by Marty Demarest

Everyone has to start somewhere. And for Madonna, who had already launched her pop-music career, the filmed-in-Spokane Vision Quest was going to be the launching pad for her film career.

And on some levels, that's how it's turned out. She's since worked with directors as reputable as Woody Allen and David Fincher and even gained a nominal amount of acting credibility by opening a David Mamet play on Broadway. But when you run down the list of her film appearances, one feature is glaringly absent: quality. Almost every film in Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone's resume ranges from passable to painful.

Interestingly, the film Desperately Seeking Susan, which was released shortly after Vision Quest, still stands as one of the more successful movies in Madonna's output, possibly because it doesn't try to mold itself into a vehicle for the material girl. Here, Madonna simply plays a version of herself, tossing off self-conscious one-liners and acting tough.

Unfortunately, she chose to follow it up with Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl. Both are films that embody a mid- to late-'80s mindset: make money by selling something that's essentially worthless. It got Michael Milken arrested, but Madonna only had to endure bad reviews.

At least with her next major picture, Dick Tracy, Madonna was treated as an essential part of the film's cast, not just a marketing device. Consequently, she smoulders as an ing & eacute;nue, sings Stephen Sondheim and takes her rightful spot as a supporting player. The film's lavish style also inspired a heightened sense of theatricality in the actress, which she wisely transferred to her legendary Blond Ambition tour rather than attempt to bring it to the screen.

Perhaps because she didn't ruin Warren Beatty's comic book adaptation, two major directors felt emboldened to cast the fully-formed icon in their films. In Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog, there's barely a glimpse of her - but she received plenty of attention in the press for working with a major artist. And Penny Marshall managed to keep Madonna's various personas in check long enough to capture a relaxed and genuinely funny supporting performance in A League of Their Own.

However, good supporting work does not a leading actress make, and in Body of Evidence - an allegedly sexy alleged thriller - Madonna managed to deliver a performance almost as bad as the script. A few supporting roles followed, but Hollywood was nervous about giving her more than a few moments onscreen.

And so when Alan Parker announced that he had cast her in the title role of Evita, public interest soared. There was no question that, even without the best voice, Madonna knew how to present a song. But tucked in among Andrew Lloyd Weber's soft-rock anthems were also a character and a story. Parker's direction, however, became so artificial and heightened that Madonna emerged as a perfect fit in a less-than-perfect film.

Since then, she relaxed enough to make The Next Best Thing, a mildly laughable comedy without pretensions, and to marry director Guy Ritchie. Her next venture onscreen, not surprisingly, is his upcoming film Love, Sex, Drugs & amp; Money. Perhaps now that she's entering her mid-forties and working closely with a proven director, she'll be able to find the success as a leading actress that she has eluded her since her own vision quest all those years ago.

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