The last time Madonna was in Portland, she visited Pittock Mansion, hung out at the waterfront, poured candle wax on Willem Dafoe's genitals, and fucked an old man to death.
That's the plot of Body of Evidence, the alleged erotic thriller she shot here in 1992, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting. Critically eviscerated upon release, it quickly vanished from theaters, remembered only by the barely pubescent boys who'd come across it on cable and feel strangely aroused walking past Yankee Candle for years afterward. Along with the Sex book, Madonna's much-derided detour into softcore porn, the film represents one of the lowest points of her long reign as the Queen of Pop. But for Portland, it persists as an odd bit of local lore—that time, a decade before Portlandia and all the New York Times travel pieces, when one of the most famous people in the world came to town, and all she got was a crappy Basic Instinct ripoff.
In honor of Her Madgesty's return engagement—marking her first Portland performance since the Like a Virgin tour in 1985—we spoke to those who were there for our month with the Material Girl.
Stephen Simon, executive producer: I was the head of production of Dino De Laurentiis' film company. When I was working for Dino, we made a deal to distribute Madonna's Truth or Dare film outside the United States. We made a lot of money on it. Dino had a conversation with Madonna, then came to me and said, "Madonna wants to do a real sexy thriller. Find one." I don't remember the exact number, but basically he said, "With her being as famous as she is, and as well as Truth or Dare did, we can pre-sell this for $18 million. So you've got to make this movie for $15 million." At that point, Dino didn't really much care how the movie was going to be.
David Woolson, former executive director of the Oregon Film & Video Office: There was an intense focus around that film because it was really her first starring role after Desperately Seeking Susan. It was wild.
Simon: We didn't want to be in L.A. because it's too expensive. Portland had a lot of the moodiness that we wanted. She was going to live on a houseboat, so putting a houseboat in the Willamette was easy.
With the news that Madonna would be living in Portland for four weeks, local media promptly went into hyperdrive, with The Oregonian announcing "Madonna Watch," asking readers to submit their most "candid photos" of the singer. To counteract the press frenzy, city officials set up a press conference at the Benson Hotel prior to shooting.
Mike Lindberg, ex-City Commissioner: The theory was that she, along with Willem Dafoe, can have this one-time, major interview where they were introduced and could answer questions, and that would take the air of future inquiries the press might be making. I was, oddly enough, in a political campaign for re-election. When it came up in my office, my campaign manager said, "Why don't you give her the key to the city and get some publicity for yourself?"
Mindy Leek, Lindberg's campaign manager: I had worked on the periphery of the film industry, and I just thought, "Let's have some fun with it." I had someone at this prop shop produce it for me.
Lindberg: It was about 2 ½, 3-feet high, made out of Styrofoam, and it had a black-knit stocking with a garter belt and a rose in the crotch. I kinda looked at it and went, "Oh my gosh." Somebody introduced me, and then I stood up and someone delivered the key. She looked somewhere between horrified and disdainful. I got more negative letters about that issue than anything else I had done on the City Council.
Shooting commenced in April 1992. Locations included Pittock Mansion, City Hall, Old Town, various private residences and a downtown karate dojo.
Corey Brunish, Portland actor: I landed a role, and it's much ado about nothing. They went out and spent about $1,000 on my wardrobe, and I literally have one line you don't really hear too clearly.
Simon: I hired a guy to be the head of security for Madonna named Pete Weireter. If you Google him, you'll find Pete was the police negotiator who finally got O.J. out of the Bronco. He brought a contingent of guys with him from L.A. to form her security detail.
Brunish: My first day on the set, I was walking down the hall, and the next thing you know, I get stiff-armed by this bodyguard, and who's behind him, kind of sashaying along, but Madonna. She had this little smirk on her face as she noted the shock on my face, and I felt like saying, "Yeah, I work here. You don't need to be pushing me out of the way. I'm not going to assault you." But, of course, I didn't say anything.
Lindberg: Some of the shooting was happening in City Hall. On the first floor, there was an auditor's office, and the auditor was on vacation. When the auditor returned from vacation, her desk was kind of cleared off, and they left a note for her that said, "We hope it's OK, but they wanted to do a big sex scene with Madonna, and they wanted to do it on a desk." He just made up the story. She ran out of her office with that note yelling, "Who did this?! Who authorized this?!"
According to Simon, Madonna was not at all the sex-crazed diva of public perception; she spent most of her time off the set jogging along the waterfront. Of course, that didn't stop rumors from circulating.
Brunish: I heard she went to [Embers] nightclub, and she literally would pick someone on the dance floor, take them out to her limo, screw them, go back to the dance floor, pick someone else, take them out to her limo and screw them. I heard she did this all night long. Apparently, she liked to pick up gay men. Of course, they weren't going to turn her down. No one can prove it, but it sounds great to me.
Steve Suss, Embers owner: She's been in the building, but I do not recall her coming in during the filming of that movie.
Brunish: The only other story I have about Madonna is also hearsay, but I believe it. She was famous at the time for not doing autographs under any circumstances. So a makeup woman, who'd worked with her for a month or so, very shyly went up to her with a photo at the end of the shoot and said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you, I know you don't do autographs, but I was wondering if you might make an exception." Madonna takes the photo, takes the pen, signs it and walks away. This girl is thrilled. She looks at the signature, and it says "Fuck you."
Body of Evidence was released in January 1992, just barely missing an NC-17 rating.
Simon: We had a very interesting thing happen with this film. We start finishing the editing, and Madonna's Sex book came out. There was an enormous uproar about that book. The folks who ran MGM were very concerned about what it would do to the potential box office of the film. People's views of Madonna had changed radically because of the book. But the critics were waiting for it anyway. The book had nothing to do with it, and the film was really savaged by the critics.
Woolson: While the film was panned, as I used to say, we don't write the films, we just recruit them.
Simon: My wife had never seen Body of Evidence when we got married. She has always kidded me: "If I had seen it before we got married, I'm not sure I would've married you."
After Body of Evidence came and went, Stephen Simon moved to Ashland, and later co-founded the Spiritual Cinema Circle. He now lives in West Linn.
Simon: This is actually one of the reasons I got out of Hollywood, even though I really enjoyed making that movie. But that's not the kind of subject matter I wanted to be involved with. I have always been attracted to things that have a spiritual quotient in them, that can wind up being very uplifting. There was nothing spiritual or uplifting about Body of Evidence—except for the fact that Dino made the money he wanted and I did my job.
SEE IT: Madonna plays the Moda Center, 1 N Center Court St., on Saturday, Oct. 17. 8 pm. $40-$355. All ages.