While the folks at Disney are anxiously awaiting the June 15 opening of "Dick Tracy," in which Madonna plays singing gun moll Breathless Mahoney to Warren Beatty's Tracy, Madonnaphiles are probably much more eager to see the inevitable video for "Hanky Panky," a song from her latest album, "I'm Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film 'Dick Tracy.' "
This is the one in which Madonna coos, "Some girls they like candy, and others they like to grind, I'll settle for the back of your hand somewhere on my behind... . I don't want you to thank me, just spank me."
Oh, the possibilities!
Earlier this week, Toronto police were called in to review the last of Madonna's three sold-out concerts at Skydome Stadium for signs of lewdness and obscenity after a number of fans complained about the singer's provocative act. Reports indicate that it's less a rock concert than rock theater (or videos come to life), with spectacular sets (including a church interior complete with Roman columns and a neon crucifix), aggressive choreography with semi-clad male dancers and explicit costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier, as well as sexual high jinks ranging from mock masturbation and group sex to the seduction of a priest.
Warner Bros., Madonna's record company, said police attempted to serve her with an order to alter the content of her show or face possible arrest, but that Madonna's manager refused to let police meet with the singer and dared Toronto's Morality Squad to take to the stage and announce the show's cancellation to 30,000 fans. Madonna went onstage to ask her audience: "Do you believe in freedom of expression?" and in a statement released Wednesday added: "I would rather have canceled the show than let anybody dictate how I can or can't express myself as an artist. This is certainly a cause for which I am willing to be arrested."
Of course, Madonna's long been an arresting figure and a master at image control, from the Boy Toy belt that encircled her waist in the early '80s to the Toy Boy beefcake dancers who encircle her onstage as part of the "Blond Ambition World Tour '90" that rolls into Capital Centre on Friday and Saturday.
In the videos that define her career, Madonna has shown a canny ability to stoke the fires of controversy -- one of her first hits, "Burning Up," established a credo: "Unlike the others, I'd do anything/ I'm not the same, I have no shame." What she did have, right from the beginning, was a great sense of undergarments.
Later, feminists and antiabortion advocates actually debated in the editorial pages over "Papa Don't Preach," a song about teen pregnancy. Catholics, disturbed by the casual iconography of "Like a Virgin," were shocked by "Like a Prayer," which further mixed sexual and religious images, including the seduction of a black saint. Pepsi-Cola officials promptly canceled a $5 million endorsement deal after a single showing of a television spot based on the song. Madonna, ever the Material Girl, didn't have to give the money back.
She never does.
Madonna has often talked about growing up in a restrictive lower-middle-class Italian American family and in a repressive Catholic church where penance usually precedes sinning. It's a context that gives her insights into what is shocking, and it's easy to see how she has turned that into shock pop, willfully playing off taboos in sex and religion, to the point of sacrilege.
Ticket sales were announced for her Washington dates on March 30 in a full-page Washington Post Weekend ad in which Madonna sat on a bed, naked, with her back to the camera and a Marilyn Monroeish come-hither look on her face (some newspapers airbrushed the bit of exposed breast; one Houston paper refused to run the ad of the Braless Madonna). Nowhere in the ad was there a ticket price, but this was unnecessary: Madonna fans will pay whatever, whenever. (Actually, there are several hundred seats left for the Capital Centre shows -- behind the stage, and behind Madonna. Oh, the possibilities!)
Madonna has also proved to be the savviest self-promoter and cross-marketeer this side of Michael Jackson. "Vogue," the first single from "I'm Breathless," has been the country's top single for four weeks now, its success propelled (as always with Madonna) by a stunning video that further evokes Monroe and dumps dance, fashion and Hollywood mythology into one very neat package.
"I'm Breathless," released last week, is an anachronistic collection of '30s and '40s theatrical pastiches, some written by Stephen Sondheim, others by Madonna and her longtime collaborator, Patrick Leonard. Except for "Vogue," it's not a dance-focused pop album, and some critics have suggested that while her singing has vastly improved, Madonna is overreaching here in a grab for musical respectability. In any event, it's a risky move at a time when Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and others are successfully riding the wake left by Hurricane Madonna in the mid-'80s.
With sales of 60 million albums, 16 straight Top 5 singles (now more than the Beatles, but still less than Elvis Presley), and a high position in Forbes's entertainment Top 40, Madonna hardly has to worry about her place in the pop pantheon, or in MTV's rotation. In fact MTV is one of the "Blond Ambition" tour sponsors and has fallen all over itself servicing Madonna: It did one lengthy special from Disney Studios while she was rehearsing, then did another special from Japan, where she test-drove the show in April. As always, MTV has been merciless in promoting both itself and herself, and will be in Paris in August to telecast a full concert. Another tour sponsor, Pioneer Laserdisc, shot the Tokyo concerts in both traditional and high-definition formats for home video, and there is a documentary crew filming the tour as well.
Music critics, however, have been slow to cotton to Madonna. Most didn't even take her seriously until last year's "Like a Prayer" album, in which Madonna addressed her crumbled marriage to actor Sean Penn, familial conflicts and the challenge of growing up Catholic -- the kind of ambitious, personal and painful work they demand from an "artist" and seldom expect from a "pop star." Madonna's roots as an unabashed dance-floor diva, her sudden emergence from the gay and black New York club scene and, later, her video-driven success rendered rock critics irrelevant, shutting them out of the star-making machinery. Don't think they didn't notice.
On the other hand, film critics generally praised Madonna's 1985 big-screen debut in Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan," in which she played a hip, confident, independent character not unlike herself. Then came (and quickly went) "Shanghai Surprise" (in which Madonna assumed a missionary position with Penn), "Who's That Girl?" (aiming to be Judy Holliday, she ended up as Cyndi Lauper) and "Bloodhounds of Broadway" (a dog of another color).
As Breathless Mahoney in "Dick Tracy," Madonna would appear to be the beneficiary of hype-casting: Breathless is a slinky nightclub singer with a heart of gold and a penchant for form-fitting dresses. Like Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," she's a comic character who isn't really bad, she's just drawn that way, and that suits Madonna well, since her career has operated on much the same campy cartoon principle.
Most successful playing herself -- covertly in "Susan," overtly in 20 or so videos since "Borderline" in 1983 -- Madonna now has a role that plays to her strength, and it may well revamp her big-screen prospects. She had to audition for Breathless, a subtle slap for someone who is arguably the most recognizable woman in the world. Unfortunately, that recognition has not translated into box-office bucks, and Hollywood prefers that people pay for what they see. That's why "Dick Tracy" is a major gamble -- not just for Disney or Beatty, but for Madonna as well. She's running out of lives in a community that's always been leery of rock stars.
Of course, Madonna can -- and does -- act like a movie star even without box-office appeal because she has video presence, and the ubiquitous format gives her far more exposure. But there's a greater gulf between the big screen and the small than most rockers realize. Videos are short, films long, and it's not just the difference between three minutes and 90. Film demands commitment from the viewer; videos, repeated endlessly, barely command attention.
For Madonna, the quick cuts and short form cover the lack of depth and basic acting skills that is glaring in her languidly paced features. Videos require a different discipline, the kind Madonna has mastered, which is why any number of her videos -- "Material Girl," "Open Your Heart," "Like a Prayer" and the new "Vogue" in particular -- are quite memorable, and none of her films are. In fact, if MTV hadn't come along when it did -- knocking Andy Warhol's "everyone will be famous" dictum from 15 minutes down to three -- Madonna might have been nothing more than a pop history asterisk. She was a bona fide star before she ever stepped on a concert stage -- a new messenger emerging from a new medium.
As an inanimate object, Madonna is invincible. Cameras love her, and still photographs never do anything but flatter her. She once said that glamour was knowing how to make the most of your features, and she has become one of the world's most glamorous figures, an effect that, unfortunately, is often undermined when she opens her mouth, as on the "Arsenio Hall Show" a few weeks back.
It's not that Madonna is dumb -- the few in-depth interviews she's done over the years suggest that she's not only ambitious, opportunistic and manipulative (words she once used to describe how she was perceived), but sensitive, smart, sharp and secure. It's just that she sometimes chooses to play to people's lesser expectations, as if the gum-chewing, wise-gal attitudes expressed in some of her flakier videos needed to be rooted in reality.
With "Vogue," a mesmerizing black-and-white cavalcade of publicity stills and fashion shots, Madonna looks to be buying into the mystique that attended the golden age of Hollywood, a sort of gilt by association. Sure, she's ready to "strike a pose," but she's also connecting herself to a pantheon of Hollywood legends that includes Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Jean Harlow, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Holliday and James Dean. "They had style, they had grace," Madonna sings, as much to the casting agents and directors as to the dance-floor crowds.
Like Monroe, Madonna has long (and well) understood the value of sex appeal, though she has benefited from post-feminist awareness and empowerment. She has emerged with rare autonomy in a recording industry that, like Hollywood, remains a male-run enterprise. Having conquered one medium, Madonna has now set her sights on another, one that could provide her with more long-term opportunities than the notoriously fickle pop marketplace. She has set up a production company, Siren Films -- cynics suggest it implies the drawing of both men and scripts to their death.
And since it's hard to find good roles in movies or rock, Madonna will go on creating them. "I'm so happy with what I've got," she sings in "More." But, she adds emphatically, "I want more."