"Strike a pose."
Anyone wanting to sum up Madonna's career in a single line would be hard-pressed to top that lyric. Strike a pose, indeed -- she sheds images as easily as other women change clothes.
First there was the club waif, the belly-button baring imp whose energetic insouciance made her the star of "Desperately Seeking Susan." Then there was her Boy Toy period, the look that launched a thousand wanna-be's as it turned underwear into outerwear, rosaries into jewelry, and sex appeal into a show of power.
It was scandalous, of course, but it, too, would pass, giving way to still more Madonnas. Each image seemed tailored to a specific message, from the blonde in "Material Girl" who preached the (Marilyn) Monroe Doctrine to the industrial goddess of "Express Yourself," slinking around her very own Metropolis.
Now, with the release of "Truth or Dare," we get yet another Madonna. This, we are told, is the real thing; shot backstage and behind the scenes, the film offers us a glimpse at an unvarnished original, a superstar who balances famous friends with family problems, tender moments with temper tantrums, a confident stage presence with moments of self-doubt.
Strike a pose?
Well, maybe. Undoubtedly, those who have always seen Madonna as hype incarnate will take the film as an act of shameless self-promotion. It certainly provides ammunition for the critics; even her then-paramour, Warren Beatty, is shown joking that Madonna ceases to exist once the cameras are turned off.
Her fans, on the other hand, will take "Truth or Dare" as an act of courage in which Madonna bares all -- psychically, sexually and professionally. There's plenty of ammo for this argument, too, ranging from a brutally funny dismissal of Kevin Costner to some excruciatingly frank scenes with her family.
Given Madonna's track record for scandal, it's easy to wonder what she could possibly have left to reveal. But "Truth or Dare" manages to ante up, anyway. Among the naughtier bits are such sights as Madonna flashing her breasts at the camera or using a bottle of Vichy water to demonstrate her talents as a fellatrix.
Shocked? You shouldn't be; outrage has always been a part of her act. "I like to push people's buttons," she says at one point, and as glib as the explanation may seem, the fact is that many of us enjoy having those buttons pushed -- to the point that we'd probably be disappointed if all this behind-the-scenes peek revealed was good, clean fun.
Still, there's more to "Truth or Dare" than "bad girl makes good." It's one thing to portray her as a defender of artistic integrity when her mock-masturbation in "Like a Virgin" leaves her threatened with arrest in Toronto (where the police eventually backed down); that's true superstar stuff. But when she's shown, a few nights later, fretting over how her father took the sequence, that's something else again. In moments like that, with all pretense peeled away, what we get is something infinitely more human -- and revealing -- than the show-biz Madonna would seem to allow.
Except that this is the show-biz Madonna -- the same one who chews out a sound man over a malfunctioning microphone, who dishes the dirt with pal Sandra Bernhardt, and who teasingly interviews her dancers in bed at the film's end. It's not a matter of being forever "on," as Beatty suggests; Madonna has simply erased the distance between her celebrity and herself, until everything becomes part of the act.
It's a hell of a way to live, but it does explain how Madonna has come through each successive scandal relatively unscathed. After all, when Bruce Springsteen's average-guy aesthetic made him a millionaire, it was easy to snicker at the contradiction. But when a self-professed button-pusher like Madonna gets people riled, it's no big deal -- she's just doing her job.
Until the next pose, that is.