Author: Landon Palmer (University of Alabama)
How to Cite: Palmer, L. (2021) “MTV Video Stardom as Media Power: Madonna’s (Moving) Image Control”, Film Criticism. 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1786
At MTV’s 1981 launch, the Buggles famously claimed that “video killed the radio star.” But could the video star do anything that the radio star couldn’t? By 1981, radio play served as a largely promotional conduit for popular musicians working in an industry organized around the commodity of the album. Cable television’s platforming of the music video extended (and modified) radio’s function to an audiovisual medium.1 Did this allow the video star to foster new relations to other forms of moving image media? In 1985, MTV Vice President Bob Pittman thought so, declaring that “the distinction between the rock star and the movie star (is becoming) more blurred.”2 Of course, the real answer is more complicated. MTV served as a reliable platform throughout the 1980s for advertising movies, with the music video presenting an ideal site for the synergistic cross-promotion of albums and motion pictures; yet whether MTV produced a reliable roster of stars whose images were readily transferrable to other moving image media was another matter entirely.
This essay considers how prominent video stars of MTV employed their media power toward working in motion pictures. Understanding what video stardom meant for motion pictures requires us to challenge our preconceptions about the purpose and functions of movie stardom. Most video stars who worked in film did not become movie stars in an operational sense of reliably drawing audiences to the box office, nor did their big screen careers follow a cyclical film-music formula established by previous popular music stars on screen such as Elvis Presley. Instead, the most prominent popular musicians could employ their video stardom in the service of exercising control over their multimedia star image expressed across multiple forms of moving image media (e.g., Prince’s filmography, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker [Jerry Kramer 1988]). In short, films were used in video stars’ service rather than the other way around, and this meant that video stars could incorporate film performances and productions into their creative efforts largely outside of Hollywood’s rules for ascendance.
Madonna’s motion picture career presents a useful opportunity for reevaluation in this context. In contrast to the reputation of her music videos that galvanized cultural attention throughout MTV’s era of video-centric programming, Madonna’s film performances have often been a subject of public ridicule. However, an attentive examination of her film career reveals a performer decisively using her music video stardom in service of motion pictures that served as a platform for her self-expression and cinephilic interests. As a woman working in film, Madonna’s video stardom afforded her a degree of power, autonomy, and freedom largely unavailable to women seeking stardom solely within the film industry, which allowed Madonna to pursue film stardom largely outside the aegis of men who have often set the terms for women’s onscreen images.
In the summer of 1985, Madonna sued filmmaker Stephen Jon Lewicki, seeking to bar him from using her name for “the sale, distribution, marketing, advertising or exhibition” of A Certain Sacrifice, a low-budget 8mm film in which she co-starred in 1979.3 She argued to Manhattan’s State Supreme Court that the film’s release would prevent her from “maintain[ing] the image and aura I have created.”4 Such “image and aura” had, at this time, not only been established by the hit music videos produced from her breakthrough album Like a Virgin, but via her first co-starring role in a major motion picture in Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman 1985), released several months earlier. While her lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful, Madonna’s effort evinces a biographical shift in her view that her moving image work should be conducted in service of her image rather than the other way around.
After Madonna Louise Ciccone moved from Michigan to New York City in the late 1970s, she simultaneously pursued careers in music and acting, auditioning for parts such as the Fame television series (1982-1987) and performing for rock groups like The Breakfast Club. It was in this early period that she composed a three-page letter for Lewicki upon seeing his call for talent for what would become A Certain Sacrifice, writing, “By the time I was in the fifth grade, I knew I either wanted to be a nun or a movie star.”5 Lewicki’s initial hopes for what he described as “new wave, Lower East Side, post-punk” film suggest his aspiration to be part of New York’s Downtown cultural scene – a DIY, punk-infused mélange of music and visual culture created amidst the city’s post-default crisis period.6 Sacrifice exhibits the “gritty, on-the-street verité” and a “view of the human body as a site of social and political struggle” characteristic of Downtown cinema of this period – evident in in the film’s uses of Madonna’s body, albeit with a notably exploitative tone.7 Madonna plays Bruna, a dominatrix who holds as sex slaves a trio of gender non-conformists with whom she engages in an orgy early in the film. Bruna falls in love with Dashiel (Jeremy Pattnosh), an Ivy League exile in vague pursuit of an independent, self-actualized life. After Raymond Hall (Charles Kurtz), a square tourist from upstate, rapes Bruna, Dashiel, Bruna, and her sex slaves enact a revenge that culminates in what appears to be a theatrical act of cannibalism.
Sacrifice was one of two films released in 1985 that made claims to New York’s Downtown culture, cast Madonna before her sudden rise to media superstardom, and used Madonna’s ensuing stardom as promotional material. In Susan Seidelman’s mainstream follow-up to her celebrated Downtown indie Smithereens (1982), the filmmaker converged Downtown culture with screwball comedy in a story of a suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette) who admires Susan (Madonna), a hip scenester, and becomes mistaken for Susan during a case of amnesia. Although a story centered on one woman’s admiration of another’s style and attitude befits the image Madonna constructed for herself during her “wannabe” period, casting Madonna was initially part of Seidelman’s incorporation of Downtown culture and a choice for which she had to convince distributor Orion, which wanted to cast an established actress.8 When Like a Virgin became a hit between the production and release of Susan, Orion centered the film’s marketing around Madonna, transforming the project from what producer Midge Sanford called “an independent movie in Hollywood” into, as its home video cover announced, “The Madonna Movie.”9
A traditional rockist reflex might value Sacrifice for its underground production values and defiance of commercial norms while seeing Susan as a “sellout” work that commodified Downtown culture – a criticism that the film certainly received.10 For Madonna, however, Sacrifice circulated amongst several works that emerged in 1985 from her pre-fame period, including nude photographs that were published in Penthouse.11 Such items had become artifacts of a woman’s career pursuits before achieving economic and cultural power – who, whether at the level of a network television show or an underground film, was expected to fit her image to the expectations of men. By contrast, Madonna perceived Susan as a stepping-stone for pursuing the movie stardom to which she long aspired on her own terms.
While Madonna viewed Orion’s MTV-friendly marketing strategy for Susan – for which her song “Into the Groove” served as a primary promotional vehicle – as a “drag” exemplary of Hollywood’s contemporaneous practice of using “soundtracks to push movies,” she saw the film itself as distinctive, positioning Susan as “a return to those simple, straightforward caper comedies Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard made in the Thirties.”12 Madonna continued to pursue this throwback image across media beginning with Who’s That Girl, a multimedia project in 1987 that converged a studio album, a concert tour, and a screwball feature bearing the same name. Susan fit Madonna’s maintenance of her “image and aura” whereas Sacrifice did not.
A New York Times profile of Susan’s production observed that the film’s rare status as a studio property starring, written, directed, and produced by women “should pry open doors traditionally shut to women in Hollywood.”13 The fact that this became true for Madonna but not many of the other women involved with Susan (Seidelman’s career, like that of many talented female directors, has not been characterized by a glut of opportunities) indicates how cinematic power could operate differently for video stars. As a star whose value to film came from outside of film, Madonna was able to leverage her stardom for continued control after 1985. As Madonna oversaw postproduction of her backstage/concert documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), she rebuked efforts by then-Miramax executive, now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein to impose changes, stating, “I put up the money for this movie. I don’t care what your point of view is.”
As observed by the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, “Madonna was already more powerful than Harvey.”14 Such power, accrued via cable television, music stores, and concert stages, afforded Madonna creative autonomy and allowed her a shield from the patriarchal control, exploitation, and abuse that has often set the terms by which women could pursue traditional film careers. As filmmaker Brit Marling wrote regarding her own encounter with Weinstein, the gender dynamics of industry harassment are economic in nature, for women who can afford economic exile in filmmaking are the women with the power to set their terms.15 Madonna’s media power rarely extended to other women doing motion picture work – it served the perpetuation of Madonna – but her case demonstrates how the economic and cultural power of prominent video stars could allow them to traverse into Hollywood with relative independence, an exceptional status that brings to light the traditional power dynamics within filmmaking.