Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you this month’s installment of our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: Madonna’s notorious 1993 S&M-fueled erotic thriller, Body of Evidence.
To fully understand the world into which Evidence made its thudding entrance, you have to know your Madonna history. First and foremost, her track record with motion pictures had been… well, uneven would be the nicest way to put it. After a well-received supporting debut in Desperately Seeking Susan, she did a trio of starring turns in three films (Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl, and Bloodhounds of Broadway) that effectively rendered her cinematic poison. Sensibly, she responded by going small, popping up in the large ensembles of Dick Tracy, Shadows and Fog, and A League of Their Own; Body of Evidence put her back above the title.
That return to the cinematic spotlight dovetailed with another significant moment in her career, which could best be dubbed the “Fuggit, I’m Not Teasing Anymore” phase. From her explosion onto the pop scene circa ’82-’83, teasing sexuality had been a major element of her appeal — yet (aside from a handful of pre-fame nude modeling photos, which made the Playboy/Penthouse rounds in ’85) it had always been just a tease. But following the 1990 controversy surrounding her song and, more importantly, the video for “Justify My Love,” Ms. Ciccone embarked on a three-pronged strategy of explicit sexuality. On consecutive days in October 1992, she released Erotica, a concept album about sex and relationships, and the notorious $50 coffee table book Sex, filled with nude photographs, graphic sexual confessions, and appearances by such ‘90s artifacts as Vanilla Ice and Big Daddy Kane.
And then, in January of 1993, there was Body of Evidence. A third-rate riff on Basic Instinct, which made a mint (and made Sharon Stone a Madonna-level sex superstar) the previous spring, Evidence stars Madge as Rebecca Carlson, a quite literal femme fatale who is charged with killing her lover, a rich old man with a heart condition, via a lethal combination of vigorous sex and cocaine. Or, as prosecutor Robert Garrett (poor Joe Mantegna, a long, long way from Mamet) puts it in his opening statement, “She is not only the defendant… she is the murder weapon itself!”
The sex scenes — and (rare, at that point in mainstream cinema) the way they flirt with such kinks as S&M and bondage — are what tend to be discussed and remembered among the few souls who’ve actually sat through Body of Evidence; when revisiting it for this column, for the first time since its theatrical release when I was a horny teenager, I was surprised by the goofy-sex-scene to goofy-courtroom-scene ratio, which is way higher than you’d think. Yes, the sex scenes are silly, because there are few things on this earth sillier than a sex movie that takes itself seriously; frankly, they could’ve pivoted just a couple degrees and made it a spoof of erotic thrillers (it’s considerably funnier than that summer’s intentional spoof, Carl Reiner’s Fatal Instinct). But good lord, the dumbed-down courtroom thriller scenes are endless, and even more cliché-ridden than the sex scenes, chock full of submissions of exhibits and murmuring in the gallery and surprise witnesses and thundering objections and the Stern Black Lady Judge™ responding, “I’ll allow it.”
It’s genuinely painful to watch skilled, complicated actors like Mantegna and our “hero,” Willem Dafoe, go through these paces. But then, you’d have to search deep into your cinematic memory to find an actor more miscast than Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence. Its makers would subsequently note that the film was in production before Basic Instinct hit theaters, but the structural similarities are inescapable: it opens with a scene of sex/murder, introduces our protagonist, puts him in the room with the woman in question for a loaded interrogation, and proceeds to have her tease and tantalize him until they can have wild, kinky animal sex. And Dafoe, as her attorney, is supposed to be some sort of buttoned-down straight arrow, with a son (who gets perhaps the best line in the movie, “Can you really screw someone to death?”) and wife (a pre-fame Julianne Moore, doing her very best, even in an uproariously unconvincing slap confrontation with Madonna, above). But we don’t buy Dafoe as the meat-and-potatoes sex-innocent for even half a second; anyone who’s seen him in anything else knows that, chances are, he could teach her a freaky thing or two.
When they finally consummate, it’s fairly typical billowy-curtain, flickery-candle ‘90s eroticism (done no favors by Graeme Revell’s score, full of smooth jazz, drum machines, and synth farts). The “spice” comes via their initial encounter’s ripping, biting, lunging, light bondage (she ties his arms behind him with a belt and murmurs, “My way,” calling up unfortunate Sinatra imagery), and candle wax, which she pours all over his chest and his junk — and I know, you can never really grasp a fetish you don’t share, but owwwwweeeeee. Later, he performs cunnilingus on her in the courthouse parking garage (it’s pretty graphic!) before she lays him down on a broken light bulb. And their third big sex scene culminates in a struggle over handcuffs, after which Dafoe takes control and the whole thing gets awfully rape-y (she objects at first, and then, I’m afraid, starts to enjoy it). The consequences of this encounter are never dealt with in any way, good or bad.
Those scenes get the job done, I suppose. There’s plenty of flesh, and the props are wielded semi-convincingly, and the goal of this odd period in her career is achieved: you get ample opportunity to see what Madonna looks like having sex, or at least what she wants you to think she looks like in those private moments. But none of them are particularly sexy, not really, because they’re all so goddamn glum. The sexiest and freest scene in the movie (above) isn’t about any of the kinks or accouterments, or even about nudity; it comes when they’re in an elevator, on their way down to that parking garage coupling, frisky and pleased by a successful day in court. Madonna casually unzips Dafoe’s fly and reaches in for a grab, in spite of the colleagues surrounding them. He conceals this action with his briefcase, and so help me, her grinning “Bye!” to each suited dude who departs the elevator is exactly what the whole stupid movie is missing. In every other scene, there’s no fun to the sex, no joy or exploration or even real ecstasy; it’s all grim, deathly serious business.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the run-up to the unfortunate handcuff scene, which finds our star lying on the floor, opening her robe, and masturbating for Mr. Dafoe. She looks… well, she just looks weirdly plastic, her enhanced body as clearly manufactured as the performance — and, frankly, the movie. It’s frequently, unintentionally hilarious, but a giant miss as drama or erotica; the sexiness is too calculated, and the “kinky” elements are trotted out as flair rather than as part of the fabric. Body of Evidence got Madonna her worst reviews yet and grossed a miserable $13 million at the box office, barely making the top 100 for the year. She wouldn’t appear in another leading role until Evita, nearly four years later. And in the process, she learned what too many purveyors of erotica had learned before her: sometimes, it’s as good — or even better — to tell rather than show.