When Madonna Corrupted Willem Dafoe in Portland

A look back in bafflement at the ludicrous ‘90s PDX thriller “Body of Evidence.”

Thirty years ago, a Portland jury convened to decide whether sex with Madonna was a deadly weapon. So it goes in Body of Evidence (1993), the locally shot erotic thriller starring the pop icon, Willem Dafoe and some choice S&M candle drippings.

Madonna, entering the career valley dominated by Erotica and her Sex coffee table book, plays Rebecca Carlson. She’s accused of killing her wealthy, older boyfriend at the Pittock Mansion with cocaine and a particularly strenuous lay. Frank Dulaney (Dafoe) enters as her defense attorney and—in accordance with neo-noir prescription—needs to try the potentially fatal domination himself.

Body of Evidence is an Oregon-made film worth recalling for its massive swing and miss: constantly ripping off Basic Instinct (1992). It’ll likely never be celebrated with loving repertory screenings or an Oregon Film Trail placard. (Imagine a sign at Pittock reading, “Man With Heart Disease F*cked to Death Here.”)

Still, while shoddy, unoriginal and curiously not even that hot, Body of Evidence makes ample use of downtown Portland and even has its own (baseless) takes on local values. In honor of the film’s unimpeachable legal verisimilitude, let’s do a forensic breakdown.

Artifactual Worth: Remember when sense of place mattered in Hollywood films? Portland doesn’t fit perfectly as a glassy noir backdrop, but it’s entertaining to see the city put to work by the genre: the attorney spending his evenings in downtown coffee shops, the mystery manor perched on the hillside, the temptress’s sex trap down on the Willamette.

Best Location: With respect to the rainy opening tracking shot through Pittock, it’s Madonna’s swanky houseboat at Sellwood Riverfront Park. Naturally, marital vows and attorney-client boundaries apply only on land.

Best Scene: In general, German director Uli Edel (Christiane F.) doesn’t film sex compellingly in Body of Evidence, but tryst No. 2 in the courthouse parking garage is hard to deny. The blocking is gymnastic and environmental, as Madonna climbs onto a car and hangs from a ceiling pipe while reverse-sitting on Dafoe’s shoulders. Only here does film play with public scrutiny as a turn-on and tension source.

Worst Scene: The jig-is-up action closer. Madonna goes arch, and Edel is in a hapless hurry to wrap things up.

Underrated Performance: Joe Mantegna gives a sturdy performance as the district attorney. By this time, he’d won a Tony for Glengarry Glen Ross and starred in The Godfather Part III. Bringing requisite gravitas to some boilerplate courtroom scenes is a walk in the park.

Strength-Turned-Weakness: Madonna claims the sex scenes were improvised to create surprise and authenticity. That comes across, but so does the camera not knowing where to look. The way Madonna douses Dafoe’s chest, abs and nethers with burning candle wax and Champagne comes off like a kid indecisively inventing a cake recipe.

The Portland Take: Body of Evidence insists that ours is a prudish city. “People here have very conservative views about sex,” Frank warns his client. Later, the judge clears her courtroom because the gallery so loves making disapproving peas-and-carrots murmurs.

Loosest End: Madonna’s character, who supposedly roams the country ensnaring wealthy men with bad hearts, owns an enormous Portland art gallery, seen and referenced only once. Leading any viewer to ask: Where? Why? How? What?

Sickest Burn: The scalding candle wax, obviously. But also, Roger Ebert hated this film: “It has to be seen to be believed—something I do not advise.”

Ultimate Bummer: Julianne Moore later said she felt exploited; it’s easy to see why. Playing Frank’s wife in one of her first roles, Moore endures a gratuitous sex scene that adds nothing but skin.

PDX Foreshadowing: Doughnuts play a critical role in one scene. Can’t say they look particularly artisanal, though.

What Could Have Saved the Film: Since he borrowed everything else from Basic Instinct, Edel should’ve tried some of Paul Verhoeven’s lens gels and intricate boudoir choreography. More importantly, should Madonna and Dafoe have switched roles? One of this film’s worst-conceived ideas is casting the toothy, subversive Dafoe as the Michael Douglas archetype—the white-collar family man primed for a corrupting influence. Madonna might have been better as the corruptee, not the vacant femme fatale who ended up on screen. After all, her whole career gleefully plays with the iconography of the good girl gone bad.

SEE IT: Body of Evidence, rated R, streams on Pluto TV, Roku and Tubi.