She’s been gamine and glamour queen, material girl and romantic, virgin and whore. In her new film, Madonna tries to have it all.
It’s New York, New York, and Who’s That Girl. Madonna’s first movie since Shanghai Surprise, is filming in front of Trump Tower on Marathon Sunday because the city doesn’t want midtown shopping blocked during the week. In the background, grimacing runners and their tired fans stagger into Central Park. Producer Rosilyn Heller is standing near the corner, chatting with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who’ve stopped by to see their nephew Griffin Dunne, Madonna’s co-star.
This is supposed to be a funny, sunny screwball romance, but the November sky’s rolling with rain clouds. Gaffers are bouncing lights off scrims to simulate spring. Director James Foley (Reckless, At Close Range) alternates anxious glances at the thunderheads with happy, mood-elevating smiles at Madonna, who glows back as if to reassure him that Reality stops here, no prob. She seems almost comfy in a forest of production, hair, and makeup people, crewmen, stand-ins, and extras, all surrounded by a swelling flock of oglers.
The character Madonna’s playing is Nikki Finn, tough, adorable, out on parole, and hell-bent on finding out who framed her for murder. Nikki’s bad, but not that bad; Madonna describes her as ‘Puck.” She’s costumed in a red tutu mini, pointy suede shoes, and a black leather jacket, accessorized (occasionally) with matching black handgun. It’s as if Jimmy Dean and She-Ra had spawned a biker daughter, the Rebel Princess of Power. Dunne is Loudon Trott, the twit of wealth and taste who loses his Rolls-and-Rolex heart to her, tick by tick and fender by fender. What drew him to the script, he says, was Madonna’s character getting into his Rolls, seeing a ferocious cougar in the backseat, and saying, “Oh, neat.”
Attitude, it turns out, is the attitude to take toward cougars, because, as coproducer Bernie Williams explains, “Cougars by instinct will go for the weakest of your species when they’re hungry. And they’re always hungry, because we skip their dinner the night before. We have four of these cougars because their trainer rewards them after each scene, and they get full and lazy and don’t want to do anything, so we switch them with a hungry one. Also, they cant work when they’re in a bad mood; they bite chunks out of the seat of the Rolls.”
Paparazzi, like crocs in a swamp, snap at Madonna’s every step. Middle-aged shutterbugs sight a canvas chair that says “MADONNA” on it and, trying to impress their daughters, shoot the star’s double by mistake. With so much visibility, the shoot would be a bit of a zoo even without the snack-happy cougars, their trainers, their Humane Society watchdog, and the four guards armed with sniper rifles [New York City cougar regulations). Madonna’s makeup man, Ed Ternes, can think of some stars who’d be having a breakdown. He won’t name names. The crowd-control crew is giddy. Producer Heller and unit publicist Stuart Fink volunteer to help corral gawkers.
“This isn’t happening; we aren’t here,” Fink suggests hopefully.
“Picture up …”
Some fat cat up in Trump Tower pitches a rock off his balcony.
Literally. Transit police help Madonna’s bodyguard bandage his bleeding arm. “It’s always worse in the better neighborhoods,” a cop confides. “In Harlem this morning, we had no trouble at all.” Then the rain starts, and another New York movie packs off to Los Angeles: cast, crew, cats, and cameras.
What kind of creature is this Madonna? Media taxonomists make her sound like the blind men’s elephant. Rolling Stone found her opportunistic. Time humorous, Vanity Fair cannily retro, the Village Voice brilliantly postmodern, and the New York Post synthetic. James Foley swears she’s all intuition, “not a preconceived bone in her body.” Whom to believe? “There are about a million opposites living inside of me,” she told New York’s Daily News, and it’s the best clue yet. Madonna’s self-presentations flash black-and-white, like a zebra’s attention-grabbing camouflage.
Drawn to controversy like a kid to a jam jar, she has toyed with crucifixes, dressed undies-out, and, at the height of her rock-pop appeal, hatched the hit video “Papa Don’t Preach,” which is about a pregnant teen who keeps her kid. Naively conceived as a minidrama, “Papa” was emotionally lucid. But its uncondescending kindness to its teen mom (good!) made it hazardous agitprop in her impressionable preteen market (bad!).
In other hit music videos — “Like a Virgin,” “Borderline,” “Material Girl,” and “Open Your Heart” — Madonna is intercut as slut and lady, gamine and glamour queen, goldbricker and romantic, decadent and innocent. “It has to be both,” she insists. “It can’t be one or the other.” Double or nothing, she lets you eat your cake and diet, too.
In Hollywood films, whose narrative conventions are newer to her, Madonna has to project her morally stroboscopic identity into one role at a time. When casting Desperately Seeking Susan, coproducer Sarah Pillsbury says she saw in Madonna’s “punk Mae West” a “total fantasy for both men and women.” Audiences agreed. Madonna’s insouciant Bad Girl stole the picture and parlayed a supporting role into a co-star’s. As a result, Madonna got offered more Bad Girls and Bad Women.
Fearing she’d smother in the cushions of some typecasting couch, Madonna took on the fizzler Shanghai Surprise, starring opposite her husband, Sean Penn. Madonna played the prudish missionary Miss Tallock, a Good Girl who turns Bad Girl to do Good. It was a nice twist in theory, but when Miss (“Just Say ‘No'”) Tatlock swaps her missionary zeal for the missionary position so as to “obligate” a traveling sleazeball to her noble cause, the words “fool” and “hypocrite” leap to mind. But even if Madonna’s character had been believable and likable (or anything else in the movie), it wouldn’t have helped her much. The bottom line was that she just wasn’t convincing as a goody-goody. Shanghai Surprise was her ticket back to Badland.
The problem is, Madonna’s Bad Girl doesn’t just want to have fun. She wants love, too. The happy-ending kind. Madonna’s one of the few stars in this stressed-out, immune-deficient age who can project the erotic elation of romance. But, alas. Bad Girls are rarely romantic heroines. Jane Russell managed it in Macao, but it’s hard to find her a recent rival. Despite rumors of permissiveness in Hollywood, Bad Girls still run afoul of sharks, the law, or Mr. Goodbar. They still end up in dunce caps, B-movies, or supporting roles. No no, Love don’t come easy in Badland.
Can Madonna wiggle her way out of the Bad Girl gulag? Though on-screen she has the frank sexuality, the irreverence, and the easy selfishness of a B-movie brunette, her Hollywood roots are love-goddess blonde. Critics have seen in her the innocence of Monroe, the munch of Mae West, the prole warmth of Holliday, the assurance of Lombard’s womanly brats, and the undertones of Dietrich’s sexual sophistication. The result is sweeter than B-queens or vamps, steamier than smart blondes, and smarter than dumbbelles. She’s not rerunning stereotypes, she’s rewriting them. Her desire to please reads as a generous form of self-interest, not a malevolent strategem or a neurotic need. It’s a win-win offer.
In addition to her fat account at the image bank, she projects an intensely charming personality: Quick to jettison anger (unlike Bad Boys, who marry theirs), her ego is open to new wisdom, and she has a sunburst smile, a collusively teasy wink, and clean energy to burn. Who’s That Girl will utilize Madonna’s Madonnaness. “There’s always been this twinkle in her eye, only now it’s in wide-screen technicolor, and her sexuality is an undercurrent to her playfulness,” says Foley, who directed Madonna’s videos “Papa Don’t Preach” and “True Blue” (Euro-version).
The film’s original script, written by Andrew Smith, was developed by producer Rosilyn Heller at the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company as Slammer. Its cheerful speed, fantasy mood, and street-level heart mix screwball tradition with Madonna’s video best. Heller, a fan of Foley’s film work, offered Stammer to him through Foley’s old friend. G-P president Roger Birnbaum. Foley saw Nikki as a “wicked but good kind of character,” for whom he felt instant affection. He thought Madonna would be perfect.
“Although Foley had never directed a comedy and Madonna had never starred in one. Roger and I loved the team,” says Heller. Foley met with Warner Bros. executives and allayed their initial doubts about his comedic inexperience. New writers were brought in: Ken Finkleman elaborated on the script’s action, and Andy Brockman gave it more romantic focus, tenderizing Nikki and distilling Loudon’s appeal. Once Griffin Dunne was cast, things finally felt right to everybody, and the “go project” finally “was go.”
“Madonna’s under a lot of pressure for this movie to do well, but she doesn’t wear the pressure on her sleeve says Dunne. Madonna attributes her discipline to her years as a dancer in New York: “Being there for other people, showing up on time, and making a go of it when you’re exhausted — I’ve done that all my life.” And she holds her workahol well. The oldest girl from a mid-western Catholic family of ten, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone (“fat man”) Penn treats everybody as a quasi-sibling, from Warners exec Mark Canton to the grips. A kidder of the jab-and-spar school, she has your number before she learns your name. No tact, no malice.
One night back in Los Angeles. they’re shooting at Cartier’s. It’s been a long week, and fuses are short. A bit actress gets in a crewman’s way.
“Get that woman out of here” he barks. “That woman! That woman!” Madonna chirps, parodying his macho snit with a frown and a smile. The guy’s called but not humiliated, and the air’s clear.
Dunne wanted to work with Madonna after seeing her in the limited-run David Rabe play, Goose and Tomtom, at Lincoln Center last August. “She seemed to be very inside herself,” he says of her performance. “When she came out with a cigarette that needed to be lit — all you were concerned about was who was going to light it.”
“We work very differently — which worked well for our characters,” Dunne adds. “She likes her first take best. I think my best is around the fourth. She always says, ‘You got it, you got it,’ and she was driving me crazy, just the way her character would. I mean, she’s a very noisy girl. If you’re having lunch or something, she’s not at all like that, but on the set she’d use this talent she has for grating on my character’s nerves — talking nonstop between takes — and I’d look at her and I really would go: Who is this girl?”
In the long run, Madonna is a girl who wants to Open Your Heart, not simply conquer it. To do this, she’ll have to find roles that mine the emotional richness of her contradictory character and rework commercial standards to let her resident opposites breathe through the veils of myth. Diane Keaton and producer Joe Kelly (Heaven) are renovating The Blue Angel for her at Fox. It’s a Bad Girl role with depth potential. Kelly compares her Adorable Badness to Jack Nicholson’s. Meanwhile, Siren Films, Madonna’s development company, is nurturing two adaptations of French melodramas (including Agnes Verde’s Cleo From 5 to 7) about women — neither good nor bad — who act on the courage of their affections in a morally inscrutable world.
By now it’s late January, outside Studio 16 on the Warners lot in Burbank, where Who’s That Girl is wrapping up shooting, on time and only three Trump Tower Sundays overbudget. Inside her Linx Prowler trailer, we scrunch into a tiny dining enclave. This interview finds Madonna pushing twenty-nine and in transition. When she says, “I’d rather walk through a fire than walk away from one,” she’s jiving and accurate, both. Heads, she wins; tails, she won’t lose. Double or nothing.
Question: How is it going from the control you have in videos to working with the film studios?
Madonna: It’s a whole different ball game. But I want to know every aspect. When I do a video, I have to know how much it costs and who’s doing everything, and I worry like mad and I’m always getting this from people: “Just relax! Other people are hired to do these jobs.” But I can never be just in front of the camera.
Question: You were involved in developing Who’s That Girl?
Madonna: Mm-hmm. The thing I had planned doing right after Shanghai Surprise was Blind Date, over at Tri-Star. I was supposed to have approval of the leading man and the director, and they didn’t tell me they’d already hired Bruce Willis. That … just didn’t work out. But I was really excited about doing a real physical, screwball comedy, so when Jamie brought up this, it was like my reward.
Question: There was no punishment for Shanghai?
Madonna: No. Mark Canton and Allyn Stewart have a little more insight than that! All the Warners executives were real positive about the project. It was a process—with the writers — of honing the script, making it better.
Question: What did you wear when you met with the Warners executives?
Madonna: A navy blue suit.
Madonna: Yeah. But it was Comme des Garcons, so it was [smiles] a bit off.
Question: Is there a big difference for you, as a performer, between rock video and film?
Madonna: It’s not that different, but the public’s perception of it is different. To them, the roles they’ve seen me do in videos are me. To me, they’re characters that part of me is in. After I did Desperately Seeking Susan, people went, “Oh, she’s really playing herself,” and I thought: That means I have to play an opposite character to convince everyone. Which is a trap.
Question: Is that how you got Shanghaied?
Madonna: Well, sort of. Sort of. But I actually liked the script. Then we got there and the director [Jim Goddard] just had no knowledge of what he was doing, and it was downhill from the second day. But it was as different as I could get from Desperately Seeking Susan, and a truly-miserable-experience-I-learned-a-lot-from-and-I-don’t-regret!
Question: Did it make you more cautious?
Madonna: Oh. yeah! Definitely! It’s deadly when you second-guess public opinion. Your best bet is to stay true to yourself.
Question: You seem to have great confidence in Foley—
Madonna: Jamie Foley is a genius.
Question: Do you consult Sean on creative decisions?
Madonna: My husband’s is a fairly respected opinion with me!
Question: Does anyone have veto power over your career decisions?
Madonna: No way!
Question: You’ve been turning down roles, like Evita, where you’d sing on screen …
Madonna: I had several meetings with Robert Stigwood, and in China I read tons of literature on Evita, but Stigwood really insisted on doing an operetta kind of thing, and the only way that doing Evita would be interesting to me is as a drama, so it didn’t work. I’d love to do a movie someday where I sing, but it’s hard to make a transition if I do movies about singers.
Question: Have you put sex scenes on hold, too?
Madonna: I loved the script of (Mary Lambert’s] Siesta, but I couldn’t deal with all the nudity in it. I’m at a stage in my career where any kind of nudity would be an incredible distraction within a given movie. As far as other movies go, it’s very hit-and-miss when nudity works. For instance, I loved Betty Blue and felt the nudity was very natural and important to the telling of the story. On the other hand, I was disturbed by the nudity in Blue Velvet and felt it was done for the sake of shocking the audience.
Question: Woody Allen, asked if he thought sex was dirty, said. “Only when it’s good.” Do you think sex is dirty?
Madonna: Only when you don’t take a bath.
Question: But romantic happiness makes so many people anxious. They start to anticipate its end —
Madonna: I fall into that trap once in a while, but usually. …I don’t know …I just don’t think it’s going to end! You know, I’ve been having a good time for a long time.
Question: Do you agree with [film critic] Michael Ventura that in American films, “Sex is the foreplay. violence is the climax”?
Madonna: I think it’s really difficult for Americans to express passion and desire in movies. Something bad always has to happen — violence — or the relationship doesn’t last. I will not be attracted to making violent films. I’m attracted to roles where women are strong, and aren’t victimized. Everything I do has to be some kind of a celebration of life.
Question: If your idea — of women, of life — isn’t marketable, will you forsake it?
Madonna: Oh [smiles], it’ll be marketable!
Question: Your work finds an elegance in street people —
Madonna: I think that’s the ultimate challenge — to have some kind of style and grace, even though you haven’t got money, or standing in society, or formal education. I had a very middle, lower-middle-class sort of upbringing, but I identify with people who’ve had, at some point in their lives, to struggle to survive. It adds another color to your character.
Question: Your mother’s dying when you were six—
Madonna: That period when I knew that my mother wasn’t fulfilling her role — and realizing that I was losing her — has a lot to do with my fuel, so to speak, my fuel for life. It left me with an intense longing to fill a sort of emptiness.
Question: Then you actually were a virgin mother in a way.
Madonna: Taking care of all my brothers and sisters. Yuh. One of the films I’m developing now is about a mother who does everything for the sake of her child.
Question: On the flip side, in the video “Borderline,” you’re longing to play with the boys.
Madonna: True. I had a traditional Catholic upbringing, and I saw the privileges my older brothers had. They got to stay out late, go to concerts, play in the neighborhood. I was left out. Then, when I was dancing, most of the men were homosexuals, so I was left out again. Somewhere deep down inside of me is a frustrated little boy. I’m sure of it!
Question: In your film career, will you resist the vehicle route?
Madonna: I like to switch gears, do a lot of different things. And as much as there’s a funniness about life that I understand. there’s also a sadness about life —
Question: As in outlaw guys?
Madonna: Bukowski and Hopper and Sean and cowboys out in the desert shooting guns — that’s just something I’m fascinated by. But in the films I’m developing, the sadness is the woman’s kind.
Question: Are there any Hollywood classics you thought of when you did Who’s That Girl?
Madonna: Bringing Up Baby. I just love those films where the woman gets away with murder, but her weapon is laughter. And you end up falling in love with her.
Question: It sounds like you’re revising Hollywood’s romantic traditions when most hip performers have taken a parodic stance toward them: Ghost-busters, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid –
Madonna: A comedy like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Carob Lombard and Robert Montgomery, I remember forever. It’s really touching. Those other movies — I get a laugh out of them, but they don’t mean anything to me, ultimately.
Question: Not enough heart?
Madonna: Yeah. It’s, like, from the dick.
Question: And the head?
Madonna: Yeah. Which is a bad combination.
Question: And which body parts are you organizing?
Madonna: Heart and soul! [Laughs] With a little dick thrown in every once in a while.
© American Film Magazine