This entry contains adult subject matter, language and brief nudity. Reader discretion is advised.
OK guys. This, right here, is the sea change. If there was any dividing line between Madonna’s eras it was in late 1990 and 1991.
In 1990, Madonna’s film was Dick Tracy, a PG-rated film made from a comic book. Her single from that was Vogue, a kid-friendly song whose video featured her wearing a transparent blouse, the over-emphasized cone bra, and male nipples galore. Still, the video was aired on MTV with little controversy compared to what was about to happen.
From April through August of 1990, Madonna was touring with the Blond Ambition Tour, where she amped up the sexual antics of her show. This was the beginning of the sea change. She started wearing underwear and corsets outside of her clothing, masturbating on stage, and otherwise making female sexuality the forefront of her persona.
This side of the persona would come through loud and clear when she released The Immaculate Collection in November of 1990. Just in case there are those of you who don’t know where this is going, The Immaculate Collection is possibly the best greatest hits collection ever engineered. Many of the singles were changed from their album version – some sped up, some shortened, some lengthened – to create a singular dance-crazed hour-plus album that is sonic bliss to your ears. (Madonna re-designed it a bit for the iTunes era, so now there is a digital version that is different than the disc version).
Like most greatest hits collections, The Immaculate Collection had 2 bonus songs it: Justify My Love and Rescue Me. The music video for Justify My Love featured a variety of “deviant” sexuality, and was her first video banned by MTV. MTV’s banning of a music video created a media frenzy of controversy over the “explicit” sexuality. Warner ended up selling the video on VHS with an R-rating.
The first thing to notice is the guy seducing Madonna. This is Tony Ward, who would later be the main star of Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White. When the video was released in November of 1990, Madonna was already dating Tony Ward. This is significant because during the release of Dick Tracy (and throughout the Blond Ambition Tour) in the summer of 1990, Madonna was dating Warren Beatty. Old Hollywood was out, sexual fashion model was in.
The second is that this video features a lot of raw fetishy sexuality depicted in an artistic manner. Even by the time MTV stopped airing music videos, this was far more explicit than what was usually shown. Especially for a woman who just co-starred in a Touchstone (read: Disney) production. This is the new era of Madonna. Artistic, raw, real, street. The cover for the single exuded Tough Madonna From the Block.
In the wake of the raw sexuality of Justify My Love, Madonna released her “non-fiction” movie Madonna: Truth or Dare in May 1991. Truth or Dare is a “behind-the-scenes” movie about the Blond Ambition Tour which lies somewhere between documentary, concert film, and a predecessor to reality television. More on that in a minute.
OK, now Madonna has caught up with me. I remember when Justify My Love came out, and I was PISSED I wasn’t allowed to rent it, buy it, or watch it. At the time, I was 9 years old, and in the 4th grade. Yeah, I was the kid who was angry because he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t necessarily care about the movie Truth or Dare, but the controversy around the Justify My Love video really drove my curiosity.
Mind you, this was the first time I clamored to see anything by Madonna. I wasn’t wanting to see Dick Tracy because of Madonna, nor even, to be perfectly honest, Who’s That Girl? But, a perverse sex thing that I shouldn’t be watching? OMG yes. Put it directly into my eyeballs.
This version of Madonna’s persona came just about the time I was starting to question the world around me, and I think a lot of what she was putting out influenced me, even in indirect ways, in the ways I view the world. The world of sex and sexuality is a mix of bluntness and eroticism, but never in a way that is scandalous. The view that women should be more ashamed of their sexuality than men is ridiculous, especially since most men need women to have sex (unless you’re gay).
Looking back on the past, Justify My Love and the album Erotica was the beginning of my love for female-empowered sexuality and aggression. These would coincide with the starting of the Riot Grrrl movement, which I also started listening to heavily (My love for L7 and PJ Harvey knows no bounds). Far too young to buy the video for Justify My Love, and far too young to even glance at the book Sex, though my older sister really wanted to buy it, I nonetheless became entranced by these pieces of adult media.
This phase of Madonna would lock in a decade-plus dedication to her music that would exist sometimes in secret (wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt while listening to Madonna on headphones), and sometimes in the open (replaying her video for Bedtime Story endlessly). It would all end when she would “sample” Abba, and that would become popular. God I hate them. Bernadette was right, “No more bloody Abba!”
I didn’t see Truth or Dare until the mid-2000s, and, by then, I didn’t see the point. We were already in the midst of reality show television glory, long past the days when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie would act like completely entitled bitches on television to poor folk for kicks. The edge of Truth or Dare was lost because, by the time I saw it, the phoniness seemed part of the game. By that time, it was how all celebrities were engaging with the world. Celebrities were creating stagy tell-alls that would expose them to be, and let them play at being, entitled assholes who would throw fits and pressure the lesser beings around them into being humiliated in their vanity project. This is Truth or Dare.
Madonna as Madonna
The thing about Truth or Dare is that it’s posed as a concert documentary, but it is so fucking staged it is ridiculous. Madonna was nominated for a Razzie for worst actress in Truth or Dare, because it’s both cheap and fun to kick Madonna around as a terrible actress, and because Madonna is constantly acting in this movie. The persona she developed in Truth or Dare is the most complex persona she pulls off. One part of it is the rough and tough businesswoman and performer it takes to put on a show like this. One part is as the mother hen to all of her dancers. One part is as the rich woman who feels everybody is lesser to her. One part is as the caring woman with a past. And, one part is as a sexual woman where nothing is off limits. She ties them all together with a flat voiceover being done from a bed (which we only see on screen once or twice) explaining how her emotions influenced her on-screen actions.
Part of the reason I’m including it in this series dissecting Madonna as an actress – an act that almost seems as unfair and bitchy as nominating it for a Razzie – is because almost everything in Truth or Dare reeks of staginess. This is in no small part due to the voiceover, which is delivered in as flat and bored a monotone as Madonna has ever delivered, including in Dick Tracy. She possesses a bored tonality that depresses her voice to make it seem like she’s above the whole thing and tired of the project, even though she intends to sound intimate and like she’s having a bedtime conversation with you, the viewer and her friend.
This jaded boredom fits perfectly with the first section of the film, in which she details how the first leg of the concert, Japan, was a complete disaster because she scheduled outdoor stadiums in Japan’s rainy season. She states, and the camera captures, that the whole leg was marred by torrential downfall and blizzards. She and her dancers would have to bundle up to perform, and would be wearing jackets and sweatshirts and whatever. Note that this section mixes the two elements of Mother Hen an Rough/Tough Performer.
She flatly continues that she can’t wait to get to America to perform the concert as it was meant to be seen, leading into the first part of the concert footage. This is the first lie of the movie. All of the concert footage was recorded over 3 nights in Paris. Throughout the movie, all the concert footage is presented in full color, and shows Madonna in a tight curly blond hairstyle, while the backstage footage has Madonna in a ponytail. This is because she only wore the ponytail in America, but its weight broke her hair, and she went to curls for the European tour.
The reason this can’t be considered a true concert film is because so much of the concert was removed from the film. The Blond Ambition Tour was meant to promote both Like a Prayer and I’m Breathless, thus having a stronger focus on the various elements those videos presented. The original tour was structured with five sections – Metropolis, Religion, Dick Tracy, Art Deco, and Encore – each with their own visual style. Truth or Dare completely skips over both the Dick Tracy and the Art Deco sections of the concert, showing footage only of Metropolis, Religious, and Encore. Only on the special edition VHS is one of the Dick Tracy numbers included (and none of that footage has surfaced on any of the disc editions). This is in part because the Blond Ambition Tour was shown on television in Europe, and released on Laserdisc here in the states (not on DVD though).
So, in Truth or Dare, we’re left with Metropolis, and Religion (aka the controversial sections).
The Metropolis section is mainly in the conical pink corset (designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, who did all the costumes), and has the factory backdrop that made the Express Yourself video so iconic. The songs Express Yourself, Open Your Heart, Causing a Commotion, and Where’s The Party? were featured in full on the tour, but only Express Yourself and sections of Causing a Commotion made it into the movie.
The more controversial performances were in the Religion section, meaning they were also the most focused on in Truth or Dare because of the controversy.
A large element of Religion was heavily sexual in nature. The above clip of Like a Virgin features a new arrangement of the song, giving it Middle Eastern sensibilities. The staging features faux androgeny/transgenderism with dancers wearing the exaggerated cone bras to emphasize their “breasts.” Both of the censorship controversies in the film centered around the Religion section. The first was in Toronto, where the authorities threatened to arrest Madonna for masturbating on stage. The second was in Rome, where the Vatican denounced her performances of Like a Prayer, probably due to the video and also due to her sexualizing a pulpit.
Still, the majority of the movie is dedicated to the behind the scenes nature of Madonna, and getting the “low-down dirt” on Madonna. Director Alek Keshishian crafted, with Madonna executive producing, Truth or Dare like it was Madonna getting intimate and providing her own edition of a down and dirty unauthorized tell-all. Unauthorized tell-alls were really hot commodities at the time, since most stars were releasing their own glossed over memoirs which had all of the controversial elements removed. I believe Madonna even had one by then. Almost as an in-your-face retaliation to the phenomenon, Madonna did a warts-and-all documentary…
Except the movie was largely staged. Or, at least it feels largely staged. Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother and the stage producer of the Blond Ambition tour, wrote a tell-all in 2008, My Life with Madonna, in which he completely bitched about Truth or Dare stating that many of the elements in the film were staged for the film.
And, so, we finally have Madonna playing Madonna. Her embracing of this new persona is the end goal. Sometimes she knocks the performance out of the park, and sometimes she’s so awful. The movie regularly vacillates between feeling like an actual documentary and a staged reality show. Which elements are real, if any, aren’t informed by anything except Madonna’s attempts at acting.
The first thing to notice in Madonna’s performance as Madonna is that she rarely speaks with the nasal tonalities that ruined Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise. Her voice is frequently from the chest, and even when it’s nasal, it’s almost pitched down compared to either of those two films. In fact, the staged nature of the scenes goes up when her voice does. Take for instance the scene where she’s in bed topless with her crew of dancers and they’re just, you know, “shooting the shit.” It’s just one of the many intentionally staged elements in the last section of Truth or Dare, but, in this particular section, her voice is almost to Shanghai Surprise levels.
Compare this to the different levels of staginess that occurs within the LA sequence after her headset cuts out on her, and then she lambasts a whole bunch of people (including Warren Beatty, who looks so done with the relationship by this point).
For all the staginess within the scene, the one thing that’s noticeable about this sequence is that Madonna is insulting everything about fame and celebrity relationships. She calls it strange that fame causes her to be friends with all these famous rich people. It seems that she is attempting to recapture her streetwise persona and to identify with the target audience by being a bitch to the people who are already famous. Whether this is her reality or this is staged for the movie, it provides fodder for people to talk about in an attempt to discern whether she actually means any of this. After all, she did executive produce the thing.
Warren Beatty’s other main scene is the telling changing of the guard. Madonna had an ongoing throat infection throughout the show, and periodically cancelled dates due to illness. The movie insinuates that she got sick and cancelled 6 dates in a row, when she really just cancelled one a week or so – May 25, June 6, June 15, and June 22 – which is yet another major lie of the movie. In service to the lie, Madonna has a scene with a throat doctor where she has a home examination with Warren in the background. Warren is clearly uncomfortable with the new reality style presence that’s being launched, and you start to see the differences between where we once were and where we are now.
Warren’s incredulous attitude toward the state of reality being on camera is understandable, and I even agree with him to a point. But, Madonna is clearly taking control of her image and trying to give the press something to talk about. Whether she had the final product in mind when she comments “Why should I stop here?” is irrelevant because she includes the whole section in the documentary. In a sense, this individual scene is one for the records for how our culture became what it is, but I’ll leave that rant to somebody else.
The big question throughout Truth or Dare is what is acting and what is real? Is any of it real? Most reviews have made note of the first scene in which Madonna hilariously attempts to clean up her hotel room then plummets onto the bed to fall asleep. Certainly, it’s a bit of melodrama attempting to make the metaphor behind the movie (I’m cleaning up this shit left behind by my fame), and it is as fake as they come.
But, what of the prayer circles? Or, her fights over artistic merit in the pieces on Toronto? Or, her stilted reading of a reaction in Rome to the Vatican’s condemnation of her concert? Or, the doctor’s appointment? Or or or? Is this whole movie one big fucking lie? And, if it is, is Madonna a good enough actress to sell it? Or, is this whole movie an actual mixture of documentary and staged footage?
The fact that I’m even asking these questions, and that the varied reports argue over which is real and which is fake, points to a salvation for Madonna the Actress. Her acting here far surpassed any of the acting that came before it, and is far superior to any of her acting that will come after. Madonna’s performance as Madonna could be stilted at times, but the levels of confusion and smokescreen that she throws up more than makes up for some of the faults.
I’d like to add here that this movie is one of the main reasons that Madonna’s gay following is still so strong. Some people have said that Madonna’s inclusion of gay dancers was primarily to shock audiences, but she treats the gays like gays. Her performance here is as the ultimate fruit fly, as a hetero white woman who takes the gay men under her wing to make sure that they are provided for. And, Madonna allows the gay section to breathe.
One of the “controversies” was that Madonna was sleeping with a dancer, Oliver, who claimed he was the only straight dancer. Which seems to be yet another big lie. In the midst of New York Pride, Oliver throws homophobic shade on all the gay dancers from the privacy of his bedroom, while the dancers attend New York’s Pride.
Later, Madonna throws a benefit concert for AIDS research, and name drops Keith Haring as the inspiration for it.
I’m not going to say that Truth or Dare had any impact on my personal sexuality. By the time I saw this film, I knew who I was and wasn’t going to apologize for that. But, the obvious homosexuality of the dancers (including Oliver, whom I had assumed was estranged for his homosexuality and not his dancing career) combined with the camera’s nonchalance about the matter made for some pretty refreshingly non-judgmental depictions. Well, mildly judgmental, as the gays did have a kiki over Oliver’s press.
I find Truth or Dare endlessly fascinating. In much the way that Bob Dylan’s tour movie Dont Look Back is endlessly fascinating, Truth or Dare is the landmark that should be noted by people who condemn the current state of media-celebrity relations. It’s not about the intersection of art and fame, but of fame and publicity.
There’s a whole hell of a lot more in this movie that I also was thinking of clipping and commenting on. From Madonna’s reaction to her stylist’s rape to her relationship with her childhood friend where she refuses to sit down and then is ambushed by being asked to be godmother to the upcoming fifth child. There’s the bottle blowjob scene, and any number of bad sequences. I just…this is long enough as it is, isn’t it?
Good Actress – Average Actress – Bad Actress: 3 – 1 – 2
Shadows and Fog