ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Who's Afraid of Virginia Madsen?
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by Catharine Erway


It’s not that we haven’t seen her through the years—but perhaps that she was the only thing memorable about the most unmemorable B-films that cluttered the eighties and nineties. With star-studded disappointments like The Prophecy and The Haunting, the actress seemed to resort to chilling TV performances and miniscule film roles to keep her afloat. Then last fall, Madsen joined an ensemble cast in a film of a much brighter—if darkly comic—caliber: the comedy, Sideways.

Following a trend of sophisticated films that focus on the complexity of adult relationships (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), forty-year old Madsen joined Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Sandra Oh in a project that would, for once, justly reflect the bright promise her eyes had been shining ever since 1987’s Zombie High.

But I’m still afraid. Growing up in a generation freaked out by Candyman well before we should have been watching it, Madsen had been haunting me every time I tuned into a bad TV movie. It should have been Tony Todd as the dark, enigmatic title character of the film which defined a resurgence of urban-themed fright flicks—but it was Madsen’s Helen Lyle, staring back into a mirror with a ghostly pale face somewhere in between Gillian Anderson and Heather Locklear. It’s a love/fear thing. A B-movie veteran who’s been shot, drowned, burnt bare to the scalp, and refrigerated in multiple cinematic deaths, rivals Uma Thurman as a deadly avenger in Blue Tiger, is not afraid to take it all off, even when soaked in blood, and let’s not forget her brother is bad-guy actor Michael Madsen (Kill Bill Volume 2)—isn’t she a goddess?

Always playing the starry-eyed innocent at first, Madsen should have slipped well into cult status with David Lynch’s Dune, in which her golden-tressed Princess Irulen provided the opening monologue and much narration throughout. But she’s taken on a breadth of diverse roles since that’s proven her chops beyond a youthful glow. Sideways director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) isn’t putting her filmic incarnations to a stop. She plays a waitress whose wine-guzzling customer’s affections turn to follies—but could just turn out to be Madsen’s redemption, for better or worse, into a well-deserved Hollywood career.

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C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244