When we last left Madonna in March of 1985, she had already released her second album, Like a Virgin in late 1984. In between the release of Like a Virgin and Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna fell in love with Sean Penn. They were married in August of 1985. Madonna’s third album, True Blue, was inspired by and dedicated to Sean Penn. With that in mind, we’re skipping entirely over the Like a Virgin videos straight into True Blue.
Madonna was now 28, and we would see the third incarnation of Madonna fully develop in True Blue, that of the retro romantic pop star. If Madonna was a boytoy girl, and Like a Virgin was a romantic sexpot, then True Blue became the head over in heels romantic. Even though the above video is of True Blue, technically, Live to Tell was the first single off True Blue, and the stripped down Madonna portrayed in that video was also inspired by the missionary that she plays in Shanghai Surprise. But, True Blue was the song that was most dedicated to Sean Penn and their marriage, and Shanghai Surprise was supposed to be the cinematic equivalent. But, things didn’t work out so well in Hollywood.
Something else important happened. Madonna took full control of her career with her third album. This was the first album she had writing credits on every song, and production credits as well. Madonna was taking full control of her image and her career, and it showed. Her album was more tightly focused, her videos were all of a nature, and her marketing became that much more sophisticated. Madonna was going from girly pop star to multi-dimensional woman through the shifts of her creations.
Shanghai Surprise is actually one of the last movies I encountered of Madonna’s lead roles. I didn’t see it until a few years ago when David Schmader, he of the Showgirls commentary track, did a Madonna retrospective at Central Cinema where he showcased only Madonna’s failures, demonstrating how her failures kept getting worse and worse. Obviously, I disagreed with that premise.
In 1986, however, I was beginning to know of Madonna thanks to both my older cousins – who were 10+ years older, and would watch MTV while babysitting – and Nickelodeon’s music video show, Nick Rocks, which felt that True Blue was safe enough for kids to be watching. They were also big fans of the theme song to Ghostbusters.
I actually hate True Blue, and felt that both it and that albums reinvention to be rather false and manufactured. Not that any of her images are any less manufactured than any others, but this one always felt particularly fake and disingenuous. I know it was meant to hearken back to the glamorous days of Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, and the 1950s balancing act between Hollywood Goddess and Blonde Bombshell, but by being so overtly retro the whole thing takes on a costume feeling rather than an image. David Lynch would tap into those feelings when I was much older by being fascinated with the manufactured image of the 1950s bubblegum pop star.
True Blue was actually the reason I turned off to Madonna for as long as I did. I hated it’s bubblegum 1950s sensibility. Later in life, I recognized it as being a surface similar to the Material Girl video, but the song and the video both struck such false notes with me that, in my juvenile head, everything associated with her was terrible. Which was actually funny in retrospect because, when I wasn’t watching Nick music videos, I was actually listening to real Oldies. My parents couldn’t stand it and wondered why I was such a weird kid. Until about 1989, when I was listening to the radio, I would throw on the oldies station in the car. And, then I changed over to rap and started buying albums that would make my parents wonder why they complained about the Oldies.
With that in mind, its even more of a curiosity that I hated True Blue, but I still think it was the phoniness on top of manufacturing that made me hate it so much.
Madonna in Shanghai Surprise
It is really really hard to blame, and yet not to blame, Madonna for this movie. The story goes that Sean Penn had passed on it (smartly), and then Madonna picked it up and saw it as a vehicle for the both of them. Which leads us to the first truth of Madonna: She is bad for her lovers’ careers (to put it politely). Sean Penn should have been all, “No, Madonna. This is a terrible script written by an advertising executive and tied to a bad television director. We will find something better to make out in.” But, Madonna will not be denied. Thus, the blame for Shanghai Surprise is largely on her.
This movie is terrible from the ground up. The plot is an incomprehensible rip off of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones. The screenwriter regularly crams the worst dialogue into the actors’ mouths. The director has no idea what he’s doing outside of a television movie. Madonna needs the strictest hand at being directed. And, all the other actors are doing their damnedest to make this movie work and all of them end up landing in completely different movies.
The essential thrust of the film is Madonna is some naive missionary who is looking for 1100 POUNDS of opium to take back to wounded soldiers. She finds help in a drunk, hornball, glow-in-the-dark tie salesman, Sean Penn. The opium had been stolen and hidden and then turned into jewels? And there’s a concubine involved? The Shanghai Surprise of the movie is, fittingly, a bomb in the movie. Somehow, as befits the movie, Madonna and Sean Penn end up in love and with the opium, but I’m still not sure how or why. I’ve seen this movie like 4 times, and I’m still this lost.
But, let’s rewind. Madonna is a naive but determined missionary. Here’s how that’s introduced.
Notice that Madonna’s cleavage is completely covered up, and she’s done up in a very 1980s-looking-at-1930s kind of way. She croaks her words, and her eyes dart as if she doesn’t know where to look. Madonna’s one line here isn’t terrible, but she can barely get the words out. She’s uncomfortable playing uncomfortable, and the whole thing is a lack of confidence squared.
This brings us to the misunderstanding of Madonna. She wants to be a character actress but fantasizes about being a lead actress. The character actress would be able to be a chameleon and become any character she wants. Lead actresses just play variations on themselves. Here’s Marilyn Monroe as a blonde bombshell who is part of a traveling band. Here’s Monroe as a blonde bombshell divorcee. There was always a large part of Monroe as Monroe on screen. Madonna, however, leaves Madonna completely behind, with one scene’s exception.
Her best scene, and her worst scene are back to back with each other.
The best scene is her turning a prim, uptight, missionary, a role she has no idea how to figure out, into a seductive sexy missionary. Her scene seducing Sean Penn is some of her finest acting in this movie. This is because it feels like Madonna playing Madonna playing a role. Sure, she has no chemistry with Sean Penn, but part of that is due to the terrible script writing exhibited in the next scene where she turns back into the uptight missionary. Still, Madonna as Madonna feels far more genuine than Madonna as missionary in that followup scene.
One thing to really note is that her voice changes between the scenes. Madonna sounds sincere when she’s in her lower octaves as she is when sexually assaulting Sean Penn. When she is speaking from the nose, she comes off fake and whiny and like she’s trying too hard.
It’s not entirely her fault. I don’t know anybody who could quip off dialogue like, “You know, I could have stayed home in Brookline, Massachusetts, and married a nice Ivy League banker.” Or, “Well, the whole country was standing in a breadline and I just wanted to do something useful.” These are hamfisted lines of dialogue that come from a terrible screenplay.
Yet, burdened with the same terrible dialogue, Sean Penn comes off like a nimble linguist next to the far less experienced Madonna in this scene. Penn may have “Most girls reach for a cigarette, one or two girls left in a huff, but nobody…nobody’s ever jumped out the window before,” but he knows where to breathe, pause, and make it sound like plausible dialogue even if it is ridiculous. Especially in this scene, where Penn and Madonna go head to head with some of the most overwrought dialogue.
The question becomes, is this a case of Madonna being a terrible actress or just a mediocre one who has been burdened with a really shitty script? I mean, this is a movie which has a surreal, endlessly watchable, scene of Sean Penn and Madonna trapped in boxes…that almost doesn’t feel out of place.
Still, Sean Penn is able to make it work by acting his ass off. Madonna is surrounded by supporting characters who come off far less unscathed. She chose the script. And, this was the era where Madonna was taking control of her career.
Madonna the terrible actress comes through because she is the lead, and she’s expected to deliver epic lines of terrible dialogue in a really shitty movie. This is a movie with a rickshaw chase sequence. Which…yeah, I’m not going to burden you with that one.
Shanghai Surprise is prime evidence for the case proving Madonna is a terrible actress. The reviews about her were right on this one, and she should not be a lead actress.
God, it’s really getting rough already. We went from a pleasantly good movie to one of the most horrific movies ever made. I mean, it’s great as an unintentional comedy, but the movie really sucks. It’s easy to see where she wanted to go with the film, but she still ended up here. I wondered why anybody gave Madonna money to make the next movie. I found out…
Good Actress – Average Actress – Bad Actress: 1 – 0 – 1
Who’s That Girl?