You can see why, at first glance, Body of Evidence seemed like a good idea. The Erotic Thriller sub-genre was reaching its peak. A spate of illicit noirs and/or yuppies in peril features littered the box office with varying results. However, Dino De Laurentiis, a producer not afraid of the odd lurid feature, looked to wade into the waters of the sexy thriller business. At the time, he looked to be holding a not-so-covert secret weapon: Madonna. The widely dubbed “queen of pop” was going through one of her most polarising eras. Late in 1992, Madonna simultaneously released the erotic coffee table book Sex, and her fifth studio album Erotica. Negative reaction to the book hampered Erotica‘s commercial prospects, with the album being her lowest selling at the time. De Laurentiis allegedly pleaded with Madonna to delay the box release to give Body of Evidence a chance to breathe. But seriously, who’s going tell the Material Girl what to do?
The overload of a sexually suggestive book, an album and a film had many critics question Madonna’s antics. De Laurentiis pointed to the sexual saturation as the reason why Body of Evidence flopped at the box office. However, the film’s 60% drop during its second week suggests that word of mouth had some sway in public opinion. Quite simply: some people saw it, disliked it, and informed their friends to stay clear. Madonna, ever the reinventor, shed the aggressive sexual image and moved on to the more introspective Bedtime Stories album in 1994. Maybe the OTT sexuality was too much for folk in general. Possibly. But it doesn’t help that Body of Evidence, even 30 years on, is a stinker.
When the elderly and wealthy Andrew Marsh dies from a heart attack after some sexual activity, his lover Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) is framed as the lead suspect. Lawyer Frank Dulaney (Willem Defoe) is hired to defend Rebecca, and from first impressions duly believes her innocence. As the trail begins to loom, more details are revealed about Rebecca’s relationship with Marsh. That his will was changed to leave Rebecca with $8 Million after he dies. It’s also discovered that Marsh had a dicky ticker. Rebecca appears unaware of these facts, much to Dulaney’s confusion. It doesn’t help, however, that he’s beginning to fall for her, complicating matters.
Body of Evidence began shooting two weeks after Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) was released. This an unfortunate occurrence, as the coincidental similarities found in both features only help to highlight how Body of Evidence pales in comparison. Basic Instinct doesn’t just have the jump on Body of Evidence by being completed and released first. It excels in detail, performance, and direction. Paul Verhoeven’s grip on the sensationalised nonsense is far stronger than Body’s director Uli Edel. Both films open similarly with Body of Evidence coincidently aping Basic Instinct’s initial crime scene sequence. But it’s clear from the dialogue and blocking that Edel just doesn’t have the same flair that makes Basic Instinct tick.
Much like in Basic Instinct, the detectives crack wise with the District Attorney (Joe Mantegna) over the “stiff” and the sex games he may or may not have played. But the scene is merely an infodump of exposition, lacking the gleeful characterisation instilled by Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Just one instance of how similar scenes can play out differently. Make no mistake: both Body of Evidence and Basic Instinct are trash thrillers. However, only one of the films grasps how to operate within the silliness.
More frustrating than anything is that Madonna, a regular agent provocateur, particularly at that time, doesn’t have the same zest that Sharon Stone managed to harbour to make Catherine Tramell come alive. Madonna has been hyper-critical of Body of Evidence since the film’s failure, highlighting dissatisfaction at its ending, suggesting that misogyny had a hand in altering its original ending, and pondering why she got the blame for everything when she wasn’t the only one involved.
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She’s not wrong. Body of Evidence was positioned as the Madonna movie, and when the criticism came, it came for her. Media megastars with a wattage such as Madge’s will always have the vultures circling. You don’t need to think hard about the kind of female-orientated, cringey critique the singer obtained here, let alone most of her career. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Body of Evidence frames, and lights her poorly while giving her character appalling lines of dialogue to try and make it sound sexy. No matter which way you shape some lines, they just don’t sound tantalising. It’s bad enough that Madonna looks like she’s filmed under a parasol for most of the movies. She’s also asked to say things like “Don’t look so hurt, Alan. I fucked you; I fucked Andrew, I fucked Frank. That’s what I do; I fuck. And it made me 8 million dollars!” We don’t go to the erotic thriller for Tolstoy, but hearing these words being uttered robotically by a superstar stirs no loins.
However, it doesn’t feel like the “Bad Girl” really helped matters. It is claimed that Madonna’s acting coach said toodle pip just before production began, stating that “she thinks she knows everything”. Combine this with the pop star’s middling filmography and picture forms. Former A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin quite succulently sums up Madonna’s acting career in his write-up of Body of Evidence: “…she’s actually racked up a few modest hits: Desperately Seeking Susan, A League of Her Own, and Dick Tracy. Alas, those films are generally considered successful films in which Madonna just happened to appear while her ginormous bombs Swept Away, Shanghai Surprise, and Who’s That Girl? are all considered Madonna movies.”
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Here in Body of Evidence, Madonna is weighed down by a poor, undetailed screenplay, and cumbersome direction. But Madge has never been a particularly remarkable actress. And this is the kind of film that highlights a weakness in a performer. It’s of little surprise that co-stars Willem Defoe, Joe Mantegna, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, and Frank Langella managed to slink away from the wreck of the movie. The cast is stacked with seasoned pros who managed to put in half a performance and get away scot-free. In revisiting Body of Evidence, no one puts in their best work. Julianne Moore has little to do other than be another naked body at one point. Joe Mantegna sleepwalks through his district attorney role. Willem Defoe is never fully convincing as a good lawyer that gets corrupted. However, the barnstorming performances they’ve supplied audiences with after this stumble is evident. Less so with Madonna.
Where Sharon Stone had a scene-stealing energy which lasted in Basic Instinct long past the infamous flashing sequence, Madonna struggles to infuse Rebecca with similar zest. Body of Evidence‘s sexual moments are infamous for allegedly lacking any body doubles, yet they miss the type of sexual fission needed beforehand to be alluring. For all of Madonna’s sexual posturing, when placed at the forefront of the film, all the gestures reside superficially. Body of Evidence seems to suggest that a naked Madonna doing vaguely transgressive acts is all that is needed. But what’s missing is the heat that lies between the lines. The likes of Kathleen Turner (Body Heat), Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct) and Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction) are exceptionally seductive in their well-known features despite their sexual scenes. Madonna’s Rebecca is achingly short of the scene ownership of other more infamous characters. Granted, as an actress, Madonna has never had a film which could ignite such a spark.
Despite this article’s word count saying otherwise, Madonna isn’t wholly to blame for Body of Evidence’s shortcomings. The film’s pedestrian manner can be seen in what it considers transgressive. The infamous wax scene still feels tame in comparison to the sexual mind games which inhabit the likes of 9 ½ Weeks (1986). A sexual tryst in a public car park fails to truly establish just why anybody would find such a pursuit exciting. Plot strands and ideas are picked up with one line and then dropped by the next scene. Madonna’s star power was a handy distraction to the fact that Uli Edel can’t make Brad Mirman’s spotty screenplay work.
With stronger work put into the film itself, Body of Evidence could easily have become more than simply “The Madonna Movie”. If the film gave depth to characters played by Joe Mantegna and Frank Langella, two men whose ‘sexual digressions’ of BDSM and bisexuality are distributed as mere set dressing, then the film could have possibly juggled some intriguing dynamics. Furthermore, for all the talk of Rebecca being the “Body of Evidence”, this is also true of Frank, who by the midpoint of the film holds several sexual injuries which point him out to be a guilty party. He is in literal terms a figure of testimony. And while such a metaphor seems obvious, at least it’s trying to say something.
The large problem is even if Body of Evidence didn’t mean to liberally borrow from Basic Instinct, the proximity of the two films’ releases allows easy comparison and only one winner. The saddest thing is Basic Instinct knows and understands the sandbox it’s playing in, and in doing so gives us a problematic yet titillating blockbuster. The beauty of Basic Instinct lies in the fact that Catherine Tramell always feels like the smartest person in the room. She’s a woman who makes the hilarious fuck line by Rebecca feel believable. It’s not that Madonna couldn’t do that.
Unfortunately, she was never placed in roles to truly let us believe that she could do that. However, when you’re a pop music meal ticket, flung into a movie without the right mix of ingredients, it’s difficult to feel satisfied with the mediocre buffet served up. “It’s not a crime to be a great lay” Frank quips about Rebecca’s case, early on. It’s also not a crime to flog a dead horse. Yet it is more than a little frustrating. Body of Evidence is a good reminder that if you’re able to go out and have great sex, you should do it rather than spend two hours watching this tepid erotic thriller. It’s much more fun.
Body of Evidence was released in the USA on 15th January 1993 and 16th April 1993 in the UK.