Monday, September 5, 2016

Now That Everybody Loves Comic Book Movies, Let’s Watch Dick Tracy Again

From the classic comic strip by Chester Gould, Dick Tracy (1990) stars director Warren Beatty from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Bugsy (1991) as the titular square-jawed detective in his yellow hat and topcoat.  With a Broadway score by Stephen Sondheim, he created a live-action comic book or Sunday newspaper funny page through brilliant usage of color, art direction and costume design.
Glenn Headley portrays his girlfriend Tess Trueheart, along with a crazy amount of guest stars, most of them in unrecognizable makeup including Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice, Dick Van Dyke as DA John Fletcher, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis, Katherine O’Hara as Texie Garcia, Mandy Patinkin as 88 Keys, Henry Silva as Influence and James Caan as Spud Spaldoni.  Also watch out for a Kathy Bates cameo, billed as “Stenographer”, the same year Misery came out.  It's interesting that the grotesque makeup is only applied to the villains, as if crime is literally corrupting from the outside in, an easy shorthand from the comic strip to determine the bad guys.
Madonna as you know, stars Breathless Mahoney, the sultry torch singer.  Her performance is a valiant attempt to capture the vulnerability of Marilyn Monroe with the hard edge of Joan Crawford, maybe with a dash of Virginia Mayo from White Heat (1949).  This was Madonna’s second or third attempt to break into movies, after her initial success in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and box office bomb with Shanghai Surprise (1986).   I could write a whole post on Madonna’s failed movie career and why she was never able to break into the big screen.  Her public simply didn’t accept her as a character other than Madonna, even though that never stopped Elvis.  It may have been a question of over-saturation and access; videos were more like short movies in the ‘80s, Madonna was readily available on TV and there was no reason to pay money to see her on the big screen, in addition to buying her albums.
Much like Aeon Flux (2005) 25 years later, Dick Tracy ended up confusing the critics and audiences, who had no frame of reference to relate to.  Dick Tracy is reminiscent of Batman 66 and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997), at least in terms of visual style and art direction.  The movie currently holds a rating of 64% on Rotten Tomatoes and sadly, Madonna’s performance is cited as weak and underwhelming.
It’s important to note that modern audiences are addicted to superhero movies, not comic book movies, and Dick Tracy is no superhero.  Rather, he’s aspirational; a Depression-era American icon that stood for order and rule of law.  Superhero movies at their heart are wish-fulfillment revenge fantasies, solving the world’s problems with high-tech armored suits or crime fighting billionaires who consider themselves above the law.  Dick Tracy believed in the law, Batman and Deadpool think the system is broken.



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