Kink at Pride: Body of Evidence (Uli Edel, 1993)

It's not a crime to be a beautiful woman!

Kink at Pride: Body of Evidence (Uli Edel, 1993)

When I was in grade school, I used to huddle up and read my way through the Roger Ebert Movie Yearbook. My mom got them every year. I used them to find out the plots of movies she wouldn’t let me watch: The Child’s Play review, which uses the phrase “plants a claw-hammer between her eyebrows,” was especially memorable. I was so entranced by Ebert’s review of Altered States that I re-read it on a regular basis, which is how I became convinced, at age nine, that I needed to get into a sensory deprivation tank so I could witness the anguished birth of the cosmos. (I eventually tried this a couple of years ago. It wasn’t that great. Neither is Altered States, for that matter.)

Which is all to say: One of my formative moviegoing memories — which concerns a movie I never actually watched, until a few weeks ago — is of how much Roger Ebert hated Body of Evidence, which stars Madonna, and I remember this mostly because it introduced to my tender eleven-year-old mind the prospect of somebody being fucked to death. Here’s the Siskel and Ebert episode that opened my eyes (the Body of Evidence segment starts at 7:20, if you want to cut to the chase): 

Ah, the Golden Age of criticism: Gene Siskel sputtering that Madonna is “NOT sexy, she has a DUMB haircut” on national television. (I wouldn’t talk too much about hair if I were you, pal.) 

Anyway: Body of Evidence has been stuck, in my mind, all these years, as the primary example of what a bad erotic thriller looks like. It was hard for me to imagine how that would even work. All of these movies were sleazy and cheesy and sexist and homophobic, they all had boats and gauzy white curtains and soft amber sex lighting and elaborate lingerie, the vibe was always stuck  between the “November Rain” video and some divorced Dad’s sadistic revenge fantasy. What does the bad version of that look like? Now, having watched it, I can finally answer the question: A bad erotic thriller is like a good erotic thriller, only more so.

We open on a man who has died — at a ripe old age, in his mansion, whilst watching a video of himself having very recent and evidently satisfying sex with Madonna. This, honestly, seems like a pretty good way for the old dude to go out, but district attorney Joe Mantegna and the Portland police department are not willing to leave it there. They believe Madonna intentionally gave this guy an orgasm so powerful that he had a heart attack, and when they find paraphernalia including (gasp!) handcuffs and (shriek!) nipple clamps and (quelle horreur!) cocaine and (oh, God, no!!) poppers, it becomes clear that Madonna is a dominatrix, one who quaffs deep of the forbidden waters of BDSM, and that she must therefore go to prison. 

Madonna, erotically, fights society’s judgment by hiring a married lawyer, played by Willem Dafoe. I am going to go ahead and tell you now that Willem Dafoe is the focal point of nearly all the movie’s sex scenes. He’s in more sex scenes than Madonna. I don’t know if anyone has ever sat down and thought “I want a movie where Willem Dafoe has raw, unredacted sex on camera,” but Willem Dafoe must have, because he’s made at least two of them, and this is one. 

This still is available on Shutterstock, I assume by the explicit request of Willem Dafoe.

Anyway: Willem Dafoe is torn between being a benevolent patriarch to his white nuclear family and his own growing suspicion that, you know what, this BDSM thing sounds pretty nice, and so, instead of asking his wife to put him in handcuffs (which would clearly necessitate her confining him to a lunatic asylum) he has a long series of increasingly ludicrous encounters with Madonna on her houseboat. These encounters are interspersed with the criminal trial that has been convened to determine (a) whether you can literally die from cumming too hard, (b) whether or not you could cum to death from sex with Madonna, (c) whether this scenario constitutes cold-blooded murder on Madonna’s part, and (d) whether Madonna’s vagina should have to be registered like an assault rifle. 

“She is a beautiful woman. But when this trial is over, you will see her no differently than a gun or a knife!” is something Joe Mantegna says, in this movie about the state of Oregon bringing criminal sexed-to-death charges against Madonna. If you don’t want to see the movie after that, I can’t help you. You might just be immune to joy. 

Body of Evidence was universally loathed when it came out, and that response centered almost entirely on Madonna’s presence in the movie. To understand it, you have to know who Madonna was, to the American public, in January of 1993. 

The erotic thriller genre rests on the threat of unconstrained female sexuality; in a typical outing, some woman learns about orgasms, loses her entire mind, and goes on a rampage until some dude or appropriately chaste lady shoots her dead. But Madonna did not just have a terrifying female sexuality, in 1993. She was Terrifying Female Sexuality. She incarnated it, personified it, spoke for it; what Poseidon is to oceans, Madonna was to women who like to fuck. She got the fame and attention for it, and she took the punishment for it, too. 

Body of Evidence came out three months after the release of Madonna’s coffee-table photo book Sex, which in turn came out two weeks after her album Erotica; you are not wrong to suspect she was making a point here. Sex, in particular, was hugely controversial. It showed Madonna sucking toes, masturbating, wearing bondage gear, and naked in the presence of a dog (some publications reported that she was actually shown fucking the dog, which says something about how histrionic the coverage was at the time). She did knife-play with other women. Male strippers were involved. Terrible things happened to a guy's nipple. 

This is your first warning that this post is NSFW. If you keep scrolling, you and your boss will get a terrible surprise.

None of this would be shocking now. Taylor Swift wears dominatrix outfits sometimes, and we all get that she’s doing a bit. In 1993, eight months after Basic Instinct came out, you did not want to be a woman who admitted that she enjoyed orgasms. Madonna was a monster. She was a bogeyman. In my Catholic Church — where it was already a very big deal that she had “profaned the name of God’s mother,” and where she was boycotted for wearing rosaries on stage — people seriously speculated that she might be the Antichrist. 

People were so upset about Madonna having sex that they never stopped talking about Madonna having sex, including in front of their children: I remember hearing stories (in middle school!) about her cruising through Manhattan in a limo, pulling in a random guy for sex, and then kicking him out on the street when she was done with him. This was cited as a horrific reversal of the natural order — a woman using men the way men used women, but with even less pretense of caring. The bad thing was like the good thing, only more so. 

None of this context makes Body of Evidence a good movie, but it explains why it got such a reputation for being a bad one. Given the sheer amount of animosity that had built up against its lead actress, it probably never had a shot. 

Make no mistake: Even viewed decades later, without the surrounding hype, it’s goofy. Madonna’s acting coach, famously, quit in disgust midway through. It’s true that Madonna displays absolutely zero human facial expressions over the course of this movie. It’s astonishing. I mean, she has a human face! You’d think expressions were inevitable! 

But what would be the point of acting in a movie like Body of Evidence? To re-iterate: The premise is that Madonna is so hot that fucking her will cause you to literally die of sensual pleasure. (“She is not only the defendant… she is the murder weapon itself!” is another thing Joe Mantegna says, to the jury convened to decide whether you can die from fucking Madonna.) Madonna drips candle wax and champagne on Willem DeFoe’s nipples, then sits on his face in a parking garage during a jury recess. Julianne Moore plays a betrayed wife who theatrically slaps Madonna in the face, then leaves the movie. Madonna is acquitted of murder because she can prove she had a gay ex-boyfriend. 

This is not a movie intended to plumb the depths of the human psyche. This is a movie intended to get played on late-night cable until it acquires a reputation for being the fun kind of awful and some dude eventually watches it on the treadmill. Which I did. Mission accomplished, Body of Evidence. Madonna does not need to act, and the movie would not be half as entertaining as it is, had she tried acting. It vaults into the Skinemax stratosphere on the sheer strength of her non-performance, her commitment to showing the exact same lack of emotion whether she’s defending her life on the witness stand or getting eaten out by the Green Goblin. 

In the vacuum created by Madonna’s non-acting, the movie’s sexual politics — in which a bunch of baggy, saggy middle-aged men are convened to decide what to do about Madonna’s devil-vagina, with Willem Dafoe deciding to sacrifice himself by leaping into the jaws of the beast — stand out even more. The fact that Madonna’s sexuality sparked genuine fear in the mainstream culture does not make this movie about having sex with Madonna radical or subversive. In fact, the movie performs the opposite function. It acts to contain the threat; to put the blonde beast down. 

In most occult lore about summoning demons, the first step is to draw a circle around the place you want the demon to arise. The demon’s appearance may be frightening; it may threaten or tempt you; but it’s in an unbreakable cage. It cannot go beyond the limits of the circle you have drawn for it. Summoning a demon is trapping a demon, which is the first step in taming it to do your will. 

Body of Evidence is not just a movie; it’s also a summoning circle. It presents us with terrifying cultural bogeymen, but only so that it can tame them and absorb them back into the narrative of straight male patriarchal rule.  

Madonna was a pioneer, but she was also a colonizer. The “shocking” ideas she presented were drawn from marginalized subcultures, typically Black and/or brown and/or queer ones. “Vogue,” famously, made a hit out of ballroom culture. In the 1980s, BDSM was also widely associated with queers — think of Robert Mapplethorpe, or the S/M dykes fighting the Sex Wars — and it was dangerous in a very real, uncool way. It was something you could go to prison for. The Spanner Trials, in which 16 UK men were convicted of “assault” and the infliction of grievous bodily harm for participating in consensual BDSM, ended in November 1990. It was just a little over two years before Body of Evidence debuted — so close that the Spanner defendants were still trying to appeal their case. 

But, beginning on October, 1992, BDSM was Madonna’s thing. So were lesbians, if those Sex photos were any indication. (Again: Don't click the link if you're at work.) She did not, needless to say, risk prison time, or even any lasting consequences; she took the sexual underground into suburban living rooms, and even if she paid for it with bad press and negative reviews, she also profited in terms of increased cultural relevance. No-one liked Madonna, in 1993, but everybody talked about her, and that was probably the point. Madonna’s public embrace of BDSM probably made it safer for ordinary, non-Madonna people to do it, which is a good thing. Yet it was inevitably compromised by having to sell to a wider public than, say, Robert Mapplethorpe or Patrick Califia ever intended to reach.

So Madonna gets a speech in Body of Evidence wherein she says that kinky sex is just sex, that there are lots of kinky people, that most people are titillated by her and so they pretend to be horrified by her — granted, she delivers all this like she’s reading it off the back of a cereal box, but I believe she means it, and it does have the benefit of being true. Willem Dafoe is the innocent who realizes that he wouldn’t mind being tied up sometimes, and through him, the normie viewer gets to vicariously indulge their curiosity. Tilt the narrative two inches to the left, and you wind up with Secretary, an entry-level but undeniably kink-positive piece of work. 

But the demon is already in the circle. The trap is already set. Once our curiosity has been indulged, Body of Evidence sets out to prove that Madonna really is lying, and that BDSM really is evil, and experimenting with kink even once really will wreck your marriage and your job and your life, and that Madonna, as a sexually active woman, really is the scariest and worst creature ever spat forth from the abyss. It tames the demon. It brings the creature up so you can get a look at it, then slams it back in its box.

This slamming occurs at least twice. The first is a scene where Willem Dafoe reasserts his masculinity by raping Madonna. We’re supposed to believe that this is turnabout, for all the times he’s been submissive, and Madonna is shown to secretly like being raped, because I’m not sure anyone in the 1990s even knew what sexual assault was, let alone how it differed from negotiated BDSM. It’s still alarming in its sense of what “turnabout” looks like. The deviant, evil, female-dominant sex is “woman sits on top of man” or “woman receives oral sex,” and the normal, righteous, male-dominant sex is “man rapes woman.” It’s a little disproportionate, in that “second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is you’re fired” sort of way, but it’s evidently how people think. 

The second instance involves Madonna’s gay boyfriend. (Frank Langella, how could you?) He constitutes a pretty major plot twist; Madonna is clearly keeping a shameful secret as regards him, and we’re invited to believe it was a murder secret, but at the movie’s climax, we learn the real truth: He was (gasp!) sleeping with another man. News that Madonna knows a gay man instantly clears her name and turns the jury in her favor. The message here is very clear: Sure, this shit with the handcuffs is freaky and all, but gay stuff? Now that’s just sick.  

It’s been said that horror is an inherently conservative genre, one which evokes threats to the nuclear family only to ceremonially kill them off at the end of the movie. I don’t believe that about horror; its stock narratives are too varied, its sympathies are too divided. I might believe it about erotic thrillers, because the mechanisms at hand are so much simpler: Crime and punishment, bad sex and good sex, scared men and scary women. Madonnas and, you know, whores.

Granted: In this case, the whore literally is Madonna, which confuses things. And I am finally old enough to see Body of Evidence; in fact, I can watch every movie Roger Ebert told me was violent or scary, even the ones with breasts in them, and I try to be responsible with that power. I would like to think that the world has evolved past freaking out about pop stars’ nipples or people who pour hot candle wax on each other. But there is always a sexual Other, a source of moral panic in a patriarchy. For trans people — this year’s culturally-agreed-upon scapegoats — it does not seem the culture has moved that far forward at all. 1993’s moral panic is far enough behind that I can laugh at it, and I appreciate that, not least because the next one is always up ahead. 

Okay! Good game. Let's hit the spreadsheet:

Gay People: Did you know that, as recently as 1993, juries would acquit you of murder if you could prove that you knew a gay person? It was one of Jimmy Carter’s most popular policies until Bill Clinton rolled it back. 

Boobs: In Pride and Prejudice, there’s a bit where Mr. Bennett semi-lovingly rags on his wife for complaining about her “nerves” all the time: “I have a high respect for your nerves,” he says. “They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.” Anyway, that’s how I feel about Madonna’s boobs. 

Boats: Madonna’s entire house is a boat. 

Death… by MURDER!!!!: Look, people die of agonizing extremes of carnal pleasure when I have sex with them, too, but you don’t see me making a big deal about it.

Cocaine: Technically, I think it was the cocaine that killed that guy, not the sex. Better luck next time, Joe Mantegna!

Terrifying Female Sexuality: 

Gee, thanks, Madonna!

Body of Evidence is streaming on Tubi.

That's it for Pride month! I'm going to take the next week off, because I'll be with my family in Virginia, but I will be back the following week, hopefully with a little extra content to make up for the absence. Until the end of the month, however, you can still indulge in the sinfully deep discount of 25% off for your first 12 months.

I ran out of sex puns to make about the discount. I'm sorry. Just click, okay?