The onetime Material Girl has grown up to play Argentina’s saintly sinner in Evita, but she will forever remain a self-styled experiment in sexuality… her own work of erotic art
“This entire experience has been a test of how much I want to do Evita, how much I’m willing to give up to do it – because believe me, I really gave up a lot!”
That’s Madonna speaking backstage at Manhattan’s Webster Hall last spring, preparing to go out and shake everything the good Lord gave her for two thousand screaming fans. But as she slips out of her red silk lounging pajamas and into a pale-blue off-the-rack nightgown (the evening’s theme is a slumber party, in keeping with her video Bedtime Stories, after the album of the same name). Madonna has more on her mind than whether she should have worn a bra. Although that is a concern? Every time she moves, her bosom pops up over the top or out the sides of the gown’s flimsy bodice. (She thought it might be fun to don something cheap and sleazy for the event. Now she realizes her audience is going to have more fun than she anticipated!)
Breasts aside., this is the night that Madonna put in a call to her longtime manager. Freddy DeMann. telling him to forget about her touring again — a venture that would have put millions in both their pockets — because she’s accepted the starring role opposite her Truth or Dare heartthrob, Antonio Banderas, in Alan Parker’s screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita – the long-aborning project for which everybody from Barbra Streisand to Michelle Pfeiffer has been mentioned. Madonna herself has waited seven years for the opportunity to play Argentina’s saintly sinner, the fiercely ambitious wife of dictator Juan Peron. And as much as the onetime Material Girl enjoys performing live and as much as she appreciates financial security, giving up a potential fifteen to twenty million bucks means very little to her at this point. (We can assume DeMann, who’s been with Madonna since her multicrucifix/rubber-bracelet/rags-in-her-hair days, knew better than to object.)
Lush and Harlowesque, Madonna stares into a full-length mirror and performs an amusing, intensely feminine, and sexy ritual – carefully, luxuriously repainting her mouth while continuing to give an interview: “I know this sounds ridiculously immodest. but I always had a feeling I’d do Evita. Not that it was something that occupied my thoughts constantly, and not that I didn’t give up several times after Meryl Streep was supposed to do it, and then Michelle.
But it always fell through, and I couldn’t help feeling that somehow I was hexing it; that it was meant for me. So finally, after Michelle backed out, or whatever happened. I said to myself, You’ve got to give it one more try. So I sat down and wrote Alan Parker a ten-page letter. I just let loose with all my feelings about the project, about Eva Peron, how I was the right one to play her. I seemed to be possessed as I wrote, and I sent it all off with a copy of my Take A Bow video. I told him I had to play her.”
Starkly glamorous in the tacky backstage dressing room all platinum-blonde hair, opalescent skin, nude beneath her tissue-thin gown — Madonna turns away from the mirror and looks at me. Her freshly painted lips gleam. Her vivid blue eyes, edged dramatically with kohl, are like lasers in the dimly lit room. “And now I’m doing it.” she says.
At this point, a functionary appears at the door, announcing. “They’re ready for you.” Madonna embraces me, takes a deep breath — and bosoms erupt alarmingly from her chemise. “Good grief, the things we do,” she mutters.
And then, with one final, futile adjustment of her slumber-wear, she descends into the maelstrom.
The next day, the papers are full of Madonna’s pajama party. She’s pregnant, one “very good source” says. “Suspiciously voluptuous,” says another. One columnist states authoritatively that the star’s breasts are those of a woman in her third trimester. We speak on the phone, and Madonna seems vastly amused by the speculation: “Ha! This is what I get for eating like a normal person and not working out six hours a day. Of course, when I turn out not to be pregnant, they’ll say I had a miscarriage or an abortion.” She laughs merrily. “Quick, tell me when the fun part of being famous kicks in.”
Flash forward six months. The fun part of being famous is finally kicking in. Sort of. We’re backstage again. This time at Radio City Music Hall for the MTV Music Video Awards. Madonna, now in the twellfth year of her extraordinary fame is presiding over the chaotic event like an empress though her demeanor, as usual, is charmingly girlish. At thirty-seven, she still possesses the flesh and vibrancy of adolescence. Her hair – surely the world’s strongest follicles! – is no longer platinum. She has gone to a more flattering gold and styled it in an amusing multilayered homage to Ursula Andress or Ann-Margret or any sixties chick who lived in hairpieces. Madonna looks sensational. And though one senses she might prefer to be spending the evening somewhere else the theater, perhaps she obliges MTV’s every request this night. (She’s due to present Best Rap Video while offering an obligatory expletive as well as a call for freedom from censorship. Later, she’s to win Best Female Video of the Year.)
Catered to, deferred to, and worshiped as she is at this vital music-industry gathering, Madonna, it is nevertheless clear, is no longer part of MTV’s youthquake of stars. Not that she is passe, but although arguably the most Famous Female entertainment figure on the planet, neither is she au courrant. Yet her stardom is daunting, impressive, crushing – it is adult stardom on a grand and alienating scale. Having come a long way from the slightly plump girl who rolled around onstage singing “Like a Virgin” at the very first Music Video Awards, she is today, in the words of Norman Mailer, “the greatest perlorming artist of her time” And if her albums no longer sell as they once did — the inevitable aging of any career – she is still an impressive hit maker: Take a Bow was number one for a sensational seven weeks!
And her record label, Maverick, now develops hot young performers like Alanis Morissette and Candlebox.
Madonna herself has remarked that she is her own experiment, her own work of art – a woman who has grown, improved, transformed. And although she has survived a tumultuous, sometimes violent marriage to actor Sean Penn as well as an incongruous, much-gossiped—about affair with her Dick Tracy director, Warren Beatty and while she denounces hypocrisy, defends the universal right to love, reviles the abuse of women, celebrates her own sexuality, and invites us to fantasize with her – it is her work that creates news and controversy, not her private life.
In truth, Madonna is too big for MTV now. Yet wisely, she doesn’t let it show as she is being led through the labyrinth of underground passages below Radio City Music Hall, soon to be offered up to MTV’s Kurt Loder – who, laconic though he may be, will nonetheless seem momentarily startled when Madonna says she’ll probably put her new MTV award “in the closet” (catching his frown, however, she’ll slyly amend herself: “In my closet of cherished things, Kurt”).
I tell her how great she looks, whereupon she responds, “Thanks, I did this hair for you. Is it big enough?” We laugh and do ten minutes on hairpieces, and then Madonna says, “I’m starting to get nervous. I leave for London very soon to record the Evita soundtrack, I’m waiting for something awful to happen to f—- it all up. And I also have to record three songs for the new album [a ballad retrospective titled Something to Remember]. I’m suffering severe sleep deprivation. I feel like Judy Garland in her later phase?
“Actually. I’m enjoying the work, as usual, I’m enjoying the journey Evita is taking me on. My vocal coach. for example, is very tough and makes me cry, but she’s helped me a lot. So it’s all a learning experience. Of course, I hope the film is brilliant and a hit and I live up to my own expectations, but whatever the outcome. I know I won’t regret it.”
I ask if she’s going to have more control on Evita than she’s had on films in the past. Madonna looks at me as if I’m hanging upside-down from the ceiling. “You must be kidding,” she says. “Until I’ve had more success in films, there’s little I can control. I can suggest a certain cinematographer. I can try to choose wisely as far as hair and makeup are concerned. But film is a dircctor’s medium. In other words: Try not to work with a director who hates women. In my case, that usually means I’ll he photographed badly and end up dead in the end.”
Is she referring to her work in Body of Evidence and Dangerous Game? Madonna smiles thinly and toys with her hair: “Well, I ended up dead as dead can he in both films… Look, it will be a cold day in hell before any director gives me any consideration on something as important as, let’s say, the final cut. I’ll only experience that sort of control when I direct and produce my own movies.”
Madonna says there were two different endings for Body of Evidence, one in which she lives and one in which she dies: “Of course, they went for the misogynistic ending, where I die. The same thing happened with Dangerous Game. Abel Ferrara cut it so my character is killed. But originally, it had an upbeat ending: she prevails over the abusive relationship. But, you know, it’s in the past. I learned from both experiences. And I survived. I mean, if I could survive what was said about me after Body of Evidence and my Sex book… “
Does she pay attention to the media during down times? “In what way? If you mean do I sit at home wishing I’d done it all differently so they’d love me – no. But I do pay attention to the sexism and the cruelty and negativity of it. That fascinates me. It’s astonishing. It’s so insidious, no matter how much you try to rise above it.”
Madonna is on a roll, her normally pale skin flushed. But, I ask, don’t men in the public eye get trashed just as much as women?
“Ha! Oh please!” she explodes, the hairpieces flying around her head like Medusa’s snaky locks, her Gucci heels drumming hard on the cement floor. “Hugh Grant thinks he had it tough? That was nothing. Just imagine if I’d been arrested for hiring a male hustler. I’d he serving time, no doubt in my mind.”
At this dramatic high point, as if on cue, Madonna’s press rep, Liz Rosenberg, appears at the door:
“Have you gotten enough? She’s got to go in ten minutes.”
Madonna laughs. “Ten minutes? We haven’t even talked about orgasms yet.” Rosenberg laughs too: “Okay, ten more minutes for orgasms.”
Madonna strikes a pose, sitting poised on the edge of her chair, hands clasped demurely in her lap. She looks adorable, impish, elfin – anything but the big sex bomb she’s supposed to be. “All right now,” she says in at no-nonsense schoolmistress tone. “let me have those searching questions – give them to me by subject, and I’ll try to be brief but colorful.”
Monogamy: “It’s definitely ain effort. You certainly have to feel the other person is worth your monogamy. I demand it of my partner and practice it myself in a serious relationship. But if I find out he isn’t faithful, well… what’s good for the goose, you know.”
Jealousy: “Carlos [Carlos Leon, Madonna’s number one for over a year] is very jealous. I meant, when I’m looking through a magazine. I’m careful not to comment on attractive pictures of guys. I understand this. Men who are with me have to endure my image as well as the reality of people taking that image literally and throwing themselves at me. So I’m always reassuring my men. I say, ‘You’re the one. I’m here with you.’ Of course, he looks at other women all the time. So I’m often left to wonder, Why am I censoring myself for him?”
Romance: “I’m really much more a romantic than I am a hedonist, even though that’s how the world has come to see me. But I don’t regret having dealt with sexuality so often and so openly in my work. It’s like when everybody was saying I was a lesbian. I didn’t deny it for years because I thought, Well, so what if I was – what’s the problem with that? That’s my attitude about sexuality in general: ‘Have you got a problem with that?’ Unfortunately, s-e-x became my moniker, even though almost all of my songs are romantic. I don’t write shocking, explicit lyrics.” (No question, Madonna is the mistress of romantic balladry. Her Something to Remember album is drenched in aching paeans to love – love lost, unrequited, tortured. For all her brazen glamour, Madonna’s songwriting reveals the sensitive woman behind the misunderstood sex symbol.)
The Sex book: “Ah, back to that! I admit to one error there. I allowed the book to he designed hy somebody who did magazine layouts. And what looks great in a magazine doesn’t always translate as a book. The text – yes. there was text! – was difficult to read. It was supposed to be ironic. People didn’t get it. But if you’re waiting for me to say I regret doing it, you’ll be waiting a very long time.”
The media: “I don’t want to give the impression and I know I might sometimes that I’m completely against the press or that they’re completely against me. There are some terrific journalists who give me a fair shake, even when they don’t always get what I’m doing. But in an all-around sense. I’m learning just to have a better sense of humor when it comes to reading nonsense about myself.”
Her movie career: “I’ve been in four very successful films – Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick tracy, A League of Their Own, and Truth or Dare. I’ve also been in four or live stinkers – some of which weren’t my films at all, though they were promoted as such. Obviously, I haven’t hit my stride in movies, but let me say this: I’m not particularly interested in becoming a great big movie star. I am interested in becoming a good actress. If one comes with the other, that’s fine. But I don’t spend my life mourning my flops.”
So what about Four Rooms (her most recent cinema effort)? “I liked the idea and the script [four different directors, four separate stories, all taking place in a Hollywood hotel on New Year’s Eve]. I wanted to work with Allison Anders, who did the sequences I appear in. She has a great, almost childlike enthusiasm, which I appreciate. The role of a gay witch interested me; I thought it was funny, and I liked the ensemble aspect of the film itself.”
Did she have any qualms about playing a lesbian disciple of darkness? Madonna rolls her eyes: “I guess I’m not getting through here. No, of course not. It’s a part in a movie, not my life.”
Plastic surgery: “Well, I’ve certainly thought ahout it: In terms of when the time comes, will I do it? Because it has nothing to do with personal vanity and everything to do with professional longevity. You’re required to look a certain way. Period. It will depend entirely on where I am in my life, where my work is, what’s happening in my personal life. But if I ever do it. I want the guy who did Catherine Deneuve. My God, she looks incredible!”
Children: “I want them. I’ll have them. But not right now.”
[She’d later joke on Prime Time Live that maybe she’ll advertise for a stud to sire them!)
The Material Girl: “Well, I can’t completely disdain the song and video, because they certainly were important to my career. But talk about the media hanging on to a phrase and misinterpreting the damn thing as well. I didn’t write that song, you know, and the video was all about how the girl rejected diamonds and money. But God forbid irony should he understood. So when I’m ninety, I’ll still be the Material Girl. I guess it’s not so had. Lana Turner was the Sweater Girl until the day she died.”
That said. Madonna stands up. It’s been a long night, and she still hasn’t done her MTV stint. But I’ve got one minute left on the tape, and I want to fill it. “So, do you mean what you say on the Human Nature video – ‘Absolutely no regrets?'”
She heads toward the door, her back to me, and I think sho’ not going to answer. But as she opens the door, letting in the heat and noise, she turns and says. “People always want you to say you’re sorry or ‘Forgive me. I’ve made mistakes.’ Well, I’ll say this: Any mistakes I’ve made are war wounds I wear proudly because they’ve shaped me more than anything else. I can only hope that if I’m patient and diligent enough, if I continue to grow as an artist and a human being, people will come to realize that I’m not some callous, power-hungry, sex-crazed control freak who sings occasionally. They’ll see me for what I am. But just in case they never do, the people important to me, my friends and family, they know. They’ve always known, and that’s enough for me.”
Click! The recorder stops, Madonna looks down at the tiny machine in my hand, pointed – now uselessly at her Gucci shirtfront. She laughs and moves into the waiting arms of her entourage: “Out of tape, honey? Too bad. You never did ask me about orgasms!”