I don’t know what is. Madonna is finally in a roll where she’s established as Madonna playing a character. She can be Madonna the performer. Later, the script allows her to be Madonna the seducer (her third role as the seducer and not the seduced), as she seduces Dick Tracy time and again.
If you’ll notice in all of these scenes, Madonna has dropped her high-pitched vocal register from all of the previous movies, but most especially from Who’s That Girl. For all the effort she’s probably putting into this role, she comes off effortless and natural. Some may say that she’s flat and affectless, but I think she’s more distanced and cold than flat. Hell, in the desk seduction she comes really close to emoting. Had this been the followup to Desperately Seeking Susan, she might have had an even larger career as an actress than as a singer.
The script for Dick Tracy is also pretty damned good, something she hasn’t had since Susan. The dialogue she has to spurt isn’t an embarrassment of words strung together by somebody who thinks they’re being florid but ends up in the realm of ESL. Instead, Madonna gets to seduce her then-boyfriend with dialogue that feels like something a human woman would actually say, especially if she was also scheming on the side.
Beatty is the first strong-willed film director Madonna worked with, and, in the coming weeks, we’ll see how she works under various established strong-willed film directors. But, for Dick Tracy, she learned how to act and seem naturalistic while doing it. She learned how to just be herself.
Dick Tracy is the crossover film that marks the end of the first phase of Madonna the actress and the beginning of the second phase. The first phase was marked by insecurity, a hard-headedness, terrible scripts, and weaker-willed directors. The second phase will be with more bold roles, a willingness to take a back seat, a dependence on stronger directors, and less of a focus on selling herself as Madonna. Dick Tracy is also the second to last cinematic entry of Madonna the Classic Film Actress, to be revived later in Evita.
Dare I say that Madonna is actually good in Dick Tracy. She has a bit of chemistry with Beatty, and she seems believable. She emotes without giving it her all, and none of it seems hackneyed.
Going through all of Madonna’s entries, good and bad, is a roller coaster. She’s a force unto herself, but she’s also only as good as the movie she’s in. Some famous actors and actresses have transcended their material, or caused it to bomb. Madonna, so far, isn’t the sole reason a movie is bad. But, given some of the back stories (the fights on the set of Shanghai Surprise were tabloid fodder), she is partially responsible for how terrible the movie is.
Good Actress – Average Actress – Bad Actress: 2 – 1 – 2
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