Flop Era: Body of Evidence – One Of The Last Of The Box Office Erotic Thrillers
One night, I was curious about Willem Dafoe. (I am often curious about Willem Dafoe.) I learned little details like the fact that he grew up in Wisconsin, which does not seem correct. And upon doing a deep dive into his career, I remembered films he was in that I had completely forgotten. Some movies I’d seen and then apparently consigned to a memory hole. Others, though, I’ve never gotten around to watching. One of these was Body of Evidence, an erotic thriller starring Madonna. I didn’t know much about the movie, except that the general consensus was that it was bad. I wanted to see for myself, though. And thus was born my series wherein I reevaluate famous movie bombs. So welcome to Flop Era, Body of Evidence, the film that sparked the whole thing.
And you can begin the series with Flop Era: Ishtar.
They Don’t Make Pictures Like This Anymore
As I said, Body of Evidence is an erotic thriller. That makes it rather unusual today, because we don’t see a lot of movies like that, at least not in theaters. They had their heyday largely in the 80s and 90s, then disappeared. As for why, that’s somewhat puzzling.
image via MGM/UA
An easy answer is that our cultural tastes change. After all, we don’t exactly see a lot of Westerns these days, either. Along with that, the movie industry itself has changed. As we all know, it’s harder for original material to make a dent at the box office. That’s not to say that it doesn’t, but it’s an indisputable fact that superhero movies and family fare dominate. Even a movie that’s ostensibly original, like Free Guy, relies a lot on familiarity, including superhero references and cameos.
Writing for Vice, Christina Newland proposes that the erotic thriller fell out of favor because they’re ultimately movies about ugly people. Not ugly on the outside, mind you, but spiritually hideous. As she puts it, “…they ask us to assume the worst of both men and women.” That’s a nice segue to talk about this movie. So is Newland’s assertion that “The women of the erotic thriller might be evil, but the men are plain old dumb.” That’s basically the plot summary for this film, but I’ll elaborate a bit further.
The Body of the Plot, With Little Evidence to Dissuade Us That It’s a Flop
As the movie opens, a soon-to-be Rich Corpse reposes in bed while a homemade sex tape plays. Yes, his character has a name, but it doesn’t matter. Everything that matters about him is in that nickname. For…reasons, the police quickly decide it was a murder. They also decide, because she stands to benefit financially, that the person responsible must be his partner. That is Madonna, by the way, or rather, Madonna playing Madonna playing Rebecca Carlson, an art gallery owner with a bitchin’ houseboat. Does she look like she just stopped by the set on her way home from the “Bad Girl” video? Yes.
Carlson hires Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) to defend her. He seems like a pretty capable attorney, but outside of lawyering, he’s a prize ding-dong. And as such, he himself enters into a sexual relationship with Rebecca. Because this is, again, an erotic thriller, the emphasis is on the erotic. By that, I mean that the film treats us to scene after scene of bodies slappin’.
It’s all pretty mild by today’s standards, though. Watching Madonna drizzle candle wax onto Willem Dafoe, for example, feels like nothing when you’ve seen what Charlotte Gainsbourg does to him in Antichrist. (Or just read the Wikipedia plot description, because you love yourself too much to sit through all that.)
Anyway, they be banging. And somewhere in all the hot wax and other fluids, there’s a mystery about whether or not Rebecca actually had a hand in Rich Corpse’s death. Along with the sex scenes, the movie generously gifts us with extended courtroom drama. Thrill as Dulaney and DA Robert Garrett (Joe Mantegna) argue over procedural minutia while Judge Mabel (Lillian Lehman) says, “I’ll allow it, but you’re on thin ice, counselor,” or whatever.
Flop Era: Body of Evidence
Despite being seeped in sex scenes, this is the least erotic movie about sex I’ve seen in a long time. Rebecca is supposed to be a femme fatale, seducing every man in her orbit into sex games fraught with the possibility of danger. But like I said, it’s all as tame and soft as a lamb. The sex scenes aren’t exciting or titillating; instead, they feel rote. Insert tab a into slot b, etc.
Part of that has to do with Madonna herself. While she is obviously a cultural icon, her impact on culture and pop music was (apparently) never enough for her. I say that because she has repeatedly insisted on trying her hand at acting. Unfortunately, Madonna is a powerful personality and she just can’t subsume that personality into most of the characters she’s played. That includes Rebecca.
Instead, Madonna is cold and flat where Rebecca should be warm and inviting. After all, the premise of the whole story is that men just can’t resist her sexual powers. However, between the writing and the acting, there’s little evidence to support this argument. Well, there is her body. Oh, God–is the title a pun? Incidentally, this film came out a year after Madonna’s photo book Sex and her album Erotica. The title track’s video, along with the book and this movie, all share one fatal flaw. The sex they depict is joyless and so self-serious that it’s ripe only for parody.
So absent erotic thrills, what we’re left with is a bog standard legal drama. Unsurprisingly, those scenes are pretty boring, even with all the sexy sex talk and the way the courtroom observers gasp like Victorians every time they hear about like, handcuffs. In addition, the case ends up turning on a plot twist that in retrospect is, how do you say, problematisch? Ah, the 90s.
So, Flop Era for Body of Evidence is confirmed. Madonna’s body looks amazing, though. (And despite how this sounds, I love Madonna…’s music.)
Body of Evidence is available for rent through a number of services and is also free through Tubi.
Did you think Body of Evidence was a flop? Why do you think Hollywood stopped making movies like this? Let us know your thoughts with us on our social media or in these comments.
featured image via MGM/UA
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]