In December 2000, just after The Next Best Thing was released to thudding reviews, Madonna married Guy Ritchie, director of Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Madonna had been dating Guy starting in 1999, and, in August 1999, they had their first child, Rocco. Rocco was christened in December, and they married the day after.
Swept Away is the second movie starring Madonna where she has been so publicly involved with the director; Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy being the first. However, Swept Away is a far more intimate movie than Dick Tracy, Guy Ritchie is a far different person than Warren Beatty, and marriage with children is a far different set up than dating for mere publicity.
Guy Ritchie was well known for being a man’s man – a rough and tumble macho bit of testosterone who has a black belt in judo – and also had a problem with the whole homosexual thing. Rupert Everett, consummate gossiper that he is, noted in an interview that Madonna had actually been the consummate gay boy queen who liked surrounding herself with the queer boys who, in turn, had supported her on her way up. When Guy came on the scene, the party shut down. Guy separated Madonna from all the gay people in her life, including her gay brother, stage manager, choreographer, and otherwise life coach, Christopher.
Desperate for money, Christopher Ciccone would later write a savage tell-all that dished on his life next to the A-list, pulling no punches when it came to Guy Ritchie. Though, it’s not like his tales weren’t corroborated by everybody else. Ritchie has had a reputation for being obsessed with maleness, and having a bit of that straight boy fear of the gay. In Rocknrolla, Gerard Butler has to deal with the problems of having a gay Tom Hardy admit that he thinks of Gerard Butler in a lustful manner, and Gerard Butler spends the rest of the movie obsessing over how awful that is.
Why marry a man’s man who pushes your life away from you? If you’re Madonna, it’s because he puts the fight back in you. In an interview promoting Swept Away, Madonna said that she needed a man who would stand up to her emotionally and intellectually, calling her on her bullshit with compassion. Both Madonna and Guy Ritchie were fighters, and they needed to marry a sparring partner to be satisfied. This should come as no surprise to our readers, given the previous stories about Madonna’s fights with Sean Penn on the set of Shanghai Surprise.
Madonna’s 2000 album, Music, was, at the time, a last call for alcohol album. Madonna was saying goodbye to her gay boys and saying hello to a life of heterosexual domesticity and political rebellion. The retro-disco bubblegum pop title track Music has the chorus “Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel, yeah.” But, the signature track of Music is actually What it Feels Like For a Girl.
The album version of What It Feels Like For A Girl is a psychedelic mid-tempo groove. It feels like a song to be played in the blue room of a high end club where you go sit when you’ve had way too much to drink and need a break. Sonically, it’s swirly and dizzying and, in my opinion, a stand-out terrible song on the album. Lyrically, the song is a pre-Jezebel rebellious track railing against the misogyny of modern culture by stating that it’s a man’s world and that’s why masculinity is the prized attitude in American culture.
The video uses the higher-tempo trance version by Above & Beyond from the released single. This version of the song cuts out all those meaningful verses, and brings the lyrics down to the chorus and title of the track. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the video transfers masculine attitudes onto Madonna in a bit of violent provocation aimed at our perception of femininity.
The video for What it Feels Like For a Girl depicts Madonna, dressed in a masculine woman’s outfit with short hair, picking up an octogenarian from a retirement home for one last night on the town. She goes on a violent car crashing rampage – crashing into cars, running over hockey players, squirting police men with a water gun, blowing up gas stations – before killing themselves by driving into a pole.
Despite a heavy number of violent male-driven videos played by MTV at the time, MTV and VH1 banned it from their station completely. It was the second complete ban for Madonna, but one that was more curious given the lack of sexuality contained within the video. Instead, it was purely for the violence and general rebellion that MTV banned the video. That didn’t stop the video from becoming popular. At the time, the video was released just as the internet was entering the mainstream. The video became a hotly traded commodity and was also released as a high-selling DVD single.
While What It Feels Like For a Girl had Madonna grasping her masculine aggression in a fit of rebellious provocateurism, her turn in Guy Ritchie’s short film for BMW’s internet movie series, Star, is what would really be the defining pre-Swept Away moment.
In Star, Madonna is a famous singer who treats everybody like shit. Clive Owen, the driver in all of the BMW movies, drives recklessly in the BMW to show off all the various maneuvers it can pull off, whipping Madonna all over the car, causing her to spill her coffee all over her pants. Then, he drops her off at the venue where she’s photographed looking like shit, the lesson being that she totally deserved it for being a bitch to everybody.
Star is both short and comedic. Meaning, Madonna sells what little role she has. She’s wickedly brutal and self-aware. She doesn’t have many lines, but she actually sells most of them in a hyperbolic sense which always works best in short films. It’s actually funny…unlike Swept Away.
Swept Away is a remake of a 1970s Itaian film, originally proposed to Madonna’s agent in 1996 by a producer who didn’t have the rights to remake the film. At least that’s what a lawsuit proposed just days before the final movie came out. By the time the case went to trial in 2004, Swept Away had become a joke of a movie, and for good reason. I bring this factoid up here because, this was a Madonna movie. Meaning that she had the idea for it, she wanted to make it, and made her husband participate in it…is this ringing any bells of Shanghai Surprise for anybody?
I saw this as a double feature with Punch-Drunk Love on their opening weekend in 2002. At the time, I was in love with what Guy Ritchie was doing. I discovered Lock, Stock while it was playing at a Landmark, and both me and my mother fell in love with it. It was wickedly hilarious, smart and fast-aced. While it was first called a bastard child of Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction, it had a style unto its own and wit to spare. Snatch felt like Two Smoking Barrels Go to America, an almost sequel to Lock Stock in terms of style. Star was brutal and funny and perfectly incisive of Madonna’s persona.
Then came Swept Away. I was one of five or seven people in my theater on opening night (it was a Friday, IIRC), and two of the other patrons walked out. Swept Away was both a critical and box office bomb. It had a $10m budget, but made all of $598,645 in its three weekends of release in the United States. Even with the rising power of Guy Ritchie, I couldn’t get anybody to go see this movie with me.
Swept Away was so epically terrible that it single-handedly launched my love of Madonna’s movie career. This whole Julius section has been to admit that even though I was a total late-comer to Madonna’s career, her acting had still permeated through my life. From Desperately Seeking Susan in heavy rotation on Comedy Central to Who’s That Girl? and Dick Tracy as a kid to hearing people talk about Truth or Dare and Body of Evidence, Madonna-as-an-actress was part and parcel of cultural life if you were born from the late 70s through the mid 80s.
Swept Away is, perhaps, the most egregious piece of film that Madonna was ever in. Forget how much I completely dislike Bloodhounds of Broadway. Forget how terrible Body of Evidence was or how unbelievably dull The Next Best Thing became. This, right here, is the most painful experience one can have with a Madonna movie. And, it isn’t just Madonna’s fault. It is everybody’s fault, including Guy Ritchie…but this still was Madonna’s movie, starring Madonna with Madonna being the big selling point of the movie.
Madonna as Capitalist Amber Leighton
Swept Away is simultaneously a film about the evils of capitalism and about society’s gender roles. Amber Leighton is an immensely wealthy husband of a CEO of Big Pharma. Her and her husband have invited a couple of their rich friends, and their respective mates of the moment, to rent a boat for a week in the Mediterranean. The other two couples consist of some guy who is married to Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Michael Beattie with his new younger airhead Elizabeth Banks.
Everybody in the group is obsessed with money, but none more than Amber. The dialogue that Guy Ritchie — who wrote the script after production had already started but days before they began shooting — shoves into Amber’s mouth reasserts that she has no compassion and represents all of the bad traits of modern corporate capitalism. No humanity, just a dedication to the bottom line. The socialist side of things is represented by Giuseppe, Pepe for short, the primary servant and fisherman on the tiny ship who has to serve and cater to the people’s every whims. Of course, Amber uses Pepe as a tool over whom she can exert her power as a capitalist.
That is until she makes him take her in a secondary motor raft to find her friends. On their way, the motor cuts out. The paid end up stranded on a deserted island where Pepe is able to exert his power as a member of the working class who has been a fisherman and can catch fish to feed himself. Here’s where it gets icky because Amber still thinks she’s in charge, and Pepe has to physically slap her and sexually assault her in order to break her down and get her to be subservient to his every whim. Then, she falls in love with him away from the temptations of money. But, when they finally get rescued, she returns to her life of luxury.
The original Italian film by Lina Wurtmueller was a sleazy piece of trash that used perverse sexual traits in order to combat capitalism as a terrible trait. In the 1970s, it was common practice to sexually assault a woman in order to make a metaphorical statement. The Day of the Locust, directed by The Next Best Thing‘s John Schlesinger, sexually assaulted its lead character who represented all the incestuous, money-hungry, fame-mongering, shallow bits of Hollywood. Nashville stripped one of its characters, who represented American ambition, in order to say that politicians only sought after their own pleasure. As a result, the whole second section of the original Swept Away didn’t feel out of place in its cultural society, even though it came from both a woman and a grim place.
In the 25 years between the versions, culture had changed. A lot. Sexual assault of women no longer had the casual weight it once was given. In the post-second-wave feminism, suddenly sexual assault and male-dominated relationships based on abuse had a different weight that using the excuse of metaphor couldn’t push off. Now it was Madonna, not capitalism, who was being sexually assaulted and deprived of her sexual autonomy in order to survive.
Listening to the commentary track, Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn lament that people had problems with the violent nature of the film. During the sexual assault, Pepe never has sex with Madonna even though he pulls off her bikini bottom. On the commentary, Guy and Matt are practically high-fiving each other over the fact that they didn’t rape a woman on screen. Throughout they’re constantly ticked off that people would be shocked at how many times Madonna got slapped and that they had to edit some of the violence out.
The additional problem is that Guy Ritchie cut the original from 115 minutes down to 87 minutes, leaving no time to build the metaphor nor to let the meaning of the film sink in. Madonna swoops upon the ship, treats people badly and before you know it she’s getting slapped around by the person she was abusing in the first section of the movie. Plus, its hard to develop metaphors when you’d rather be filling your movie with stupid music videos for Rosemary Clooney’s Come On-a My House and one of cinema’s most overused songs, Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You.
But, really, Madonna is Swept Away‘s biggest problem. She’s controlling and demanding in real life, why is it so hard for her to be demanding and controlling in movies? When she tells Pepe that the fish in the spaghetti is “off,” she doesn’t have much conviction behind her tone, and she ends up seeming like she’s trying too hard.
Madonna reeking of effort is something new, and something that Guy Ritchie probably made her bring to the table. The reeking of effort really destroys any credibility she has in this part, which is supposed to be played to be as nasty as they come in order to justify the sexual assault that comes in the middle of the movie.
Saying they softened Madonna up too much in order to make her look good is unfair. On the largely uninformative commentary, Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn said they added a couple of scenes to soften Amber as a person because test audiences apparently gave remarks like, “She’s such a bitch now, why does he even try to win her over in the second half?” Which goes to show you just how much the allegory fails in this movie. She isn’t supposed to be a woman. She isn’t even just representing capitalism. She’s supposed to represent all the rich people in capitalist society. Similarly, Pepe is representing the proletariat. We’re supposed to believe that he is converting the rich to the socialist. But, these scenes are the closest that Ritchie ever comes to fulfilling the allegorical portion of the movie
If you’re paying attention to the dialogue, you’ll pick up on the metaphor. When Pepe finally wins over Madonna’s mind and body, he’s not just winning her mind and body, but that of the bourgeoisie. When Pepe slaps Madonna around, it’s the lower class finally slapping the upper class and taking charge. Well, you get the idea, moreso than how Ritchie communicates it.
One of the methods they use to communicate the allegory is easily the worst part of Swept Away: Madonna’s accent. She might be trying to do some elitist hybridization of all the upper class accents, but never fully strays from her lower-class midwestern upbringing. There is one scene where Pepe tells her that they’ve landed on a deserted island, and she is so mad she runs through a litany of accents. Worse, it’s not just her voice that she can’t control, but also her body and her attitude. All forms of terrible acting are on display in this movie.
A large part of this problem is Guy Ritchie. For one, Guy is not really a performer’s director. He’s a visionary who knows how to build in the medium, but he’s never been one to pull a sustained genius performance out of an actor. But, more importantly, because Madonna is married to Guy, she fights with him all the time. In the DVD commentary, Guy and Matthew seem to dance around Madonna and her presence. They don’t make much note of her role or her performance. In fact, the only times Guy talks about directing Madonna is when it comes to jealousy for her having on screen sexual relations with Pepe.
The deepest comment Guy makes about Madonna in Swept Away is in regards to the structure of the film. Guy informs us that he starts Madonna off as a terrible person and steadily softens her. He says that will give the people who hate Madonna something to chew over before he turns the table on them.
When Madonna is being dominant, her performance is stilted and forced. Yet, as she becomes “likeable,” Madonna never makes the transfer from stilted to comfortable, except in montages. Because Guy Ritchie needs to throw montages in everything, he has a number of different sequences which could be called montages. The worst of these montages is a comedic stint where they play Charades to pass away time while they’re trapped together in a cabin in the rain.
Even in the dialogue heavy scenes, Madonna never becomes comfortable with the sound of her own voice. Even as she’s falling in love with Pepe, and we’re supposed to be falling in love with Madonna, she never figures out how to sell her dialogue.
This is a problem because Swept Away is a frankenmonster of a movie. It’s a glossy naturalistic movie frequently invaded by Guy Ritchie’s montages. The naturalism of the movie goes against the stilted performances both of which go against the Guy Ritchie invasions. Swept Away never makes up its mind of which type of movie it wants to be, nor does it have the courage or conviction to go with any one single style.
We’re left with a movie trying to be an allegory, but it fails in setting up or maintaining the allegory. Without the allegory, Swept Away is merely about the physical and spiritual domination of a woman through slapping, kicking, and sexual assault (and, in a deleted scene, pine cone throwing). Madonna was responsible for almost everything in front of and behind the camera. Both the movie and Madonna are bloody awful.
With Swept Away, we’ve reached the end of Madonna’s theatrical career as an actress. That doesn’t mean she was done with Hollywood, or even completely done in front of the camera. To date, Madonna has directed two movies, Filth and Wisdom and W./E. She also made a straight-to-DVD concert film, I’m Going to Tell You A Secret, in the vein of Truth or Dare.
But, since this is mainly about her as an actress, let’s recap:
Madonna – the Good Actress
- Desperately Seeking Susan – Comedy – Co-Star
- Dick Tracy – Musical – Small Role
- Truth or Dare – Reality – Star
- A League of Their Own – Comedy – Small Role
- Dangerous Game – Drama – Medium Role
- Four Rooms – Comedy – Small Role
- Evita – Musical – Star
Madonna – the Bad Actress
- Shanghai Surprise – Adventure – Star
- Who’s That Girl? – Comedy – Star
- Shadows and Fog – Comedy – Walk-on
- Body of Evidence – Sexual Courtroom Thriller Drama – Star
- The Next Best Thing – Drama – Star
- Swept Away – Drama – Star
Madonna – the Undecided Actress
- Bloodhounds of Broadway – Comedy – Small Role
While the number of good parts she has had outnumber the bad ones, the total screen time Madonna has had as a bad actress far outlasts the total screen time that Madonna has had being a good actress. Beyond that, when Madonna is in a bad movie, the movies are completely atrocious for various reasons, most of which have to do with Madonna. Whether it’s her picking a bad script — Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence — or fucking around with the making of the movie — The Next Best Thing, Swept Away — Madonna has had a heavier part in all of the movies in which she is terrible.
With that knowledge, the next Madonna movie is her fully behind the camera, and starring another musical act, Gogol Bordello. Filth and Wisdom is the next Madonna movie to get theatrical release.
Good Actress – Average Actress – Bad Actress: 7 – 1 – 6
Filth and Wisdom