Who was That Girl – That movie’s 20th anniversary
Today we would like to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Madonna‘s screwball comedy Who’s That Girl. The film was released in the US in
August 1987 and while her Who’s That Girl Tour and the single of the same name were a huge success in the States (the single reached #1 in the US charts on August 22), the movie
wasn’t blessed by the same fate. Actually it was a disaster in terms of box office results in almost any country it was released… Almost.
“Who’s That Girl – Il Film” was released in Italy
in September 1987, a week after the country fell in love with the Queen of Pop, due to her incredible successful concerts in Turin and Florence.
Italians simply flocked to cinemas to see Madonna again, this time on the silver screen, and the film became a huge box office for Italian cinematic standard earnings of the time.
Director James Foley recalled jockingly a few years back how Italy was the only place where the film was a “huge hit”.
American critics were quite harsh with Madonna and this film, but honestly after the huge Shanghai Surprise flop of 1986,
a film that press and critics dedided that HAD to flop at any cost when it was still in the filming stages, you couldn’t expect positive
reviews for the following filming effort starring Mrs Penn. While Shanghai Surprise was indeed a pretentious project, based on an intricate and quite
boring plot that suffered bad
directing and bad editing, Who’s That Girl, was and still is, the “almost perfect” and joyful screwball comedy, with well defined cartoonish characters,
fast pace, simple yet funny to watch storyline, enjoyable acting and catchy jokes.
Madonna‘s third feature is not a masterpiece but the point many “so called critics” missed is that it didn’t intend to be an Oscar winning film to begin with and it really deserves a lot more than the great deal of critical contempt and quick playoff it received on its initial release.
But at least a few reviewers at the time tried to elaborate more on the reasons why they didn’t like it. Among them there was Hal Hinson, who reviewing
the movie for the Washington Post (in August 8th 1987) called it “outrageously inept, strangely bad, but in a way that’s fascinating”
but was, somehow “benevolent” with Madonna, admitting unlike other critics, he saw traces of acting talent in her. “The conclusion
you come to is that there’s evidence of talent here, as there was in Desperately Seeking Susan, but no sense of what to do with it”, he said about her.
Director James Foley also got his share from Hinson: The “picture is just as cartoonish as the credits, only the characters are real.
Or sort of real. The problem is that Foley, who also directed “At Close Range” starring Sean Penn,
doesn’t have the skill to sustain a cartoon style. Technique counts for a lot in directing a picture like this –
more perhaps than in any other genre – and Foley doesn’t have any.”
But not all reviews were bad for Madonna. The late Vincent Canby, chief film critic for The New York Times was quite happy with the results of her efforts:
“Madonna, left to her own devices and her own canny pace, is a very engaging comedian“, he said, adding that “the actress is sexy and funny and never
for a minute sentimental.” He concluded that “at times she looks amazingly like Marilyn Monroe, but the personality is her own, more resilient and more knowing.”
Produced by Peter Guber for Warner Bros pictures, “That Girl”
was filmed under the working title “Slammer“. Pop
magazines of the time suggested the name was changed because Madonna’s then husband Sean Penn had actually recently been to the slammer for his
bursts against paparazzi, but probably the change was simply due to the fact she couldn’t make a song work with that title. She then come up with “Who’s That Girl”, (a line co-star Griffin Dunne says in the film),
that would also be a better title for the tie in World Tour.
Who’s That Girl is loosely inspired by the 1938 Howard Hawks film Bringing up Baby, another screwball comedy starring Cary Grant
and Katherine Hepburn. A man of science
meets a free spirited girl a few days before his marriage to a harsh and cold woman. Just like Madonna and Griffin Dunne, Hepburn and Grant in the film carry around a leopard
(this one comes from Brazil and is called Baby), to be given to a wealthy old woman. “That Girl” and “Bringing up Baby” non only share common plot themes. A the time of
its theatrical release “Baby” also suffered the same disastrous fate of “Girl”, becoming one of the biggest flops in Hepburn’s entire career.
By watching Who’s That Girl today (it has been released for the first time on dvd in many countries in 2006), you really see Madonna is clearly inspired by
actress such as Judy Holliday and Marylin Monroe for her role and that she has a great talent for light comedy.
She really should have searched more for these kind of leading comedy roles instead of the ones of a human sex weapon dripping
hot wax on casual lovers, a childish missionary chasing opium in China or pointless short cameos in acclaimed directors’ movies such as a “trapeze artist”
barely moving or a sex call center boss. But probably things would have gone differently if Who’s That Girl proved to be successful.
Anyway, the film still today is amusing to watch, and after a few scenes Madonna makes you forget she is the Queen of Pop, and becomes
Nikki Finn, sexy, yet strong and tender. Foley, who directed her in the Live to Tell, Papa don’t Preach and True Blue videos once commented Madonna
stayed “in role” all the time on the set, meaning she was actually “speaking” a la Nikki Finn all the time. And let’s don’t forget about the soundtrack, which,
surprisingly for a “flop” movie, can still be found in every and each record store of the planet seated on shelves near albums from the most recent film releases.
Madonna contributed 4 songs to the movie soundtrack. The Look Of Love and the title track, co-written with Patrick Leonard (“Madonna sang it once and that was it.
We put guitars on it and percussion next day”), and Causing a Commotion and Can’t Stop, co-written with early days collaborator Stephen Bray, who was
also in charge of all the film score (which basically reprised the Commotion and Can’t stop themes in various arrangements).
The soundtrack also includes a song, El Coco Loco (Mad Head) by Coati Mundi, who plays one of the baddies in the movie.
Madonna appears swearing a la Nikki Finn in the middle of the song.
Singles taken from the movie soundracks worldwide were: Who’s That Girl and Causing A Commotion. A third single, The Look Of Love was also released in Uk, France and other European countries in December 1987.
We close our “Who’s that girl celebration” with some more tidbits about the film. Several scenes of the film were edited out/modified for its UK release. To not encourage shop lifting among youngsters, the British Board of Film Classification removed
a few bits from a scene in which Nikki steals cassette tapes in a record shop and frames someone else, making the whole thing look as unintentional. Another scene in which Nikki says irrelevant things are put in
jewelry stores to be stolen instead of diamonds has also been removed from the original UK release. The version now released on DVD in Great Britain is complete and uncensored.
Oh, for all those who have been asking for years what does Madonna say in Spanish in the song…she first goes “Quien Es Esta Niña“, which actually means “Who’s That Child”. (It should have been Quien es esta Chica, which is the Spanish title of the movie)
and then “Señorita mas fina” (sort of “the most refined maiden”).
So… if you have never watched the movie, or heard terrible things about it, just go ahead, buy or rent it and make your own mind.
It’s a “piece of Madonna history” and makes a nice addition to any Madonna dvd collection. It gives you a hint on how things could have gone differently in her cinematic career if the critics would have been less snobbish at the time.
Article by The Immaculate