Madonna Lets It All Hang Out

The Shameless One stages a raunchy, revealing self-portrait

In the world of Madonna, Kitty Kelleys are superfluous-she's her own Kitty Kelley. During her inexorable climb from teeny-bopper tramp to international legend, the queen of self-exploitation has dropped media bombshells with a surgical precision the Pentagon would envy. Every season brings fresh outrage: the breakup with Sean Penn, the scandal over her "Like a Prayer" video, the hint of a lesbian affair with Sandra Bernhard, the new scandal over the racy "Justify My Love" video, and her current ribald interview in The Advocate, a gay biweekly. Miraculously, she seems immune to overexposure: indeed, the more she wallows in the media mud the higher her stock rises, to the point where she is now often hailed as a political and feminist heroine. All of this has surprisingly little to do with talent, and everything to do with attitude. As she freely concedes in her dishy, down-and-dirty new documentary, Truth or Dare, she is not the world's greatest singer or dancer. "I'm interested in pushing people's buttons," she says. In "Truth or Dare" she lights up a whole console.

Madonna has broken the first rule of celebrity: that mystery is an essential ingredient of stardom. From the days of Garbo on, it was what you kept hidden that nourished your mystique. "Truth or Dare" is intent on proving otherwise-or so it seems. For one of the most fascinating things about this behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred document of her 1990 worldwide Blond Ambition concert tour is Madonna's Pirandellian gift for revealing everything and nothing simultaneously. When a natural-born exhibitionist exhibits herself, is it the "real" Madonna you are watching or an artful imitation of reality?

That conundrum is part of the fun of Alek Keshishian's provocative film. Whether you are wowed by Madonna's honesty or appalled by her shamelessness doesn't really matter: in either event, the movie turns you into a happy voyeur, eagerly awaiting the star's next outrageous move. See Madonna greet Kevin Costner in her dressing room and dismiss him with a gagging put-down. Watch her frolic in bed with her gay dancers. Listen to her X-rated description of what she did in bed with her childhood girlfriend. Gaze, amazed, as she accepts the dare to demonstrate her oral lovemaking technique on a bottle of mineral water. Observe her boss then boyfriend Warren Beatty around the room.

Beatty's role in the movie is small but telling. As a member of the old school of publicity-dodging, he is naturally horrified that she would let a documentary crew invade her own privacy (not to mention his) with such zest. He draws the line when she permits the camera to watch a doctor examine her damaged throat. With exquisite irony he mocks her lust for self-exposure. "She doesn't want to live off camera. Why would you bother to say something if it's off camera?" Beatty scores major points as the voice of sanity, but of course Madonna gets the final credit for including it in her film.

The unifying theme of Keshishian's movie is the notion of family. We see Madonna with her real family - her brother Christopher, with whom she's closest, her troubled brother Marty, just out of an alcohol-rehab program, and at the grave of her mother. When her father comes to her Detroit concert, she suffers a rare outbreak of modesty, admitting she toned down her infamous "masturbation number" because he was in the audience. But it's the Blond Ambition "family" that's the real subject-and Madonna's vision of herself as the nurturing mommy to the young, multiracial touring company. Leading her troops in a prayer circle before each show, soothing tensions between the homophobic dancer Oliver Crumes and his gay colleagues, reading a birthday poem to her assistant Melissa, this Madonna presents herself as a woundlicking, spirit-raising matriarchal dynamo. But it's just one of myriad contradictory impressions we come away with: crass/sensitive, selfish/generous, spontaneous/rigid, sensual/mechanical.

That's the second rule of celebrity Madonna has always broken: instead of cultivating a single persona, she's reveled in changing masks, in contradiction, in putting ironic quotation marks around her various identities. The jest of her appropriation of Marilyn Monroe's image is that she is Monroe's antithesis: there's little that's vulnerable, and nothing of the victim, about her. As a performer, she's closer to Marlene Dietrich, all premeditated theatricality. (The concert footage is in color; the rest in black and white.) The role she plays least confidently is that of serious artist: when she holds a press conference after the Vatican has condemned her show, she loses her natural voice and lapses into rote banalities about freedom of expression.

But if "Truth or Dare" is on its shakiest ground when Madonna is taking herself seriously, you come away feeling that only a fool wouldn't take her seriously. She has put herself on the cutting edge of celebrity, and the questions she poses about sexuality, power and personas have made her the most stimulating pop icon around-and the most fun to follow. Whether you regard her as a symptom or a cure for a culture still locked in its eternal battle between the puritanical and the prurient, she's out there at the barricades. In "Truth or Dare, she's at her button-pushing best.

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