So far, pop icon Madonna has been a movie star in search of a movie. That’s about to change with her role as Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. Getting into a new groove, the combustible star burns up Helmut Newton’s lens and opens her heart to Kevin Sessmus.
You reach the house by driving up into the Hollywood Hills as far as you can go. It is, of course, At the Top. Like Madonna herself, it is surprisingly small, startlingly white, all modern angles and hard edges. Everywhere, there is an exquisite incongruity. Outside, a black Mercedes 560SL is parked next to a coral-colored ’57 Thunderbird; inside, twentieth-century art performs a visual pas de deux with eighteenth-century Italian furniture. Catholic candles, tackily embossed with saints, dot the house’s sophisticated rooms. On a kitchen counter, audiotapes of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth lie stacked beside rap tapes by Public Enemy.
Atop her work desk is a portrait of her mother, who died of cancer when Madonna was six. “My memories of her drift in and out,” she admits.
“When I turned thirty. which was the age my mother was when she died, I just flipped because I kept thinking I’m now outliving my mother. I thought something horrible was going to happen to me. Like this is it, my time is up. It was a tough year last year. I was going through so many things… and my divorce… Next to her mother’s picture are two vintage photos of her very Italian-looking father, with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.
“Since I was seventeen and moved to New York, I haven’t needed his help,” she says. turning on her tough act.
“We’re the closest when I’m in a very vulnerable state. The great thing is that when I am, he’s there for me. The rest of the time I roam around the world like a miniature tank.”
Next to the portraits of her parents is a recent picture of the tanklike Madonna posing naked, sunlit, beneath a black gauze shirt. The largest photo on the desk, however, is from her childhood: Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone trying on her mother’s wedding dress, her innocence already smothered in its first swarm of lace.
As we walk from room to room. I am reminded of what Pauline Kael wrote about the way Madonna moved “regally, an indolent, trampy goddess,” through her first feature film, Desperately Seeking Susan. There is no trace of the indolence left, and only a bit of the trampiness. The regalness, however, has matured into a bearing so secure that she seems to be trailing an invisible train in her wake.
Outside her bathroom, hung on the wall above a Nadelman sculpture, is the photograph given to her on her thirty-first birthday by her Uber-beau, Warren Beatty. It is a picture by Ilse Bing of a group of women in diaphanous gowns caught performing a la Matisse’s The Dance. She points to the woman whose head is thrown farther back than the others’, her hands not exactly clasped in the thrall of collaboration. The woman obviously wants the attention all to herself, and Bing has captured that blissful desire perfectly. Madonna tilts her head at the same angle and breezes past the photograph. “Warren
says she reminds him of me. I don’t know why.”
The bathroom is the size of most bedrooms, Mirrors abound. A walk-in closet runs along one wall. A daybed awaits. A huge open shower competes with a high-tech set of black weights for dominion over the room. Around a wall behind the shower is a single toilet. Above it hangs the David Salle drawing given to her and ex-husband Sean Penn as an anniversary present by Salle and his girlfriend, choreographer Karole Armitage, who for a short time helped stage the dances for Madonna’s world
tour, which begins this month in Japan. The drawing is of a naked female lying flat on her back, her legs spread wide in the foreground above the personal inscription that includes the word “love.”
Jean-Paul Gaultier, who has designed the costumes for the tour, told me about his and Madonna’s concept of mixing “femininity with a little masculinity… a very sexy mix, a very Madonna mix,” and, indeed, the bathroom is as sleek and androgynous – erotically so – as the woman showing it to me. She is wearing black fishnet stockings beneath black cutoff jeans, a studded black denim shirt, black pumps, and a black leather cap. She wears no makeup except for the bit beneath her she-devil mole, below which reside the reddest lips allowed in town. She is the perfect femme fatale for the fin de siecle – bold, bullshitless, belligerently beautiful.
Madonna pushes the cap back on her head and points at the hairy froth of pencil strokes in the Salle drawing. “When I sit on the toilet,” she murmurs, trying to shock herself as well as me, “I like gazing at that.”
The bedroom just next door is softer, safer. On one wall hangs a painting by Tamara de Lempicka. “I have a ton of her paintings in New York. I have a Lempicka museum.” The most important image, however, is the snapshot framed on the table by her bed. It is theonly one there, and in it, like a virgin, a dark-haired girl lies on a lawn in a lovely white dress.
“Is that your mother’?” I ask. “She seems so innocent.”
Madonna’s voice also becomes softer, safer. “Yes. She was sixteen. I could never look like that in a picture.”
We circle back to the main room. An ornately gold-framed Langlois, originally painted for Versailles, is as large as the entire ceiling. And that is exactly where Madonna has hung it, Hermes’ exposed loins dangling over our heads. Above the fireplace is a l932 Leger painting, Composition. Across from it is a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, the legendary Mexican artist and revolutionary whose life Madonna plans to make into a Reds-like film. “Warren,” she smiles, “is encouraging me highly.”
Another wall holds a nude painted by Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera. Boxer Joe Louis, photographed by Irving Penn, pours in a corner across from Man Ray’s nude of Kiki de Montparnasse. All around us are other photographs taken by masters, new and old: Weston, Weegee, Tina Modotti, Matt Mahurin, Lartigue, Drtikol, Blumenfeld, Herb Ritts.
In the entrance foyer is another Kahlo, titled My Birth. The small painting depicts Kahlo’s mother in bed with the sheets folded back over her head. All that can be seen of the mother are her opened legs. the head of the adult Kahlo painfully emerging from her mother’s gaping vagina. There is blood in the painting. There is anger there. Sorrow.
“If somebody doesn’t like this painting,” Madonna says, “then I know they can’t be my friend.”