In one obvious respect, Madonna is an atypical focus for this roundtable. She has, after all, starred or costarred in a dozen movies over the years. Not for her the route of, say, Tony Bennett in The Oscar, who gave a performance so famously awful that he never worked as an actor again. One and dones are more the meat of this roundtable.
Madonna, however, kept at it, despite the lack of anyone else really wanting her to. Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Cindi Lauper, hell, all the way back to Kate Smith, songstresses have burnt their fingers on the Hollywood stove and fled the kitchen. Madonna, however, is the Jason Voorhees of singers turned film actresses. Both because she tends to kill anything in her immediate area, and because she just keeps coming.
For some reason, studios continued to take a shot with her, over and over and over again. In the end, she either starred in or played major supporting role in 12 films over 17 years. And to be fair, at least some of the pictures she appeared in were successful.
Despite this, Madonna is still regarded as a woman with an Ahabian determination to chase movie stardom despite a decades-long list of cinematic disasters. For every A League of Their Own—a film, it must be noted, in which she played a fairly minor role—there are several more like Shanghai Surprise and Body of Evidence. Well, OK, maybe not several more like the latter. Body of Evidence is really bad.
Yet Madonna’s undying determination to be a film star would not give way to mundane facts regarding her ongoing lack of talent or box office success. For instance, she is a prolific, perhaps the most prolific, winner of Razzie Awards. Despite a limited filmography, she has won five Worst Actress awards and won another two as Worst Supporting Actress. She has also been nominated for both Worst Actress of the Decade and Worst Actress of the Century.
Hell, in 2003 she won three acting Razzies; Worst Actress for our current subject (she shared the honor with Britney Spears for her yeowoman’s work in Crossroads), Worst Supporting Actress for her wince-inducing cameo in the Bond film Die Another Day and Worst Screen Couple, again for Swept Away.
And even discounting her other numerous personal nominations, her films have also won a raft of Razzies for her cinematic coconspirators. Indeed, Swept Away was nominated for seven Razzies. It won five of them, including Worst Director and Worst Picture.
Two years later it was nominated a final time for the Razzies’ prestigious “Worst ‘Drama’ of Our First 25 Years” award. Up against such other august candidates as Showgirls, Mommie Dearest and The Lonely Lady, it was edged out by Battlefield Earth. Still, here it can be truly said that it was an honor merely to be nominated.
Let’s be systematic about Ms. Ciccone’s film career. Below we find the data for those projects in which Madonna played either the lead or had at least a sizable supporting role. (Well, except for Shadows and Fog. I have an animus for that film, so I included it.) Unless so marked, the box office figures are domestic ones, as many of her films never really played overseas. The info for each film includes the title, year of release, the movie’s Rottentomatoes positive rating, and the box office take/budget for each entry.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) 87% $27,398,584/$4.5m
Shanghai Surprise (1986) 14% $2,315,683/$17m
Who’s That Girl (1987) 23% $7,305/209/n/a
Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) No RT Score $43,671/$4m
Dick Tracy (1990) 64% $162,738,726 (Worldwide)/$47m
A League of Their Own (1992) 76% $132,440,069 (Worldwide)/$40m
Shadows and Fog (1992) 52% $2,735,731/$14m
Body of Evidence (1992) 6% $13,273,595/$30m
Dangerous Game (1993) 29% $23,671 (yes, $23,671) / n/a
Evita (1996) 64% $141,047,179 (Worldwide)/$55m
The Next Best Thing (2000) 19% $24,362,772 (Worldwide)/$25m
Swept Away (2002) 5% $598,645/$10m
W./E. (as director/writer) 2012 13% $868,439 (Worldwide)/$29m
Madonna’s screen career started out promisingly, with her well-received supporting turn in Desperately Seeking Susan. However, this was misleading by dint of the traditional trope favored by models / singers / athletes / whatevers-turned-‘actors.’
By which I mean she basically played herself (or her public image at the time), a glamourous invincible sexpot Mary Sue wacky dream girl. In the film, Rosanna Arquette—remember her?—played a timid housewife mistaken for Susan, who finds empowerment when she begins to play along with the error. But the mob is after Susan (gee, that’s fresh) and blah blah blah.
The problem with the “playing yourself” thing, of course, is that it doesn’t really prove much. Lacking acting talent, screen charisma and, to be harsh but fair, movie star looks, Madonna cast about for another route to screen stardom. And thus was born a recurring gambit of her sporadic film career, which often saw her riding the cinematic coattails of her current husband or, uh, boyfriend.
Desperately seeking to star in a movie rather than act in support, Madonna initially utilized this strategy with her first husband. The guy who played Desi to Madonna’s sluttier Lucy was Sean Penn. A very good actor, but really, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Sean’s onscreen and offscreen antics and anger control issues have definitely impacted his once promising screen career. However, one of the first and most devastating torpedoes to cripple his then-burgeoning movie stardom was Shanghai Surprise, a hideous ‘comedy’ costarring the new Mrs. Penn.
Madonna’s musical success and status as a cultural icon were still growing, though. She thus convinced Warner Bros. to fund another romantic comedy, Who’s That Girl. Budget information remains a closely guarded secret. We do know the film made well under a third of what Desperately Seeking Susan did, and has a well-founded reputation as a flop. It also garnered Madonna her second consecutive Razzie win for Worst Actress, following her first award Shanghai Surprise.
She next took a supporting role in Bloodhounds of Broadway, an ensemble comedy based on the work of Damon Runyon. Made for $4,000,000, the picture was barely released, drawing an insanely low $43,000—yes, thousand—at the box office. It saw such limited play that it barely garnered any reviews. To this day there weren’t enough to even generate a Rottentomatoes score.
However, Madonna was only nominated for a Razzie (Worst Supporting Actress) this time, instead of winning. So…that’s better, right? She was also nominated that year for Worst Actress of the Decade (the 1980s) and Worst New Actress of the Decade. She lost respectively to Bo Derek and Pia Zadora, which is an impressive roster by anyone’s standards.
However, You can’t keep a bad actress / insanely relentless media superstar down. And so a year later Madonna had one of her few cinematic triumphs. This was her turn as the Bad Girl in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. For what it’s worth, it’s a pretty good movie. And again, Madonna was wisely assigned a very, er, confined role basically playing a version of herself.
What she really brought to the screen was Sex, or the promise of it. This, along with the Husband / Boyfriend thing, was the other staple of her film career. The recently divorced Madonna engaged in a very public, indeed heavily promoted, affair with Beatty, another fellow well known for his affairs with his female costars. If nothing else, she thus probably saved the film’s ‘Good Girl,’ actress Glenne Headley, from being subjected to Mr. Beatty’s wrinkled charms.
Two years later Madonna played a smaller supporting role in A League of Their Own. Her importance to the project was notably less than for Dick Tracy. Still, she had now been a supporting actress in two major hits, and this remains the acme of her cinema career.
However, five months after A League of Their Own hit theaters, MGM released Body of Evidence. In contrast to her two recent successes, here she was flat out the star. Indeed, the entire film was built around her. The film relied heavily on the promise that Madonna would outdo Sharon Stone’s sex-drenched turn in the recent megahit Basic Instinct.
In furtherance of this idea, the movie’s release was coordinated with that of her infamous Sex book—an expensive metal sheet-covered, oversized collection of arty (and thus completely un-erotic) nudie photos. This remains most remembered for its defective spiral binding, from which the leaves of the book tended to fall out en masse as it was ‘read.,’
Despite Basic Instinct being a huge hit, there were few big studio attempts to replicate it. (It did inspire, though, an entire cottage industry of cable TV and DTV flicks.) This was because even mid-level female stars generally balked at going the full frontal and explicit simulated sex route a la Sharon Stone.
This was the period of Madonna all but flirting with porn stardom, though, and MGM took a flyer. Body of Evidence was budgeted at a smaller, albeit still quite healthy, $30,000,000, as opposed to Basic Instinct’s $47,000,000. However, Basic Instinct drew $353,000,000 at the worldwide box office, to Body of Evidence’s $13,300,000 performance.
Madonna was certainly willing to try to outsleaze Ms. Stone, but sadly her doing so wasn’t exactly a novelty by then. Other facts weighed against Madonna’s project. Ms. Stone was, to be unchivalrous, far more fetching than Madonna. Ms. Stone’s film was pretty good as opposed to being legendarily awful (Body of Evidence has a putrid 6% rating at Rottentomatoes). Finally, Ms. Stone is a comparative Meryl Streep as an actress. If you were going to build an erotic thriller around one of them*, Ms. Stone was clearly the better choice.[*Also, Ms. Stone’s costar Michael Douglas had just starred in another gigantic erotic thriller hit, Fatal Attraction. The far less movie star-ish Willem Defoe took the bullet in Madonna’s film, forced to utter such lines as “Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful.” And yes, the subject of that line was Madonna.]
Next Madonna again tried the indie route. And after the huge success of Bloodhounds of Broadway, why not? And so she costarred opposite Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrera’s Dangerous Game. It certainly proved a dangerous game for (again) MGM. Budget figures again were held in strict secret, but the film made even less money than Bloodhounds, drawing but a mindboggling $23,671 box office take.
As you’ll notice, there are a rather more bombs than hits discussed here. Of the latter, Madonna really only carried one successful film, 1996’s Evita. It says something that her biggest screen success came by dint of starring in a lush adaptation of a popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. This sort of gainsays her perennial strategy of playing off her titillating public image. It was also a film sold on her singing chops more than her acting ones. Perhaps if she had gone such a conservative route in her choice of projects more often, she might have had a better movie career.
Of the other hits, one was her first movie when she was still a fresh-faced cultural novelty, the aforementioned Desperately Seeking Susan. And that was really Rosanna Arquette’s movie. I’ll give Madonna points for Dick Tracy, since so much of the film’s publicity centered on her affair with Beatty. So she brought that to the table. You can’t really give her too much credit for A League of Their Own, however.
Evita is definitely in her plus column, though, especially since it made the bulk of her money overseas. Notice, moreover, that her successful pictures were but the handful of instances in which her projects garnered a decent to very good review numbers at Rottentomatoes. And while Madonna only once toplined in her few hits, she was much more like to have starred in her biggest bombs.
(Madonna had but a teeny role in Shadows and Fog, which was the first awful Woody Allen movie I saw. A 52% positive rating doesn’t seem that bad. However, the film’s bad reviews were far more scathing then the good ones were complementary. And yet Young Ken had faith in the Woodman—making a black and white, Kafka-inspired film, neat!—until I saw it in a largely deserted theater with my own eyes. I was literally depressed when I left the theater.
Most notably, and a sure sign of things to come, it was the first film Allen made where he cast a parade of big stars in cameos purely to show he could get them to appear in his films. This became a hallmark of his later work. Among those scads of pointless cameos was Madonna’s.)
Zoom ahead several years. Despite having had a rare, fairly big hit with Evita, Madonna weirdly failed to capitalize on it. She didn’t return to the screen for four years. When she did, she again went the *yawn* controversy route with the dramedy The Next Best Thing. In that opus, Madonna has a drunken one-nighter with her gay best friend, inevitably played by Rupert Everett. She ends up preggers, and they decide to raise the baby together.
Coming out—so to speak—in the year 2000, it was barely controversial at all. Hell, Will and Grace had already been on NBC for two years. The Next Best Thing was also (surprise) quite bad, racking up a dismal 19% Rottentomatoes rating. And most of the critics providing the sparse good reviews basically gave it slack because the film’s ‘message’ met with their approval. “It’s a failure, but a well-done failure, and those are sometimes worth watching.” That’s a line from one of the positive reviews. The pans, in contrast, were often downright brutal.
Like a vampire rising from her crypt, however, Madonna finagled yet another movie. This was Swept Away, a critical and financial disaster so appalling that it finally once and for all drove a stake into her dreams of movie stardom.
Madonna has only tried the movie thing once more since then, and then not as an actress but as a director and screenwriter. This film, W./E., proved exactly as successful as you’d suspect, both critically and financially. But that’s not why we are here today. That film, W./E., will have to wait for its own review. It will, to coin a phrase, Die Another Day.
In any case, Swept Away was a remake of an earlier, well known Italian art film. As such, we can’t look at her version without at least glancing at the original.
Well, that was certainly one of the more reprehensible movies I’ve ever seen.
Swept Away was made by the well-known Italian arthouse director Lina Wertmüller. Having worked steadily since the early ‘60s, Ms. Wertmüller achieved her greatest success with four consecutive films she made with her frequent star Giancarlo Giannini; The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), Swept Away (1974) and The Seven Beauties (1975).
These pictures cemented her reputation as one of the period’s hottest art directors, culminating with The Seven Beauties. This earned her an Academy Award nod for Best Director, making her the first woman so nominated. To date, only three other woman have been nominated, with only one has actually won the statuette. That was Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s The Hurt Locker.
All I knew about Swept Away was that it had a reputation for dicey content. I also knew that Ms. Wertmüller was a communist. For some reason, this is OK, while Leni Riefenstahl is castigated as a monster. Needless to say, I’m not arguing against the latter as much as wondering what the difference is. Admittedly, Ms. Wertmüller didn’t make films directly for Stalin or Mao. However, people who did aren’t much importuned either, if at all.
Be that as it may, I had to look at the film if I was reviewing the remake, so I didn’t plan to let that aspect of things bother me. Sometimes the biggest evils are the easiest ones to overlook, after all. So while Ms. Wertmüller no doubt meant the film as a larger political statement, I kind of tuned it out.
And in the end there was material so vile in another context that it swamped any concerns one might have in that direction. Indeed, it’s the sort of film that one can only watch mouth agape, slack-jawed with disbelief. Because of my revulsion, I must admit I that I fast forwarded through quite a lot of the film, tracking things through the subtitles as it flashed by.
The film opens on a rented yacht ferrying a party of The Rich enjoying a Mediterranean cruise. The worst of the lot by far is the braying but lovely blonde Raffaella. She is constantly arguing with her fellow passengers and portrayed as a crazy right-winger. Of course, I myself am a crazy right-winger, and given that the film’s hero, crewmember Gennarino, is (surprise) an outright communist, I naturally rolled my eyes a bit.
Indeed, that Raffaella disdains communists is presented as proof of her being a ‘fascist,’ as she is oft labeled, as well as generally nutzo. She’s also naturally an asshole, delighting in pushing the crew around and making constant disparaging remarks about her lower class, swarthier countrymen. Gennarino is her number one target. He endures her actions and words with comical rage while also lusting after her and her topless sunbathing compatriots.
I hadn’t really realized this was a comedy until I saw the film. I mean, it’s not a farce. Yet during the long opening portion of the film much attention is played to Gennarino’s comically hangdog, long-suffering reactions.
Eventually Raffaella ill-advisedly makes Gennarino take her out for a late in the day motorboat run, despite his warning of the dangers of doing so. Sure enough, they end up losing sight of the ship and drift away when the motor dies. Raffaella takes this as another opportunity to bitch, while Gennarino strives to keep his temper. As things progress, however, she realizes that they are indeed in dire straits. She continues to take it out on Gennarino while her surly behavior continues to make things worse.
Eventually they sight land and pull up on what proves to be a small deserted island. Here the tables are turned. Working man Gennarino has the skills to eke out a living for himself, while the pampered Raffaella is hopelessly unable to do fend for herself. To her appalled outrage, Gennarino eventually has enough and tells her to screw off. If she wants food and shelter, she’ll have to kowtow to him.
Given the film’s politics, this element is naturally given a markedly political hue that it wouldn’t in an American film. (This indeed turned out to be the case with the remake.) Gennarino spews forth ever mounting proletariat rage as he castigates the harpy. I kept thinking that in an American film the two would be played by Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
Then it struck me that they had been. Hawn and Russell’s romantic comedy Overboard is rather similar to this one in its set-up, even involving the haughty Hawn being placed at working man Russell’s mercy following a yachting mishap. I have to wonder if that film was inspired by this one. Not so much of a remake as a riff, a more mass market-friendly version.
Events continue, and overall things are still being played as comedy. Given that Eurofilms and stuff from the ‘70s were nowhere as constrained by political correctness, I was anticipating some comical slapstick violence of the sort you seldom see now. I was thinking of terms of the kind of thing you’d see in a John Wayne picture, with Gennarino putting Raffaella over his knee and vigorously spanking her, or maybe the old pushing her over via his boot on behind.
Instead, well, he just starts punching the living shit out of her. He also pulls her around by her hair, not in a funny way, and subjects her to other violence. At one point he just starts slapping the living crap out of her—I mean, he just beats her down—and then quite nearly rapes her. The only reason he doesn’t is that he wants her to beg for it. Of course, now that she’s seen what a real man is, she does.
Oh, and he also constantly calls her the most unspeakable things, I mean really vile language, and often seems on the verge of outright murdering her.
And here’s the thing. The film is on his side. Presumably because of the communist politics—and I have to admit, this is one of the more revealing films, inadvertently I’m thinking, about how communism really works in practice—this is all considered her proper due for her Class Crimes. Not just by the character Gennarino, but by the film’s director.
As if that wasn’t enough, yep, Raffaella starts buying into his appallingly misogynistic tirades. And remember, this is me labeling them misogynistic. These rants are not just about class injustice and the like, but more generally about the place of women in the grand scheme of things. “A woman is [properly] an object of pleasure for the working man,” Gennarino rages. If an American film started with a woman being abused this way, it would most likely end up being something like I Spit on Your Grave. And indeed, I kind of kept waiting for Raffaella to take her revenge. She doesn’t, though.
Instead, it turns out that Gennarino is right. After a life among spent thin-blooded rich beta males, Raffaella indeed blossoms under the constant physical and mental abuse of a ‘real man.’ She learns via subjugation the true meaning of love and ecstasy. It’s a romantic comedy as written by John Norman. Eventually she begs him to sodomize her, which is he ‘comically’ squeamish to do. Although, of course, he does. Yea gods! And again, the film is squarely on his side.
Now, look, I’ve never found it possible to squeeze individuals into neat little group boxes, especially where sex drives are concerned. Certainly to the extent that the film is making a larger statement, as it was surely meant to, it’s horrifying. To the degree that this film is about two individuals, however, I can buy that there are women who would react this way. I mean, not a large percentage of women, sure, but one individual? Yes, that could happen. It’s basically of an exaggerated version of Stockholm Syndrome, after all.
But the freakin’ film just flat out champions all this. Maybe I would find it at least somewhat less reprehensible if, say, a cold-eyed, clinical observer of humanity like Stanley Kubrick made the film. “This sort of thing happens,” he would be saying. “You might as well admit it, this is part of what we are. Not very pretty, is it?”
Wertmüller, in contrast, finds it quite pretty indeed. This isn’t a tragedy or a horror movie or a social drama like The Accused. It’s still basically a romantic comedy, albeit one motivated by revolutionary rage. Congratulations to me, I have now found a romantic comedy whose sexual and social politics are more appalling than those of Pretty Woman. I never thought I’d see such a film, much less one that would beat it by a country mile. And frankly, I wish I hadn’t.
The situation is relentlessly romanticized. (Another aspect it shares with Pretty Woman. And it’s perhaps as appalling in its own way that that latter film is beloved almost entirely by women.) Despite the days or weeks or whatever they are stuck on the island, the two never grow more disheveled.
No matter how long things go on, their hair never looks other than freshly shampooed. Gennarino always had a shaggy proletariat beard, but it never gets any shaggier. Raffaella perennially looks like she just left a hair salon, and moreover is always perfectly made up. This is true even after Gennarino repeatedly punches her right in the face. And I mean, he wails on her. Yet her unblemished skin never bruises. She absorbs violence with the aplomb of Larry, Moe and Curly.
On a purely pedestrian level, none of this makes sense. Except, obviously, in that this is yet another romantic fairy tale about a vain princess who finds True Love with a commoner. Indeed, at one point Ms. Wertmüller cheekily references the most famous romantic clinch in movie history. Following Raffaella’s surrender into real womanhood, we see the two roll around in the surf making love, a la Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.
I noted Swept Away film isn’t a tragedy, but that’s true only up to a point. Eventually, it becomes one. You see, while Gennarino and Raffaella find True Love in beatings and mental abuse and butt sex, he suspects in his heart that Raffaella’s Class Sympathies will have her betray him in the end. He must find out if her love is real, because he’s a sensitive soul who has to know. Therefore he signals an eventual rescue boat, against her protests, to take them back to The World.
Sure enough, despite having found True Love, Raffaella indeed betrays Our Hero by proving unable to give up her life of opulence. Oh, what a bitter lesson about the Human Condition for all of us. In the end, Gennarino, A Man Who Loved Well But None Too Wisely, is forced to crawl back to his less attractive wife. Oh, and his kids, who THANK GOD are kept off-camera.
First he punches the wife around too, though, since she’s not quite as properly tractable as Raffaella was. She actually has the nerve to castigate him for mooning over another woman, and spending a fortune in reward money buying Raffaella a bauble to communicate his contempt for her betrayal. In the end, though, he’s so unmanned that he is forced to tag after his wife. Who, again, isn’t all that attractive, doesn’t call him master, and probably doesn’t ask for butt sex. Our Gennarino ends up a defeated, broken man. And again, this is played as Tragedy.
By the way, in the process of working over his aggrieved wife a bit, Gennarino ends up with a scratched face. The thin Raffaella—she’s too tall to be properly called waifish, but she’s certainly a slim woman—can take repeated blows to the face without sustaining a mark. Gennarino, in contrast, wears his wounds for all to see. The only real damage that can be done is what a woman does to a man.
And so ends what is I can only hope remains the most nauseating movie I will ever see.
Being the ‘70s, critical reaction was split, based often on how one viewed the film’s politics. Some took as I did, and reacted as badly. The Village Voice (hardly a bastion of conservatism) dubbed it “possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” I don’t see why it really makes much of a difference if the film was made by a man or woman. But then, I often don’t ‘get’ sexism or feminism as defined by many. Generally such definitions often amount to, ‘do I personally approve of something of not.’
However, a far greater percentage of critics explicitly bought into the film’s political priorities, and continue to do so. In 1998, film historian John P. Lovell wrote “The sexual violence can be analyzed as political violence within the framework of patriarchal politics and the film’s concern with a symbolic presentation of social revolt.” Well, that’s all right then.
Some of the most prominent of the nation’s critics simply took the film as a particularly cheeky romantic comedy. Vincent Canby, the critic for The New York Times, deemed it “the most successful fusion of Miss Wertmuller’s two favorite themes, sex and politics, which are here so thoroughly and so successfully tangled that they become a single subject, like two people in love.”
He continued on to laud the stars, hailing “the performances of Mr. Giannini and Miss Melato, who tear into their roles with a single-minded intensity that manages to be both hugely comic and believable, even in the most outrageous of situations. They are the best things to happen to Italian comedy since Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren squared off in the nineteen-sixties.”
“Squared off.” Well.
Roger Ebert, who had a career-long obsession with smutty sexual content and actresses he thought were hot—he was perhaps the sole critic to always give Farrah Fawcett movies a good review—naturally loved the picture, awarding it four stars.
But then, consider the one movie Ebert himself wrote. This ended with the massacre of much of the cast. The central moment of this extended sequence involved the murderer putting his gun barrel into mouth of a sleeping woman. Her defining characteristic throughout the film was that she was, as they say, markedly sex positive. Still sleeping, she instinctively begins to perform fellatio on the gun barrel. The killer waits as this continues, until eventually the woman wakes up and reacts with terror as she realizes her predicament. At this point only does he pull the trigger, as we watch the back of her head being blown off.
That film, like this one, is billed as a comedy. Roger Ebert, ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, like me (although on his part more to appreciate its sexual content), Mr. Ebert forswore any larger political context for the film. The picture, he wrote in his review, “resists the director’s most determined attempts to make it a fable about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and persists in being about a man and a woman. On that level, it’s a great success.”
Like all correct-thinking people, Ebert also pauses to share the film’s smirking at those who have a problem with Nazis communists. He also appreciates the picture’s climatic tragedy. After all but explicating the film’s climax (a continuing habit of his over the years), he muses how “not to reveal too much, Wertmuller uses the film’s ending to demonstrate that the class system still subverts our real human inclinations.” Even so, he maintains, “it tells a story we get involved in and (despite all I’ve said) it’s often very funny,” and despite the emphasis on politics, “it’s a pleasure all the same.” It sure is!!
Messrs. Ebert and Canby were not the only critics to laud the film. Swept Away went on to win the Top Foreign Film award from the National Board of Critics, and its screenplay was nominated as best of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle.
Anyway, having now sat through this artifact, I could only gape at what the hell Madonna was thinking when she decided to remake it in the year 2002.
Well, now I’ve seen Madonna’s version of the film. Much to my lack of surprise, it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be. Say what you will about the original—and I certainly have—there’s no doubt that Lina Wertmüller had the courage of her convictions. Hers was a film that pulled no punches. Literally.
The new film not only pulls the punches, it eradicates them. Everything is dumbed down and over-explained. Things are also extremely streamlined, cutting half an hour off the original movie’s two hour running time.
However, the DVD features 16 (!) deleted scenes, running generally from about half a minute to over a minute. So it seems the film originally was a good deal longer. It’s quite possible the studio saw the finished product and decided a) ticket buyers would no doubt want to get out of the theater as soon as possible, so why not placate them, and b) a short running time would allow for extra showings that first weekend before word of mouth got out.
Most of all, the original’s artistic bravery, grotesque but authentic, is gone. A lot of rough edges have been sanded down here. Yes, standing on its own, in a vacuum, the 2002 version is still fairly out there. But compared to its model, it’s pitifully weak tea.
It would be one thing if the remake were an answer to the first film, taking the story in another direction to argue with Ms. Wertmüller. It’s not, though. It’s riding on the coattails of the original’s controversial reputation, but doesn’t have the guts to even follow down the trail already established for them. “This is far enough,” they seem to be saying, sitting down in the shade and laying out a picnic lunch.
This leaves…what, exactly? Why remake one of the most controversial art films in history only to neuter it, make it safer? Big brave Madonna, the queen of controversy, a woman who’s made herself incredibly rich and famous by thumbing her nose at the middle class, making the equivalent of a PG-13 version of Showgirls.
The only thing I can say for the remake is that it acted as a bit of revenge upon Ms. Wertmüller. “”What did they do to my movie?” she is reported to have wailed after seeing it. “Why they do this?” I can’t say that second question isn’t a good one.
At least Overboard intentionally took elements from Swept Away (I’m assuming, anyway) with the acknowledged goal of refashioning them into a mainstream film. In contrast, Madonna and husband / director Guy Ritchie wanted cred for making a dangerous film, but didn’t actually want to make one which was genuinely dangerous. Point to Ms. Wertmüller.
Despite the longer waiting time, we waste a goodly hunk of it getting to where the original started. In Ms. Wertmüller’s film, we open on Raffaella and her friends frolicking in the gorgeous waters of the Mediterranean. Here it takes us seven minutes to get to that point, which is a not insignificant amount of time in a film running 90 minutes.
Thus we open on Amber (Madonna), her husband Tony (Bruce Greenwood) and two pair of friends boarding a private jet. These characters are pretty dull. The other two guys are basically interchangeable, while the wives are Bitchy Marina (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and younger trophy wife Dumb Debi (Elizabeth Banks).
Since Amber’s even bitchier than Marina—the film’s kind of built around that fact—Tripplehorn’s redundant. Banks’ character is so dumb she seems to have emigrated from the very lowest form of sitcom. At one point she’s swimming in the sea, erupts out of the water and exclaims with surprised delight, “Salty!” Because, you know, she’s dumb. Did you get that?
Their plane takes off, and then we get a credit sequenced consisting of loving shots of extremely high end goods; fancy wines, golden cigarette lighters, jewelry, caviar, etc. The irony, of course, is that this sort of opulence in fact represents the very life Madonna and Guy Ritchie themselves actually lead. According to Celebrity Net Worth.com, Madonna herself is worth 730 million dollars. So much for making a ‘statement’ about The Haves.*[*Also, I can’t help but feel that the images of caviar and jewelry are as much product placement as anything else, which would be especially hilarious.]
Anyway, I guess Ms. Wertmüller felt that seeing a bunch of people renting a large yacht for an extended vacation was enough to establish them as The Rich. As we shall see, the remake eschews that sort of subtlety. While the original isn’t actually subtle at all, it sure seems like it compared to the remake.
And again, the remake seems downright terrified its audience won’t ‘get’ stuff. For instance, presumably we saw our Haves board a plane to explain how Americans could have possibly gotten to Greece for a yachting vacation. Whew, glad they cleared that up. They traveled there.
Madonna sings a quiet little European-ish torch song over this. This is both tonally wrong for her and tonally wrong for the movie. Then they arrive in Greece (although actually filmed in Malta). The film seems pretty insistent to make itself less Italian, so only the Gennarino analog remains of that nationality.
Speaking of music, the scored music when they arrive is ‘Greece’ is so Greek that Zorba would roll his eyes. But again, this is a film chronically afraid its audience won’t ‘get’ it. Nothing like making a remake of an art house film that assumes its audience is made up of idiots.*[*In this case that’s demonstrably true, but nonetheless.]
As the music plays, they characters silently and in slow motion stroll down the dock to their gigantic rented yacht. For absolutely no reason whatsoever they occasionally insert a fade into the shot, although when they come out of the fade they are still just strolling down the dock. I think Ritchie was trying to show he was A DIRECTOR!, and felt the need to draw attention to himself somehow.
Eventually they reach the yacht, which is huge and gorgeous.* Amber, however, begins to bitch because it’s not new. I guess this is to establish her cred as both a bitch and a philistine. She’s especially concerned that the yacht in fact has a gym, as she was promised. This is when Madonna was on that super-fitness, zero-body fat kick, so they worked that into the script.
Again, this is all pretty much how Madonna herself lives, nor is it difficult to believe that she is as demanding as Amber is here. The odd thing is that we never get any indication that Madonna or Ritchie realizes she is in fact parodying herself. Of course, showbiz people give themselves dispensations for their lifestyles because they are artists. So it’s quite possible the notion really never did strike her. Amber’s riches come from industry or something, which is evil. So, you know, completely different.
So now the crew is Greek, except for Our Protagonist, who now is named Giuseppe. This for two reasons; first, Giuseppe is more obviously an Italian name than Gennarino (mustn’t confuse the audience; it’s like how all Mexican movie characters used to have names like Pedro Gonzales), and second because Bitchy Amber can then call him Pee Pee instead of Pepe, his diminutive.
It’s hard to think that a grown, sophisticated woman in her late 40s would call someone Pee Pee, but there you go. It should be noted that Raffaella in the first film was brash, smart and combative as well as bitchy. She took a self-aware pleasure in her excesses. Think of Ann Coulter, and you’d be in the ballpark.
Amber however is just mean and sullen. Raffaella has a spark, Amber doesn’t. That sucks a lot of life out of the film, and forecasts another way the picture will betray Wertmüller’s original. Again, this might be just as example of being further dumbed down. It’s easier to see the contrast between Feckless Amber and Happy Amber is the former is patently unhappy. More likely, though, Amber’s lack of spark in due to Madonna’s limited acting abilities. She’s generally been an inert presence onscreen, a major factor in her continued lack of success there.
Amber & Co. are greeted by the crew and Captain as they board, and Amber inevitably ignores them. “I’m not interested in shaking Blackbeard’s hook,” she sniffs. That’s the film’s idea of funny bitchy dialog. Watch out, Katherine Hepburn. Then Tony asks the Captain to show Amber to her quarters, a task he passes on to Giuseppe.
I’d imagine the Captain of a yacht catering to the uber-rich would handle such schmoozing tasks himself, especially where first impressions are involved. Also, Giuseppe is the boat’s fisherman, and thus smells of fish, another reason he probably wouldn’t assigned this task. However, it’s necessary to get the Giuseppe / Amber thing going, so logic be damned.
They also have the Captain tell Our Hero “don’t get all Italian on me.” This apparently in case the name ‘Giuseppe’ wasn’t enough to clue the audience in. He’s Italian. Giuseppe. Or Pepe. Pepe and Giuseppe being the same person. He is Italian. Does everyone follow that now?
Actually, there’s no real reason for this character to be Italian anymore. He was in the first film because everyone in the first film was Italian. The only real reason for it here is that they stunt cast Adriano Giannini, the son of Giancarlo Giannini, to play the part. For Adriano this was only his second role. Amazingly, he went on to have a successful acting career in Italy anyway. Admittedly, he may have ducked any blame for this fiasco by noting, “Those Americans* ruined everything!” And really, who would argue with him?[*Well, Guy Ritchie is English, but even so.]
The Captain complains about Giuseppe acting Italian after the latter complains about the Captain officiously snapping fingers at him. Because the film is (ironically) radically toned down and homogenized, Giuseppe’s character is not a communist. It’s more like he just doesn’t like to be bossed around.
He’s filled with working man resentment, but it’s not apparently tied to any larger political philosophy. First, because the film isn’t smart enough to articulate such a thing—as we’ll see—and also because maybe some flyover country dunderheads in the audience might not understand why the film’s hero being a communist is admirable. Stupid Americans. So, catering to the presumed prejudices of the hypothetical audience, they bravely jettison the original film’s forthright politics.
So Giuseppe shows Amber and husband Tony to their gorgeous wood paneled room, whereupon Amber assumes a sour(er) expression. She tells Tony to ask about the gym; she’s too hoity-toity to speak to the crew herself, you see. Giuseppe confirms they have gym facilities. The punchline being…are you sitting down?…when he reappears shortly thereafter with a small exercise bike. See? That’s the ‘gym.’ Amber reacts with a comical scream. Although I’m actually just theorizing the ‘comical’ part.
And again, how do you think Madonna would react in real life to one of the five star hotels she stays in—but probably seldom pays for—trying to foist such a thing on her? And would she, unlike Amber, talk directly to the staff herself, or instead assign one of her (no doubt regularly terrorized) cadre of personal assistant to do it? Again, the fact that people like her can make movies like this and not realize they are exactly what they are criticizing is gobsmacking to me.
The ‘comic’ effect is *cough* enhanced, by the way, as the revelation about the gym and Amber’s resultant scream is not shown directly. Instead we learn it via flashback, both as Giuseppe later describes the events to his coworkers in the galley, and as Amber does to the same to her companions at dinner that night. These retellings are accompanied by Egregious Comedy Music, nearly always a sign that a film will not, in fact, be in the least bit funny.
It’s here that Amber first describes Giuseppe as “little,” as in “that little hairy black one.” This is a regular refrain, as she continues to call him small, a midget, etc. The weird thing about this is that Adriano Giannini stands 5′ 11″. Aside from maybe Shaquille O’Neal, I don’t think anyone is going to describe anyone that tall as being a midget.
Then there’s the “black” thing. It’s an odd insult from this character. Now, that sort of observation was also much bandied about in the original film. However, that was sharp and realistic social satire. Raffaella was a fair-headed northerner who was prejudiced against the swarthier Sicilians, as the heroes of both versions are.
This is a fairly normal attitude in Italy, especially among the upper classes. It’s almost exactly akin to the attitude the Southern aristocracy in United States had against “white trash.” So in the original film Raffaella’s insults made sense. Amber calling Giuseppe “black,” however, is completely nonsensical. Adriano Giannini isn’t even especially swarthy.
To be fair, though, Giuseppe is actually hairy. He sports a shaggy mane and beard like his analogue in the original film.
Here they also establish that there are deserted island in the area. Otherwise when the characters are stranded on one, the audience might be confused. “Where did that come from?” they would presumably mutter in burgeoning panic. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” Speaking of not getting it, the fact is mentioned by Debi, who notes you don’t find that sort of thing in the Caribbean.
This being the Debi who didn’t know seawater was salty, and who in a deleted scene responds to warnings about the possibility of a Great White trolling the local waters by asking, “A great white what?” Seriously, she’s played throughout the film basically along the lines of Steve Carrell’s character in the Anchorman movies. Yet suddenly she’s this font of travel information. Perhaps sensing this, they IMMEDIATELY revert to demonstrating how ‘comically’ stupid she is.
And so seven minutes in and we’re already treading water. The main points being established, over and over again, is that a) Giuseppe doesn’t think money matters very much, and doesn’t like being treated as an inferior, and b) Amber is a rich, unhappy bitch. That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that requires this amount of foundation, but hey, they’re the professionals.
So we see Amber sneer when Tony comes to dinner wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. Then later we see Amber sullenly sitting fully dressed in a motor launch while her friends enjoy the paradisiacal waters, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella and smoking in bitter silence.
Naturally the other person in the boat with her is Giuseppe. And while Gennarino in his parallel scenes had to work hard to suppress his working class rage against Raffaella, Giuseppe just seems to be a very nice naïf. Otherwise he might look to have flaws too, and that would just confuse the audience. Amber, bad. Giuseppe, good. Sooooooooooooooooooooooooo much easier.
Madonna and Ritchie did apparently feel the need to inject at least a little bit of the political jabber of the original. That’s what allowed them to keep telling themselves they are making smart, trenchantly-observed Art instead of movies for the masses.
As with Raffaella, Amber is a rich reactionary. However, her defense of capitalism unsurprisingly reflects the laughably cartoonish beliefs of the screenwriter—who was in fact Guy Ritchie himself—about what pro-capitalists think, rather than anything even close to what those beliefs actually are. You see this thing a lot whenever a liberal and conservative are arguing in a movie or TV show. This was a staple of The West Wing, for example.
So naturally the arguments made by any conservative tend to be things no conservative would ever say, and tend to express opinion they don’t really have. As we begin Amber is peddling away furiously on the exercise bike. I assume this is a metaphor, as an exercise bike involves frenetic activity that gets one nowhere. Get it? Sadly, I also assume that Madonna and Guy Ritchie somehow thought this was witty.
Amber, observed mid-sentence: “If you ask me [Capitalism is] more successful than Communism. You don’t see a lot of people emigrating to Cuba or China*.”
[*This statement is meant to be damning. of course. In the circles of Correctly Thinking People that folks like Madonna circulate among, such statements about Communism are considered to be highly vulgar and unsophisticated, probably because they are baldly accurate.] Sensitive Respectful Thoughtful Caring Guy: “All I’m saying is that there are problems raised by capitalism.”
Amber, sneering: “What problems?”
Sensitive Respectful Thoughtful Caring Guy: “Well, your old man’s the boss of a pharmaceutical company, right? And his company’s got to make a profit to keep the shareholders happy. But, that’s not necessarily in the public’s best interest.”
Amber, sneering: “Then they don’t have to buy.””
Sensitive Respectful Thoughtful Caring Guy: “Let’s imagine there’s a drug that can cure a certain kind of blindness. And even though it costs practically nothing to make this drug, they still put a high price on it, in the name of capitalism. So if you can’t afford the drug, you’ll stay blind.”
Amber, sneering: “If it weren’t for the drug companies, they’d stay blind anyway. What’s to stop them from getting a job and buying the drug?”
Sensitive Respectful Thoughtful Caring Guy, disbelievingly: “They’re blind. It limits their employment opportunities.”
Amber, sneering: “Well, they can bake cakes or something. You don’t need eyes to bake cakes.”
Amber then goes on to detail the Laws of Capitalism: “The proprietor of goods can set any price that he or she sees fit, and shall not be at the mercy of any moral or ethical issues.” Needless to say, that’s the Laws of Capitalism as perceived through a rather left-wing lens. I can hardly see Thomas Sowell defining capitalism that way. And unsurprisingly, no discussion of factors like Enlightened Self-Interest intrudes either.
I mean, I’m not expecting an informed dialogue regarding Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, or a learned lecture contrasting the writings of Milton Freidman and John Maynard Keynes (much less Karl Marx). But for Pete’s sake, this sounds like an argument between fifth graders who just read the introductory chapter of their Econ textbook.
And to be fair, the ‘sensible’ liberal here sounds just as stupid as Amber. He starts his argument with “Capitalism has its own problems.” Yes, no kidding, you moron. Everything has its own problems. That’s the nature of mankind and its constructs—an awareness of which is perhaps the most fundamental foundation of conservative thought—not to mention in a larger sense the reality of entropy and other universal laws. The proper response to anyone who makes a statement like that is rolled eyes followed by a hearty, “Next!”
Nor does he ever opine on exactly what these problems are, or now to assuage them. Instead, he posits about the most absurd hypothetical possible. In concrete terms, he offers nothing to support his position. It’s enough, apparently, to assert that the system Amber champions “has problems.”
More to the point, it isn’t whether Amber is smart or dumb. Indeed, her arguments, as shallow as they are, are more grounded in reality than his. He worries that not everyone will have access to this new wonder drug, she retorts that even in the scenario he’s given, the drug wouldn’t exist at all with the company having invented it.
They attempt to disguise this, therefore, by having her following up her points with supposedly ‘conservative’ asides like, ‘let them blind lazy jerks get a job.’ And I assume the whole ‘let them bake cakes’ thing is supposed to, er, wittily call to mind Marie Antoinette’s most famous epigram.
Amber may be correct, or more correct than her opponent is, certainly. However, the important thing is which one of them ‘cares’ more. On this basis, and as the argument is written, he wins. He has a compassionate heart, she’s mean and greedy. *[*She also never points out that he’s the sort of guy that is himself so rich he flies to Greece on a private jet to enjoy a leisurely Mediterranean vacation aboard a privately-rented gigantic yacht. That doesn’t invalidate his arguments, or it wouldn’t if he actually had any. But again, as with Madonna herself, you have to wonder why if he thinks the system is so evil he continues to so immensely profit from it himself.]
Of course a conservative in real life might answer his questions with their own. If he cares so much about the poor having access to new medical treatments, why he isn’t he equally concerned that the company who in his own hypothetical actually invented this drug, continues to have the capital and financial motivation to invent further such drugs in the future?
Another obvious question Amber might ask is whether he isn’t equally concerned with the FDA historically taking such a frickin’ long time to approve new treatments. His fantasy Evil Corporation might have this new wonder drug, but how long did it take to get approval to make it available? What about all the people who suffered while they took their sweet time granting them the right to sell it? Right at the present moment there’s a controversy about the FDA blocking a drug that cures at least some Ebola victims. However, they as of yet won’t allow to be distributed because they haven’t established whether it might make Ebola sufferers sick.
Now, there are counterarguments for these arguments. My point , however, is it’s a rather better rejoinder then the one Amber makes, which basically amount to “screw everybody, capitalists must behave like Conan the Barbarian.” Nor does she make elementary arguments about the gigantic costs of developing drugs, including the majority of them that never do reach the public because of some defect or other.
Probably the most wince-inducing statement, which naturally goes unchallenged, is the one that suggests “shareholders” are a discrete and adversarial demographic aligned against “the public.” Really? Who does scriptwriter Guy Ritchie think shareholders are? To a very large extent, they’re retirement funds, including both public and private union funds. The film seems to suggest they are a cabal of Charles Montgomery Burns, Rich Uncle Pennybags and Scrooge McDuck.
And again, I’d like to point out that Madonna, the driving force behind this movie, was as of last year worth an estimated three quarters of a billion dollars. I really don’t need to be lectured by someone like that on the moral turpitude of middle class retirement fund investments.
And although I hate to find myself continuously praising Ms. Wertmüller’s film, it should be noted that the man Raffaella argues with in the parallel scene in the first film is as loud and obnoxious as she is. Here Amber’s debate partner is the very model of restraint and fairness, just as Giuseppe himself will be neutered as but vaguely liberal, rather than being a communist or even a socialist. As horrific as I found the original, the deep hypocrisy and dishonesty of the remake is even more galling somehow.
So anyway, Giuseppe has overheard Amber’s cartoonishly heartless rant and is naturally appalled by it. Then she calls out to him by snapping her fingers (uh oh!) and whistling for him and calling him Guido. When he arrives after Caring Guy calls for him by his right name, Amber cuts in and demands some water and a towel. Which…she’s kind of entitled to do, given that they’re renting the yacht and paying for his services. Yes, she’s being a jerk about it (she again calls him “Pee Pee”), but still.*[*And again, I find it very hard to believe that Madonna hasn’t treated hotel staff or waitstaff or whatever in a similar fashion over the years. Certainly she’d hardly be alone among the Hollywood elite in that regard.]
Next we get the recreation of the scene were the ladies are sunbathing. (Amber and Debi are topless, but lying face down to avoid any actual nudity). In the original, Gennarino creeps up and spies on the woman, his hatred of their kind amplified by his very real lust for them, especially Raffaella.
Here, predictably, Giuseppe is played much more as an innocent. He comes across other crewmen spying on the woman, and silently beats them around the head and chases them off. He then makes to turn away, but ‘comically’ pauses to get a good eyeful first. This is all played much more boyishly innocent than Gennarino’s action were.
Also, here Amber sees him peeking, and for once doesn’t bother to castigate him. So I guess she’s playing along, meaning that Giuseppe’s peeping is OK somehow. Again, the rough edges of the first film have been sanded away, leaving us with something that is perversely even less palatable.
Lord, we’re only about ten minutes in. OK, we all know the basic set up from the first film. We ‘get’ that Amber is a gigantic, over-privileged, insanely rude jerk, that the wives boss their hapless husbands around (well, not Debi, but she’s the really dumb one), and that Giuseppe is but a hard-working joe who only wants just a little bit of respect from others.
This latter inversion serves to undercut all of the film’s action. Giuseppe’s rage is always played comically, and but sporadically. Even when he threatens to “kill that f***ing b**** with a kitchen knife,” it’s played more as comic bluster.* Nor does he exhibit anywhere near the amount of lust Gennarino did, nor express the same sort of blatantly misogynistic sentiments. This serves to make his actions on the island less believable than those of his seething, volcanically-repressed forebear.
Giuseppe’s tirade follows Amber demanding he bring them freshly-made coffee rather than reheated stuff, which…yeah, you’d think. I mean, c’mon, if you’re paying to rent a yacht, I’m pretty sure you’d expect freshly-made coffee. And although the Captain suggests Giuseppe just stay away from her, he never actually takes charge of the situation by assigning another crewmember to interact with the clients.
But then, how could he? Apparently there are only four crewmen on the yacht; the Captain, “fisherman” Giuseppe, and two (?) galley workers. The ship’s kind of sparsely staffed, really. And the Captain seems to spend all his time lounging around in the galley. Nor is it ever really explained why they had to import a guy from Italy to keep the yacht stocked with fresh fish. This is another inadvertent result of moving the setting from Italy to Greece.
Next there’s a poker game among the passengers, matching a scene in the original. Here it’s mostly used to give Andrew, Amber’s husband, a bit more screentime. There’s no reason the character requires it, but he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood is a fairly prominent character actor and they probably figured they might as well use him more, even if there’s no thematic point to it.
The film now finally allows Giuseppe to express political sentiments, but they prove pretty mushy. He’s against “chemicals” because “If it’s man-made, I don’t trust it.” And all chemicals are man-made I guess, like, uh, water. Furthermore, Giuseppe opines, Dread Chemicals “made life easier for a few (!!!) people,” but are dangerous because they make money. “Money corrupts people’s principles,” he opines. “You can’t see clearly when money is involved.”* This is pabulum, but clearly the film considers it Working Man Wisdom.[*Said lines read by the generously paid guy starring in the multi-million dollar budgeted, woefully adulterated remake of a famous art film his own father starred in, with words supplied by a jet-setting, highly compensated commercial filmmaker. Still, read as a critique of the process of remaking Ms. Wertmüller’s picture, it’s pretty spot on.]
Cut to the passengers having dinner. Giuseppe finally snaps when Amber bitches about the food, and he grabs the plate and dumps the contents on her head. “You blinded me!” she shrieks, whereupon he replies, “Now you can bake the cakes.” This is moderately funny, and thus easily the film’s most successful moment as a comedy. Then he tosses her overboard. In case you haven’t figured it out, this proves to be a daydream on his part.
Although the film is half an hour shorter, it seems to be taking a looooooooooong time to get Amber and Giuseppe to that island. They’re not even adrift in the motor boat yet. Instead, we spend more time establishing the film’s one-note characters, who were pretty well established quite a while ago. Most of all, we watch Amber being an Icy, Discontented Bitch.
We do get a scene where a suddenly drunken Amber begins flirting (I think) with Giuseppe, apparently wanting a little Lady Chatterley action. Presumably this is meant to establish that she does have repressed longings for him, which will later manifest on the island. In any case, Giuseppe basically tells her to buzz off. I don’t recall a similar scene in the first film. However, as noted I skimmed over a good deal of that out of self-preservation, so it’s not impossible.
The scene ends, and we cut to a brief shot of the side of the yacht. This is inexplicably filmed at a canted Dutch angle. Why? Beats me. Directors have to direct, I guess. Hate the game, not the player.
We’re about 21 minutes in, and I’m dying here. Sixteen of those minutes are basically made up of scenes recapitulating things we learned in the first five; Amber is a bitch and Giuseppe resents how he is treated. This probably wouldn’t matter as much if this ‘romantic comedy’ featured much ‘comedy,’ but that’s in glaringly short supply. As for what the film considers ‘romantic,’ well, I think I’ve expressed myself adequately on that front.
They finally go for ‘smoldering sexual attraction’ between our two leads. However, Madonna isn’t (surprise) the actress Mariangela Melato is. Meanwhile, Adriano Giannini is given such a neutered role it’s hard to tell if he’s the actor his dad was. As well, his pop was a veteran actor when his version was made, working with a director he had already collaborated with several times. Adriano, in contrast, is making but his second film entirely, and not even using his native tongue while doing so.
We now get a silent montage of our cast of woefully undeveloped characters, which plays under yet further woefully stereotypic Greek music. This short sequence has a lot of flashy but pointless fades, again indicating that director Ritchie thought he should be bringing something to the table, even if he didn’t know what.
Finally, finally, we get to the scene where Amber demands to go out in the motor launch, despite Giuseppe’s warnings about how late it is. Per the first film, the motor conks out, and the two find themselves stranded and taken far from the yacht by a strong current.
Of course, this whole scenario is far less credible than the one from 1974. They do at least have Amber complain that Giuseppe doesn’t carry a cell phone. However, wouldn’t the motor launch have a GPS tracker? Again, this is a yacht typically rented by super-rich Americans. I find the lack of such a thing both highly unlikely and quite convenient for the plot.
What follows is largely a recreation of the extended sequence from the first film, with stuff like Amber petulantly throwing away a small fish that Giuseppe spent hours catching. However, in the first film they lose their inflatable launch when Raffaella demands they too closely approach the island they eventually locate.
Here Amber sees a boat and panics, grabbing up the boat’s emergency flare gun. She waves it around crazily, Giuseppe tries to grab it and they end up discharging it into the deck. I can only assume this was considered more dramatic. Or perhaps more comedic. More something, anyway. It’s only after they float around on the remaining inflated pontoon in a violent CGI storm that they spot the island in this version.
Amber espies the island and they doggie paddle towards it. From here on out the film roughly follows the original. Scenes are recreated and exact lines of dialogue are duplicated. Indeed, they filmed on the same island, and many of the shots use the exact same locations and even camera placements. This lends the new version an even more useless quality, much like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.
Amber threatens Giuseppe with lawyers now that they’re back on land, only to be dismayed upon learning the island is deserted. He stalks off, and she learns the hard way that she is unprepared to fend for herself. At some points the stereotypically Greek score is heard again. It is especially inappropriate now, as there is nothing especially Greek about a deserted island or a stranded American or Italian.
Amber spies Giuseppe fishing and tries to buy some food. She eventually offers him absurd amounts of money. To her dismay, she learns her wealth has no power here, and certainly not with Giuseppe. And the latter finally snaps under her abuse and his newfound power over her. He abuses and starves her and makes her call him Master and kiss his fist.
So what does this new version bring to the table? Not a lot. There’s a brief, rather silly scene where Giuseppe MacGyvers himself a spear gun using an old tire and a stick. Gennarino was content to fish with a whittled spear, the loser. This also violates the rule of Chekov’s Gun, as it introduces an item fraught with dramatic possibilities, which is then never used in such a way.
Most important, as suggested earlier, the new version waters down the content significantly. Giuseppe slaps Amber a total of three times (only after she slaps him first, and the final slap is rather half-hearted), he pulls her hair once. He does kick her repeatedly, in a manner that knocks her off-balance more than intending to damage her.
The repeated, full out punches to Raffaella’s face are entirely foregone. This makes another quoted scene where Giuseppe forces Amber to kiss his clenched fist (and he says “my hand,” whereas Gennarino said “my fist”) rather weak tea, since it’s not a weapon he’s used against her.
Even the scene where he makes her wash his clothes as a sign of subservience is softened. In the original, Raffaella is explicitly, humiliatingly told to wash “my underwear.” Here Giuseppe just says “my clothes.” The sequel is really committed to being less harsh in as many ways as possible. Less harsh and more obvious. When Giuseppe nearly rapes Amber, he says “I hate you, but I like you.” Thanks for spelling it out, Mr. Ritchie. Movies are so much easier to enjoy without that thinking stuff.
The way Amber is treated remains distasteful, to say the least. Still, it stops well short of what came before in a film made nearly 30 years earlier. Madonna’s version never seems like a commentary on or rebuke of Ms. Wertmüller’s version; it’s just a remake that dares not go as far. It’s not a commercialized version of the first film for the masses, that’s Overboard.
No, this Swept Away is a lukewarm faux arthouse film for viewers who want to consider themselves adventurous, but don’t want to be challenged too much or bother reading subtitles. It turns out that was a fairly small demographic. I mean, seriously, who was this made for?
One new addition, presumably because they must have thought they should toss a bone to Madonna fans, is the addition of a musical number. In the original, one of Gennarino’s serial humiliations of Raffaella was to make her sing and dance.
Here Giuseppe does the same, but he is drowsy (me too!), and dozes off to fantasize that she is singing an elaborate production number in front of an old school, Xavier Cugat-esque big band. The scene is wildly out of place with the rest of the film and really provides nothing, although it was featured heavily in the film’s trailer.
Indeed, as the extended island segment of the movie draws to a close—and this might have been the most painful moment for Ms. Wertmüller when she viewed the film, although there are many candidates—we learn that Giuseppe has been doing all this to help force Amber to reach Her Potential As a Human Being.
Yes, she still learns True Love, and it’s through total submission to a man. That’s only at first, though. Eventually the couple ends up performing utterly conventional, sappy Romantic Comedy shtick. They laugh together, tickle each other and share silly little moments.
There is, inevitably, a Lover’s Montage played under sappy pop song. The two also play, in a horrendously long and unfunny montage sequence, a purportedly wacky game of charades. They make super-tender love. He calls her “My princess” (thus COMPLETELY violating the politics of the first film) and comforts her when she feels she is too old for him.
Most importantly, in the end Amber has been taught self-reliance and How Sisters Can Do for Themselves. “What have you done to me?” Amber asks as she presents him with the food she’s now caught on her own. He gives a little smile, and responds, “What you needed done.” We realize everything he’s done has been to help her self-actualize as a strong, independent being.
I can only imagine, and admittedly giggle at, Ms. Wertmüller’s horror upon seeing this. Meanwhile, I can equally imagine Roger Ebert’s umbrage at the lack of the first film’s scene where Raffaella importunes a suddenly shy Gennarino to sodomize her. Ebert liked this scene so much he mentioned it in his reviews of both versions, and so its absence in the newer film must have irked him greatly.
Following the first film’s template, now our characters must leave Eden to set up a Tragic Finale. Therefore they see a boat docked nearby. (Amber had seen another boat earlier, but hid and didn’t mention it to Giuseppe.) As in the first film, she begs her lover not to reveal their presence and ruin their wonderful life together. However, the essentially romantic males need to know if Love Is Real. Each hails the boat, and the two are rescued and returned to civilization.
I don’t want to shock the hell out of you, but Giuseppe, unlike his predecessor, turns out to have neither a wife nor children. Such a thing would be…morally inconvenient for modern, especially American, audiences. And Amber, unlike Raffaella, indeed fully intends to leave her husband and go live life with Giuseppe. Since Amber’s “old man” was rich I expect the couple would, for the asking, have money, but I guess we’re not supposed to think of that. No, Amber just wants to stick with True Love.
This Giuseppe still trades all his reward money (here it seems more like a bribe, as Amber’s husband is clearly more wary of Giuseppe than the husband of the first film) for a giant diamond ring. When Gennarino did it, it was a sign of contempt for money, used to buy a useless bauble to toss in the traitorous Raffaella’s face. When Giuseppe does the same it’s a Grand Romantic Gesture, meant to seal their love.
In the original, the tragedy was that Gennarino learned that True Love could not overcome class differences and the malignance of Filthy Lucre. He had come to love Raffaella as much as she loved him, although his love was admittedly based on the fact that he finally had a beautiful woman who submitted to him utterly. In the end, he was unmanned when she decides to cast him aside in order to live her own life or something. Poor, poor Gennarino. Too bad, so sad.
Here Andrew the Wary and Suddenly Devious Husband contrives to make both Giuseppe and Amber think the other has abandoned them. (Why Andrew would wish the keep the hideous Amber when their marriage was so appalling is another question.) The last shot of the movie is a ludicrously overripe, nearly Douglas Sirk-ian scene of a weeping Giuseppe running pell-mell in slo-mo towards the couple’s departing helicopter, which turns at just the moment to deny Amber sight of him. Bereft, he tosses the ring into the nearby waters as the credits play over it sinking to the depths below.
Take that, Titantic!
Lina Wertmüller had many advantages in making the original version of the film. First, it was, well, the original version of the film. Second, she made it in the early ‘70s, a time when being provocative in itself bought you a lot of rope from the critical establishment. Third, she was an arthouse director and prior critics’ darling whose explicit leftwing politics insulated her from quite a lot of umbrage. Fourth, she was European, and they have a dispensation to be especially outrageous without being judged for it. Fifth, she was a woman, which again for some reason made the film’s themes, to the eyes of many, daring rather than horrifying. Or at least harder to assail.
Director Guy Ritchie was afforded none of these protections. His version was a remake. He made it in 2002, when a lack of political correctness bought you a noose from the critical establishment. He wasn’t an arthouse director; he made hyper-violent, if puckish, gangster movies. He didn’t wear politics, the correct politics, on his sleeve as Ms. Wertmüller did. Fourth, sure, he was European, but British, which hardly counts. Fifth, he was a man, which again for some reason made the film’s themes, to the eyes of many, horrifying rather than daring. Or at least easier to assail.
To round things out, his lead, er, actress was not only his wife, but Madonna. So there’s a final nail in the coffin. Spike, really. A very large spike.
The film was viscously panned, and despite its low budget, a gigantic financial bomb. Mr. Ritchie’s then promising film career took a predictable nose dive. Although his first two films, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch weren’t huge box office hits, they had been fairly well regarded by the critical establishment. Ritchie had been viewed as sort of Britain’s answer to Quentin Tarantino. People were waiting for Ritchie’s own breakthrough picture, a la Pulp Fiction.
Instead, in the heady days of his initial fame and no doubt feeling invincible, he happened to marry arguably the most famous woman in the world. He then allowed his new wife to talk him into making, at a crucial moment in his burgeoning career, a remake Ms. Wertmüller’s film, starring her. The result was inevitable.
Mr. Ritchie retired, perhaps forcibly, from filmmaking for several years. (He remained married to Madonna for eight years, though, going the distance like Rocky. Pretty much exactly like Rocky, I’m thinking.) Thus he learned a valuable lesson earlier gleaned by Sean Penn; the surest way to all but destroy a promising film career is to marry Madonna and make a film with her.
Eventually Mr. Ritchie returned to directing via the safest option, making more films like the ones that drew him notice in the first place. The results, Revolver and RocknRolla, failed both critically and commercially. However, in the fullness of time fate smiled upon him. Mr. Ritchie somehow landed the assignment to direct Robert Downy Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, as well as that film’s sequel. He’s now back on top, at least for the moment, and is connected with several high profile pictures. At one point he and his previous star Brad Pitt mulled remaking Burt Reynold’s Cannonball Run.
Swept Away was but his second film, and Adriano Giannini eventually managed to right the ship. He became a popular TV actor in his native Italy, where he also does a lot of high profile dubbing work. For instance, he voiced Heath Ledger’s Joker for the Italian dub of The Dark Knight Rises. He also costarred opposite Ashley Judd in the short lived TV series Missing in 2012.
While Guy Ritchie eventually extricated himself from Madonna’s clutches and salvaged his directing career, for Madonna it was a case of about nine strikes and you’re out . The utter fiasco that was Swept Away (as well as advancing age, one must think) finally, once and for all, killed her acting career. Yet somehow she talked someone into giving her $30,000,000 to fund her debut as a director/screenwriter. Not to mention her exit as a director/screenwriter.
It’s a grim thing to be an aging sexpot. Admittedly, pops singer can go on forever. Look at Mick Jagger. However, Jagger was a fellow whose music made him sexy. Madonna was a singer whose sexy made her music. I don’t know what she’s doing these days, but in a way, that’s kind of the point.
Madonna and the woeful Mr. Ritchie properly took all the flack for the film. The careers of the supporting cast, including Bruce Greenwood and Jeanne Tripplehorn, went on pretty much as before. The young Elizabeth Banks did better than that, going on to become at the very least a recognizable actress, if not really a star.
Predictably, most of the blame for this fiasco falls on Madonna’s bony shoulders. This is less because of her performance, which only turns awful towards the end when she needs to act. For much of the film her character is entirely one note, the Icy Bitch. I mean, it’s never an entertaining performance, but due to her underacting, it’s not really outright embarrassing.
Still, heaven knows she doesn’t invest the part with the energy Mariangela Melato provided in the original film. Madonna is just convincing enough to come off as shrill, flat and unlikeable. This is not a character anyone much enjoyed spending much time with, yet the entire film was built around her.
Even so, I’d say her real crimes where less thespian ones than that she was obviously the main artistic driver behind the project. Guy Ritchie’s main claim to infamy here is providing the horrible screenplay, but again I think we must assume that Madonna shaped a lot of that as well. As a director Ritchie seems barely present, probably a mistake given that this is only his third film. He would have done better to have taken his film credits as Mr. Madonna, which is probably pretty accurate anyway.
In the end, this is not a fun bad movie. Body of Evidence, there you go, that’s a comedy classic. This is just a horrible watch. The first third is horrendously boring. The stuff on the island is less appalling than the stuff in the original version, but still unpleasant, and far more cowardly to boot. Only during the abbreviated but overwrought last bit, after the two return to civilization, does the film really provide some laughs. Still, the question remains why Madonna thought it was a good idea to remake a famously controversial film and then work so hard to make it inoffensive.
The selling of the thing as a romantic comedy was probably the biggest blunder, as it provides neither of the two things suggested by that description. The movie’s trailer puts in lively music and about every comic reaction shot from the film, trying with massive dishonesty to suggest a tone that the film doesn’t come close to providing. It also features a lot of the film’s fantasy musical sequence, presumably in hopes that audiences would think they’d see more of Madonna the singer than one out of left field sequence.
By the way, a special screw you to the gutless Roger Ebert of 2002, who back in 1974 had lauded the original. Even so, 16 years later he lacked the courage to accurately describe the film he so championed. ““[Lina Wertmüller] was a leftist but not a feminist, and aroused some controversy with a story where it turned out the rich woman liked being ordered around and slapped a little,” he wrote, reviewing Madonna’s version.
Slapped a little! Yes, her and Tina Turner.
THE CRITICS RAVE
“The Vera Hruba Ralston of her time, Madonna has persisted in making movies despite all evidence that this is one medium in which no one wants to see or hear her.” – Dennis Harvey, Variety.
“What Madonna does here can’t properly be called acting — more accurately, it’s moving and it’s talking and it’s occasionally gesturing, sometimes all at once.” Rich Groen, Globe and Mail.
“If there is one thing worse than a Guy Ritchie movie, it’s a Guy Ritchie movie with Madonna in it.” – Rex Reed, The New York Observer.
“This remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 eroti-comedy might just be the biggest husband-and-wife disaster since John and Bo Derek made the ridiculous Bolero.” Rod Armstrong, Reel.com.
“…both husband and wife seem to be in way over their heads… the original film’s sexual and class politics are clumsily handled, and the mood turns serious with all the subtlety of a falling guillotine blade.” J. R. Jones, The Chicago Reader.
“New ways of describing badness need to be invented to describe exactly how bad it is.” John Anderson, Newsday.