She is small, and her hair looks terrible. Distressed. Long and ratty, a bad white-yellow with a greenish tinge (dark roots are struggling back), it appears to have fallen victim to one too many dye jobs. Blond Ambition takes its toll in more ways than one. She does not quite glow with health. Her less- than-perfect skin is pale and lightly powdered; her lipstick is dark red. She is wearing a cream-of-asparagus cardigan over a decollete blouse; an edge of gray-blue brassiere shows. Her trademark. Her chest is freckled. Her denim cutoffs are festooned with a nightmarish profusion of spangles, doodles, flags. On her feet are pointy turquoise mules. Madonna at home would have pleased Charles Addams.
Yet withal, she is a lovely woman. She could, you have the feeling, change clothes, do something with her hair, and look ravishing in five minutes. And she’s done it, a thousand times. Only she could bring it off. There is, first of all, that body. And her blue humorous eyes, which pierce and search. Her calm, measured, only slightly provocative presence. And her speaking voice, which sounds the way a pretty girl would sound over the telephone before you ever met her: subtle, teasing, with just a hint of brass.
She can say singular things with it, too. I met her once before, in passing, when an actor I was interviewing introduced me. The chirpy remark she made, at the actor’s expense, was as funny as it is unprintable. Today, however, she’s on her best behavior. Sort of. One does not enter Madonna’s home ground with equanimity, nor does she exude phony hospitality to unknown inquisitors. A certain tension hovers in the air, like sachet. We’re sitting in the living room of her home, atop one of the Hollywood Hills. The exterior of the house is rectilinear and severe; the terrain is steeply sloped and forbidding. This is reclaimed desert, after all: There are snakes, of many varieties, in these hills. Not to mention armed security guards. It’s not the kind of neighborhood you stroll through at night.
The inside of Madonna’s house is also severe, with the saving grace of a sexuality that reaches every corner of the sparsely but quirkily decorated place. The art is beautiful and eclectic but, like its owner, dark and challenging. A consistent theme, in paintings, photographs, and books, is the female nude. One remarkable black-and-white photo, prominently displayed in Madonna’s office, superimposes the outline of a cross on the naked posterior of a woman.
“That’s a Man Ray — that butt right there,” Madonna says, as she shows me around.
“That’s great,” I say. “He really foresaw…”
She finishes my sentence for me. “My future,” she says.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone — a petite Italian/French Canadian brunet out of Pontiac, Mich., with gapped teeth, badly bleached hair, and a mole on her upper lip — appears to unsettle us inordinately. How does she do that? Hard to say. Precise definition, in any case, would diminish her omnipresence. And her longevity. A public figure, any public figure, is Scheherazade. The moment she ceases to interest us in her story, she’s dead. (Where have you gone, Cyndi Lauper? Debbie Harry?) Madonna has lasted far longer than 1,001 nights (it’s been eight years now, a pop-culture eternity) by never repeating herself, never pinning herself down. Were she a more than effective singer-songwriter, she would somehow matter less; were she a great movie star, she would not impinge so on our dreams. And now here she is in a movie that will probably lift her star above the zenith.
Truth or Dare, opening nationally this week, dares to presume that a great many of us are sufficiently fascinated by Madonna to want to watch a two-hour quasidocumentary about her last tour, the one entitled Blond Ambition. It appears very likely that, as has almost always been the case with Madonna, her presumption will guarantee our interest. The movie takes its title from a party game that Madonna and the rest of her group played while relaxing on tour: It is a game of psychic (and sometimes physical) disrobing, and the title’s conceit is that the star is engaging in a similar self-revelation by appearing in the film.
It’s a strange and complex move. The very form of the movie is presumptuous: Documentaries are usually a type of journalism, in which the filmmaker has some kind of objective distance from the subject. In this case, the filmmaker, 26-year-old music-video director Alek Keshishian, was hired by the subject; some rumors had the filmmaker literally in bed with the subject. At the very least, he was a big fan. Madonna herself put up the money ($4 million) for the project, and served as its executive producer.
And yet the movie’s dark and often unflattering vision of its own star makes it more than an exercise in vanity. Or does it? If there’s one thing Madonna’s always claimed to be, it’s an artist: Now she seems to have latched onto the extraordinary idea that not just her image but her life itself can be art. It’s a facile, open-ended aesthetic, one in which no excess is out of bounds. But excess has always been right up Madonna’s alley. The gamble she’s taking here is that she might — heaven forbid — bore us.
The books-provocatively placed? — on the coffee table between us are Jeux des Dames Cruelles, by Serge Nazarieff, which would appear from its cover to be a history of spanking, and two books by the French photographer Bettina Rheims, whose pictures of women are harsh, raw, and erotic. Directly overhead, fixed to the ceiling, is a huge 19th-century French oil of a nude Diana with an unclothed Endymion — the only naked guy in the place.
“It’s something that I felt compelled to do,” Madonna says of Truth or Dare. “I was very moved by the group of people I was with. I felt like their brother, their sister, their mother, their daughter — and then I also thought that they could do anything. And that we could do anything on stage.” “Because the show was so demanding, so complex — whenever you go through something really intense with a group of people it brings you closer together. And ultimately, though I’d set out to document the show, just to get it on film, when I started looking at the footage I said, ‘This is so interesting to me. There’s a movie here. There’s something here.”‘
Much will be made of the psychodrama within the tour’s all-male dance troupe, all but one of whom is gay. But the most highly charged passages in Truth or Dare revolve around (who else?) Madonna herself. One is a brief tete-a-tete between the star and her close friend, actress Sandra Bernhard; the two were the subject of much buzzing a couple of years ago when a coy joint appearance on Late Night With David Letterman seemed to hint there might be more to their friendship than friendliness. In the movie Madonna tells Bernhard how, as a little girl whose mother had just died, she slept in her father’s bed; she then makes an unsettling joke about having sex with him. (“It’s a joke, for God’s sakes!” Madonna protests to me.) This, in turn, leads to more sex talk. Madonna: “Are you still sleeping with her?” Bernhard: “I hate her.” Madonna: “I hate everybody I sleep with.” Bernhard: “That’s why you sleep with them.” Bernhard asks who in the world she’d most like to meet. Madonna says, “I don’t know. I think I’ve met everybody.”