A small, stylishly dressed woman stands in a narrow corridor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, staring up in awe at a row of huge photographs of writers and artists, all persecuted or forced to flee Nazi Germany.
Eyeing the melancholy visages of Max Beckmann, Franz Werfel, Ernst Barlach and George Grosz, she says quietly, “They all look so sad, like doomed men.”
Stephanie Barron, the curator who assembled the museum’s widely praised “Degenerate Art” exhibit, explains that the art displayed here, which includes work by Chagall, Kandinsky and Klee, was loathed by the Nazis, who vilified it as “degenerate trash.”
That phrase seems to strike a nerve with Barron’s guest, who wags her head furiously up and down. Of course, this isn’t any ordinary guest.
This is the pop siren who’s been banned by MTV, blasted by the Vatican and nearly arrested in Toronto for simulating masturbation on stage. This is the wildly ambitious pop diva who began as a disco boy-toy and ended up as a Vanity Fair cover girl. This is the media-wise pop provocateur who’s survived a stormy marriage to Sean Penn and a steamy affair with Warren Beatty, and when asked in her new movie whom she’d like to meet next, coolly responds, “I think I’ve met everybody.”
This is Madonna.
“Degenerate trash, huh?” she snaps sarcastically. “I know what you mean. Just like ‘A Current Affair’ and ‘Hard Copy.’ “
Outfitted in a sleek black cinch-waist coat, shiny Doc Marten-style shoes and trademark Russian red lipstick, Madonna is taking a 70-minute after-hours swing through LACMA. “That’s the great thing about being a celebrity,” she says as she glides out of her limousine. “You get to go to museums after they close.”
It’s hard to imagine Madonna having spent much of her adolescence popping gum in museums. Yet accompanying her through the “Degenerate Art” exhibit (she parked her wad of Bazooka in the limo), you learn she’s savvy enough to see the similarities between Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Watching silent German films from the 1920s, she immediately spots the early works of Dreyer and Pabst. Eyeing Louise Brooks in “Pandora’s Box,” she’s absolutely transfixed, murmuring, “She is so amazing looking!” Still, her interests are largely visual–she’d probably flunk a pop quiz on the politics and literature from that era.
But what’s striking about Madonna is her complete self-confidence. Strolling through the exhibit, she makes absolutely no effort to hide her scholastic shortcomings. Stopping to scan an introductory essay, she says, “You can’t go too fast–I’m a slow reader.” As she strolled through each exhibit area, she peppered Barron with questions, freely acknowledging her lack of familiarity with a variety of obscure artists.
Madonna was especially taken by Barron’s account of Alma Mahler, a woman who enjoyed romantic liaisons with a host of Central European artists, including Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Mahler. “But what did she do?” Madonna wonders. “Was she a painter too?”
Barron is at a bit of a loss. “You could say she was–well–a kind-of painter.”
Madonna flashes a knowing grin. “Oh, I get it,” she says. “She was a muse. “
It’s obvious Madonna feels an emotional bond with all this bold, sensual and–above all–subversive art. When Barron notes that the original “Degenerate Art” exhibitions drew far more patrons than the officially sanctioned Nazi art showing nearby, Madonna clenches her hand into a fist. “Of course,” she says triumphantly. “As soon as you tell somebody something is bad, they all want to come see it.”
Question: What’s so threatening about your sexuality? Nobody seems to get particularly worked up about Kim Basinger or Debra Winger or Uma Thurman showing their breasts. But with you–why does all hell break loose?
Answer: Because they’re not as powerful as I am. I reach more people. Kim Basinger showing her breasts isn’t threatening. But I think my sexuality’s boldness threatens people. I’m assertive. I’m not embarrassed or shameful or inhibited. I’m not just showing a breast. There’s something defiant about what I do. I’m challenging the mores and ripping open the taboos and turning up the underbelly of our society–all the things American culture tries to keep hidden. When I rip open my shirt and show my breasts, it’s a more powerful statement.
Madonna’s new film, “Truth or Dare,” is not really a concert film–and certainly not a documentary.
Shot during Madonna’s four-month Blond Ambition Tour last year, it’s a two-hour meditation on celebrity and its discontents, an alluring, dishy and seemingly intimate fantasy portrait of a pop star wrestling with the steely grip of fame. Madonna sees it as a mock-Warhol film. It’s Madonna playing Madonna–a performance within a performance–with the cameras always rolling, ready to shape, inspire, distort and sometimes simply record various events.
As is the case with most big events in Madonna’s career, the movie comes with its own built-in publicity campaign. As you may have read in advance press accounts, the cameras show Madonna baring her breasts, bitching at her soundmen, bickering with Warren Beatty, writhing in bed with her gay dancers and–yes–simulating oral sex with a water bottle.
But what the cameras never show is Madonna losing control. In fact, the only person who seems truly comfortable around the cameras is–surprise–Madonna.
Today’s stars are so fiercely protective of their airbrushed images that it’s hard to imagine anyone but Madonna showing herself screaming at her stage crew, making jokes about having sex with her father or–gasp–ridiculing an Oscar-winning Nice Guy like Kevin Costner.
But Madonna is shrewd enough to realize that it’s these unguarded moments that give the movie its forbidden air.
After all, “Truth or Dare” is her fantasy–she bankrolled the $4-million movie. She insisted that Alek Keshishian, the film’s 26-year-old director, have final cut. But why not give final cut to someone who told Vanity Fair that “my fantasy was always, ‘Oh God, I’d love to be Madonna’s best friend.’ ”
“There were plenty of scenes I felt edgy or uneasy about, but they’re still in the film,” Madonna explains, ordering a decaf cafe au lait as she settles into a quiet upstairs couch at a La Brea Avenue coffee bar. “Alek would debate with me and I eventually saw the light. Maybe all the moments aren’t necessarily flattering, but they’re the highs and the lows of the movie. And I realized that if I took one out, why didn’t I take out all of them?”
Question: I thought Warren Beatty offered the best critique of the film. When the doctor is treating your throat, he asks if you want to talk about anything off camera. And Beatty says tauntingly: “Turn the camera off? She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk.”
Answer: I don’t think that if you let cameras follow you around for six months that you’re giving up your soul. The world knows about everything in my life. They know when I have an abortion. They know when I go out on a date. So why is a doctor examining my throat suddenly off limits? For some reason, Warren thought filming a visit to the doctor was verboten– this incredibly intimate thing. Meanwhile, the National Enquirer illegally purchases my medical records whenever they can. What’s to hide? I think Warren’s statement that I don’t want to live my life off camera is really a statement about himself. It’s him saying: “I don’t want anyone to know anything about my life. I want it shrouded in mystery.” And I think Warren believed that if he kept saying to the camera, “This whole thing is ridiculous!” that it would keep us from using the footage.