Madonna's Screen Test

Her new movie 'Truth or Dare' is self-adulation to the extreme. FILM COMMENTARY

IN "Truth or Dare" Madonna comes across like someone you went to junior high school with: a gum-chomping adolescent who can't resist bullying people, showing off, and playing the tease. But she's smart and quick, and drops such funny lines that you forgive her - or at least tolerate her presence. The new movie (released nationwide last Friday) is supposed to give us undreamed-of access to the pop star's life both behind the scenes and inside her head. What's tricky here is that the film's format is that of a traditional rock documentary, interlaced with concert footage from Madonna's "Blond Ambition" world tour. In a true documentary, the camera would be an impartial observer. This isn't the case with "Truth or Dare" because Madonna herself hired the filmmaker, put up $4 million, produced, and e d

ited the film.

For fans used to the "rock-doc" style, it's easy to forget that Madonna is as much behind the camera as in front of it. She allows the film crew to follow her around, and then exploits its presence. This could be chalked up to incredible egotism or savvy marketing strategy. One thing Madonna knows how to do is sell her image: Forbes magazine estimates her pre-tax income at $39 million, and her earnings since 1986 at $125 million.

She got there by being an undeniably powerful and persuasive performer. And even more by calculatedly flaunting her sexuality, and airing her conflicting feelings about religion. Hanging out with Madonna, as we do in this movie, is hardly a Girl Scout jamboree. We see the material girl writhing obscenely in several numbers, berating her sound crew with four-letter words, pouting about the emptiness in her life (yeah, right), and playing mother hen to her dancers.

The dubious triumph of this movie, and the reason it is drawing big crowds, is that it presupposes our intense interest in Madonna's life. That supreme assumption is part of Madonna's charisma. Who can resist a woman who's so convinced of her own stardom that she'll let the cameras roll while she's getting her throat examined? Who can pass up the opportunity to see the ice queen with her hair in a towel still looking like star material?

Audiences relate to her as the woman who can say anything. With her siren looks and high-fashion gloss, she is the logical evolution of a Mae West or a Bette Davis: bold, brassy, and totally in control. Madonna is also liked by some feminists because she has kept a tight rein on her creative ventures and pursues her career with singleminded intensity. But the most basic reason people like her is because she so thoroughly loves making a spectacle of herself. And by doing so, she cheerily lends herself to

being the object of parental outrage.

However much we laugh at her antics, there's also an ugly side to Madonna's personality. While anyone can admire her energy (few entertainers can keep a concert schedule as rigorous as "Blond Ambition"), athleticism, and quick wits, what parents dread is the signal she sends. She equates sexual expression with artistic freedom. She tries to make aggression seem sexy. In the film she mocks her Roman Catholic upbringing, her family, and childhood friends.

Her selfishness is evident when filmmaker Alek Keshishian plants a close girlhood pal in Madonna's path before she goes onstage. The woman hugs Madonna and tries to reestablish their friendship by asking Madonna to be godmother to her child when it's born. Madonna hedges, takes the painting the woman has made for her, and uncharitably stalks off, leaving the woman in the cold.

Much of her humor, while it tends to shatter stereotypes and point out hypocrisy, can be cruel. In "Truth or Dare" she baits Warren Beatty, her ex-flame from the movie "Dick Tracy," to come out of the shadows and be filmed. She makes Beatty appear insignificant, but he provides probably the best comeback line in the movie. When Madonna's doctor asks if she wants to talk off-camera, Beatty snorts, "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk." Score one for Warren.

Actor Kevin Costner also takes a ribbing, but he walked into it. He appears in the film congratulating Madonna backstage after her Los Angeles concert. Costner commits the ultimate offense of calling Madonna's concert "neat" in his soft, earnest voice. When his back is turned, Madonna mocks him mercilessly. The movie shows Madonna leading a prayer before every concert. In an incredibly self-indulgent segment, she is filmed visiting her mother's grave. This is supposed to rack up points with her detracto r

s that she loses with her racy performance.

In the end, do we know anything more about this pop icon, this overhyped symbol of popular culture? Not really. And that's the way Madonna wants it.

There are, however, two rare, truthful statements in the film. The first occurs when Madonna is talking with her backup singers. She says there are moments in her life when she looks around and wonders how she did all this. But she shakes it off because she can't afford to think that way.

The other is spoken near the end of the film, by someone else, who states, as if to sum up everything we've seen in this two-hour homage, "Madonna's in a race against time."

The film is rated R. Contains vulgarity, nudity, and homoerotic behavior.

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