Dangerous Game

Dangerous Game
December 28th 2022

It’s not for lack of trying that Madonna has never achieved triple threat status. Her forays into film have yielded decidedly mixed results, with the highpoints (Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985; Evita, 1996) never so high as the lows were low: It’s been 20 years since the pop mogul appeared in a big-screen production, but she remains the most awarded actress in Razzies history.

Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993)—a toxic backstage psychodrama; Inland Empire by way of Cassavetes, perhaps—is both a career high and a low for the would-be movie star, achieving dramatic potency but only through abjection. Coming off the back of the Basic Instinct knock-off Body of Evidence (also 1993), for which a kink-happy Madonna was gleefully pilloried, it finds the Queen of Pop pitted against the King of New York—each of them out of their element, though to differing degrees. Turning Ferrara stand-in after Bad Lieutenant (1992), Harvey Keitel plays Eddie Israel, a director who skews self-destructive when uprooted to Tinseltown for the purposes of his latest project. (“That’s me, Mr. California,” Keitel deadpans, looking sallow in the sunshine.) Madonna is his leading lady, Sarah Jennings, a big-name TV actress determined to generate a little silver-screen credibility—however cruel the demands of her director or the behavior of her co-star (a seething James Russo).

“You commercial piece of shit,” Eddie taunts his battered actress while filming a pick-up. He’s been reading the lines of her film-within-a-film husband, a brute himself, but it’s clear that he’s gone off-script when he uses her real name. First puzzlement, then the sting registers on Sarah’s—Madonna’s?—face, and she spits her lines back at him with a new, ugly resolve. (Dangerous Game bears the traces of a general blurring of its diegeses with reality and rehearsal: Eddie at one point gets called “Harvey,” while a clapperboard used on the set of his film, aptly titled Mother of Mirrors, bears Ferrara’s name; Nancy Ferrara, then married to Abel, plays Eddie’s wife.) Rather than expect their star to conquer her limitations and insecurities, Eddie and Ferrara alike exploit them—a dangerous game indeed.

Madonna reportedly loathed the completed film, and refused to promote it—despite its being funded in part by her own newly formed Maverick Picture Company. Ferrara, in turn, was snide on the subject of her performance, rebuffing more than one interviewer’s praise, “Yeah, that’s because she plays an actress so bad, the director commits suicide.” (A line he has played variously as comedy and tragedy.) It should be remembered that for all the indignities she suffers on screen, Dangerous Game ultimately lived and, it could be argued, died (going straight to video everywhere in the U.S. bar New York) by its mistress’s hand.

Dangerous Game screens tonight, December 28, and on December 30 at Roxy Cinema in 35mm.