With some notable exceptions, Madonna's film career has primarily been the domain of instant camp, awkward cameos, and congestive heart failure. In the pocket universe of her music videos, however, she's been a bona fide screen siren, effortlessly in command of her star power, presiding over an endless golden age of cinematic homage and adoring close-ups.
It's a storied videography that's seen its share of promising directors, even a handful of genuine auteurs—arguably none more visionary than David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network). For a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, with his feature film career still ahead of him, Fincher helped shape some of Madonna's most iconic roles.
Their inaugural effort, 1989's "Express Yourself," drew inspiration from Fritz Lang's Metropolis for its deco-industrial imagery and steely dystopian undertones. The scale of the production was considerable, with an inflation-adjusted budget approaching $10 million, making it the third most expensive music video of all time.
Put another way, it cost approximately as much to shoot five minutes of Madonna slinking around an Ayn Randian Culver City soundstage in 1989 as it does today to mount an entire episode of HBO's Game of Thrones across several continents.
"I oversaw everything—the building of the sets, everyone's costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody. Casting, finding the right cat—just every aspect. Kind of like making a little movie. We basically sat down and just threw out every idea we could possibly conceive of and of all the things we wanted. All the imagery we wanted—and I had a few set ideas, for instance the cat and the idea of Metropolis. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men—the workers, diligently, methodically working away."
The two were simpatico on all elements except one: Madonna crawling on the floor and lapping milk from a saucer. She deemed it "silly and kind of clichéd … a film student's trick," before yielding to its potency. Fincher's instincts scored him his first MTV Video Music Award. The message of the video, Madonna would later say is, "pussy rules the world."
Madonna and Fincher's next collaboration quickly followed. Fincher convinced the singer to release "Oh Father," an autobiographical ballad about growing up without a mother, as a single in 1989. The Citizen Kane-themed clip features the kind of blown-out, high-contrast imagery the director would later employ to depict Michael Douglas's boyhood flashbacks in The Game—as well as some dramatic license: "It's boring to be completely autobiographical," Madonna balked to Cosmopolitan. While the video was well-received, the song was a commercial disappointment, ending the pop star's run of seventeen back-to-back top-ten singles.
According to Fincher:
She came back to me and said, 'You screwed me up. You wanted to make this video for the song and no one liked the song and I went to bat for you and now I have to make a video by Tuesday.' And I said, 'What's the song called?' And she said, 'Vogue.'
And so "Vogue" was shot in Burbank over a couple of mid-winter days in early 1990, following an impromptu casting call that drew hundreds of dancers. In the absence of Fincher's typically extensive preproduction routine, the video leans on static iconography, including shots that recall compositions by Madonna's favorite art deco painter, Tamara de Lempicka, as well as legendary Hollywood portrait photographers, whose various movie-star subjects inform some of the song's lyrics. One of the aforementioned photographic legends, Horst P. Horst, was inconveniently still alive and took umbrage at the video's unacknowledged appropriation of his work. And as far as appropriation goes, "Vogue"'s ultimate legacy is plucking a dance out of the Harlem drag ball scene and making it palatable for MTV-addled teeny boppers.
It's a testament to Fincher's skill that such an iconic video was basically thrown together. "We cut this thing together as quickly as we could," Fincher told The Guardian. "It was one of those things where the DP, Pascal Lebegue, who's brilliant, literally showed up off the plane with his light meter and it was semi-pre-lit and he walked in and said, 'This, this, this, this,' and we shot the video for like 16 hours and we were done, that was it, she got on the plane and went on her world tour." You can feel of the pressure of the rushed shoot in this recently released B-roll and outtake footage.
Fincher's work in the music video salt mines paid off when the then 29 year old director was tapped to helm the third installment of the beloved Alien franchise. Sadly, though, Fincher's Alien 3 was a fiasco due to heavy studio meddling and an open war over budget. Fincher told The Guardian in 2009: "No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me". Nevertheless, when Tim Burton turned down the chance to direct 1993's "Bad Girl", Fincher stepped in for what would be his final Madonna video.
Though Madonna's full length feature film Body of Evidence, released that same year, was a shabby Basic Instinct knock-off, the inspiration for "Bad Girl" was more pedigreed, drawing on Looking For Mr. Goodbar for its sex-crime storyline and Wings of Desire as a reference for Christopher Walken's soft-shoeing guardian angel.
The video has many of the hallmarks of Modern Fincher: air-tight camerawork, brushed-metal visual palette, corporate intrigue, a palpable sense of emotional isolation … and murder. And in a fitting bit of closure, David Fincher's final act as a director of Madonna videos is to kill off Madonna—or at least "Louise Oriole," her persona in the video.
The remarkable thing about Madonna's Fincher videos, or Fincher's Madonna videos, is that they are immediately recognizable as the product of either artist in a way that never feels forced or compromised. Two notoriously exacting talents—the ingénue, the wunderkind—seized on each other's velocity at precisely the right moment. The years they worked together were the years they grew up.