Today in S91: JUDGMENT SUMMER I’m going to time travel slightly into the future for some supplementary material. MEDUSA: DARE TO BE TRUTHFUL was not released during the summer – it first aired on Showtime on December 1st. But seeing as how it was a quick-turnaround parody of one of the important films of the summer it seemed to me worthy for the time capsule as a document of attitudes in the culture at the time.
It’s not really a movie per se, but (thankfully) a 51-minute comedy special for Julie Brown (ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, BLOODY BIRTHDAY), transplanting her ditsy, entitled but well-meaning Valley Girl persona into a parody of Madonna. I was familiar with Brown in the ‘80s from her comedic songs “‘Cause I’m a Blonde” and especially “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” where she juxtaposed All-American high school imagery with violence (which seemed edgy in those days), and then from her MTV show Just Say Julie. I had seen her in EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, but didn’t realize that she wrote and produced it based on one of her songs. At this time she had a sketch comedy show on Fox called The Edge, which co-starred Jennifer Aniston, Wayne Knight and Tom Kenny.
Not in quality, but in tone and style I thought of her as coming from sort of the same world as Pee-wee Herman, Elvira and people like that. But I guess closer to “Weird Al” Yankovic. These were people living in cartoon personas, born out of sketch comedy, but with something of an eye for camp, pop art and kitsch. So, justified or not, I looked at something like this as more respectable than, say, the EPIC MOVIEs and those type of spoofs in later decades.
Directed by Brown and John Fortenberry (a director from Kids in the Hall) and written by Brown with her longtime writing partner Charlie Coffey (Olivia Newton-John: Hollywood Nights), MEDUSA mimics the black and white documentary/color concert movie style of TRUTH OR DARE and follows her character Medusa on her Blonde Leading the Blonde Tour. She’s introduced talking about the tough tour life while being massaged and having her hair done, plus a woman rubbing her feet, a guy fanning her with a palm frond and (in a detail that amused me) with a chef for some reason whipping something up next to her.
On my recent viewing of TRUTH OR DARE I cringed at Madonna saying, “I’m waiting” when angry at unseen techs about a sound problem. I don’t remember that being a famous part of the movie, but sure enough Brown repeats it here, zeroing in on the bratty/bossy side of Madonna. (This fits with Brown’s usual comedic persona, causing her to exaggerate it to a degree that I think is a little unfair to Madonna. But oh well.)
Of course many of the scenes specifically riff on ones from TRUTH OR DARE. Instead of being dared to fellate a bottle it’s a banana, and she decides to show off by using a watermelon instead. (I don’t really understand the logistics of what she does to it, but it somehow flattens the melon.) I didn’t mention in my TRUTH OR DARE review the scene where she visits and rolls around on her mother’s grave. Brown stages the scene in a pet cemetery, visiting the grave of her beloved dog Buster or Boomer (she misremembers at first). Like Madonna, she muses “I wonder what he looks like now,” but unlike Madonna she immediately gets out a shovel and starts digging to find out.
One of the more amusing scenes is not as direct of a parody. For Medusa’s tour the hydraulic lift is meant to look like a penis, and the stage manager (Chris Elliott, MANHUNTER, THE ABYSS) has to explain at the rehearsal that the real one will look better. He averts conflict by praising the great job Medusa is doing, and then the penis falls over onto her. She also meets a hot shot director (Tom Kenny pre-PLUGHEAD REWIRED: CIRCUITRY MAN II) who tries to pitch her on “an update of HEIDI” where she’s a Nazi skinhead “dealing with her sexuality and her disillusionment with the Hitler Youth movement.”
On tour, the difficulties include a volcanic eruption spewing ash on everyone, and of course the whole police-threatening-to-arrest-her incident. Medusa is told she can’t “show her muffin,” but refuses to “compromise my integrity” by following her manager (Stanley DeSantis, CANDYMAN)’s suggestion to “just put on some underwear for the backflip.” After all, “Freedom of expression is the first commandment of the Bill of Rights.”
The police very much enjoy the show – they watch lustily through binoculars as she performs “Party In My Pants” in front of three giant crucifixes – and ask for her autograph afterwards. She’s clearly disappointed when she realizes she doesn’t get to get arrested.
In that scene I laughed at her narration saying, “I thought, ‘What if they really do arrest me? And would jail really be as bad as in all those Linda Blair movies?’” On the DVD there’s a deleted scene with the actual Linda Blair, but not related to that topic.
Obviously song parodies are a major part of the proceedings. They’re odd because they’re very well produced to capture the sound of each song without using the same tunes (to avoid paying publishing or having to get permission, maybe). So you keep being weirded out that they’re almost the song but not. But I admit that I laughed when I realized the parody of “Express Yourself” was “Expose Yourself.”
One way to get a picture of pop culture circa 1991 is to observe the names that are used as punchlines. Poor Justine Bateman is mentioned as a supposedly bad actress (her rock band movie SATISFACTION is specifically mentioned). Kathie Lee Gifford is used as a person Medusa is disappointed to think she sees at a party, and Mel Gibson as a person she’s not interested in dating. Geraldo Rivera is mentioned as a person who grosses her out (timeless reference). In maybe the best song parody, “Vague,” she names various “ladies with no point-of-view, fellas who don’t have a clue” – celebrities she thinks are dumb or have a “personality of Spam.” Most of them are from game shows or are known for their looks: “Vanna White, Ed McMahon, Nicolette Sheri-dan / Mary Hart, Chuck Woolery are as vague as they can be.”
She also names Kelly LeBrock (fresh off of HARD TO KILL) and Paula Abdul (Grammy winner that year). The line that aged the poorest was “Christie Brinkley, Brosnan Pierce, bland and boring something fierce.” The forced rhyme makes me laugh, but she definitely thought Brosnan was a soon-to-be-has-been and not the next James Bond.
To fill the Kevin Costner role (celebrity who meets Madonna backstage and offends her by calling her show “neat”) Brown went a different direction – it’s Bobcat Goldthwait playing himself (or, you know, his Bobcat Goldthwait character). Brown co-starred with him in POLICE ACADEMY 2 and SHAKES THE CLOWN (screened that summer, released the next year) so his participation is not surprising, but it’s funny to see him treated as the mainstream star she’s too cool for.
(The other notable cast member is Kathy Griffin, another carryover from SHAKES THE CLOWN, in a small part as one of the dancers. In a strange life-imitates-Showtime occurrence, the dancers sue Medusa over the movie, which happened to Madonna a couple months later.)
The best celebrity-playing-himself part is Tic Tac Dough host Wink Martindale, who gives Medusa his hotel room key and tells her “I’ve got a big prize in my Cracker Jacks.” Perfect deadpan sleazeball performance by Martindale.
Rather than a Warren Beatty character, the movie brings in Medusa’s ex, “Shane Pencil” (Donal Logue, before even playing Jimmy the Cab Driver on the MTV promos), for some jokes about intense actors. (He tries to coach her to be in Romeo and Juliet.)
I didn’t find MEDUSA: DARE TO BE TRUTHFUL to be very good, even though Brown, Elliott and some of the others are funny enough performers to get some laughs out of the corny material. But I do find stuff like this kind of interesting just because it makes me think “Oh yeah, I remember when this would’ve been funny to me.” I think the major theme of this special that seems most out of date, and therefore most representative of 1991, is the amount of emphasis they put on Medusa being, to put it bluntly, a ho. Brown is so good at playing this sort of character that it mostly comes off as cute, and I definitely laughed when, visiting her childhood home, she excitedly narrated, “There’s the phone booth where I lost my virginity!” But it gets ugly in the scene where for some reason Medusa decides to give the cameraman a blowjob. And there’s no question that all this is what we now call slut-shaming. Madonna made a statement that women should be able to be open and celebratory about sex like so many men are, and in this case comedy pushed back.
Brown continued her musical sendups of headline-grabbing-women in 1994 with NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ATTACK OF THE 5 FT. 2 WOMEN, where she played parodies of real life avenging domestic violence survivors Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt. But then she played the gym teacher Ms. Stoeger in CLUELESS, a role she reprised for the TV series, serving as a writer, producer and director as well. She also co-write the popular Disney Channel movie CAMP ROCK. Co-director Fortenberry went on to direct A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY and JURY DUTY, plus a ton of TV. Medusa later married the British crime movie director Lad Richguy.