From the archive
As if in response to Pauline Kael’s comparison of Madonna’s first feature, Desperately Seeking Susan, to rotoscope animation, Who’s That Girl opens with a cartoon Madonna breaking through the Warner Brothers logo, and behind the credits, in UPA-style animation, we follow her character, Nikki Finn, through an intricate series of events — the movie revels in Rube Goldberg gag constructions — culminating in her being framed for the murder of her boyfriend and sent to prison. Four years later, in live action, we see her getting paroled, and from her first wisecrack about copping some mascara, she’s no more real than her cartoon self. Dressed in tight, short black skirts and pedal pushers when she’s out on the street, she walks like electrified jello and talks like Betty Boop with adenoids; but when she’s supposed to come on as slow, sultry, and romantic in a lush white evening gown and sleek penthouse, the effect seems forced, as if she’s a little girl trying on grown-up clothes.
Loudon Trott (Griffin Dunne), a yuppie attorney, has just been assigned to deliver a snarling cougar to an eccentric client (John Mills) when Wendy’s father (John McMartin), his boss, asks him to drive Nikki from prison to the nearest bus station, whence she is expected to return to her mother in Philadelphia. (It takes most of the movie to explain why Worthington wants Loudon to perform this task, but ordinary plot coherence isn’t one of the movie’s strong points.) Insisting on driving the Rolls Royce convertible that Loudon has borrowed from his mother, Nikki quickly befriends the cougar, carries Loudon along on a shoplifting spree through a mall, and after a reckless driving spree that temporarily lands Loudon in the hospital (as a ploy for avoiding a traffic violation) continues to Harlem with his credit card, purchasing a gun from a bombed-out fence in order to confront the pimp who helped frame her.
The movie’s press book boasts that four cougars and four Rolls Royces were needed to shoot the madcap chases, and in a way the symmetry seems appropriate: the cat and the car represent the polar opposites in the film’s moral universe. If the cougar replaces Bringing Up Baby‘s leopard while the Rolls more or less does duty for Cary Grant’s reconstructed dinosaur skeleton, Nikki Finn, who treats both like playthings, assumes the spiritual function of Katharine Hepburn while jettisoning most of her personality. As a creature of myth as contrived as her name, she can locate herself in a gallery of other star icons and deck herself out with assorted punk accoutrements, but she can’t register as someone with a social background like the other characters in the movie. It’s a given that the movie never shows us her home or mother in Philadelphia; if it did, her mythic aura would be seriously compromised.
The freedom represented by Madonna’s persona has something to do with the freedom of little boys that little girls envy — which helps to explain the Presley and Brando posters (and the fact that she slugs a prison guard as soon as she’s free). This doesn’t exactly square with her powers as a mythic goddess — such as her capacity to tame and train the cougar, which all the other characters lack, or her ability at one point to convince a bus driver to make a U-turn on an expressway — but as Richard Dyer and other critics have noted, stars are able to contain and apparently resolve the sort of contradictions that we never could accept in ordinary actors. (Consider Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, equally dumb and conniving.) Nikki’s charisma is based on her talent for suggesting mythic alternatives to Loudon and the other characters, but because many of these alternatives are mutually exclusive — Monroe’s softness, West’s toughness, Betty Boop’s naivety, Brando’s street smarts — they don’t add up to a single character who can plausibly share space, much less a philosophy or a romance, with anyone else on the screen.
Significantly, Madonna’s first appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan shows her alone in a hotel room with a sleeping boyfriend, lying on her back on the floor while taking an instant snapshot of herself. What she shares, in fact, with her gallery of icons is the irresponsible pleasure of narcissism — a carnal delight compared to the more superficial kinds of self-regard displayed by the film’s other characters, which Nikki Finn serves to rebuke. As with the French actress Bulle Ogier, whom Madonna intermittently resembles here in her figure and dreamy expression, her special terrain is the autistic fantasy.