This is a woman with more than one face.
The first time I meet Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone—in Warren Beatty’s trailer on the back lot of Universal studios, where they are filming Dick Treacy-she is a blond. An impatient, gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking blond chafing at the long delays the slow process of moviemaking entails. Hours will pass before she takes her turn in front of the cameras as the nightclub chanteuse Breathtess Mahoney, and Madonna is seeking amusement. When she enters the trailer, the barometric pressure changes: lt’s as if a small cyclone had sped by. You know you’re in the presence of a star by a subtle quickening in the atmosphere; this cyclone has needs, and tending to them becomes the first order of business.
This Madonna is not movie-star regal, nor is she going for glamour. Slinkily packed into a reddish brown. tie-dyed short dress, she gives off an aura of brassy street smarts. Impatience, she’s often said, is her worst character flaw, and she’s obviously in the grip of it now. Beatty — her director, costar, and, according to all the gossip columns of the moment, constant companion since the demise of her maniage to Sean Penn — rises to deal with Madonna’s mood. To her restless child, he plays the indulgent, avuncular adult, slightly abashed but definitely enchanted by the whirlwind it’s his job to placate. Well aware he’s being observed. Beatty rolls his eyes, amused, as if to say. “What am I going to do with her?” and leads her to the back of the trailer for a private. whispery tete-a-tete.
A few hours later, I am summoned back to the trailer by Madonna to help solve a pressing riddle. Surrounded by a few coworkers. she’s attempting to decode the latest enigmatic Spy list. Madonna keeps close tabs on her coverage in the media, and the wicked wits at Spy magazine have missed few opportunities to make sport with her name. “Did you see last month’s list?” she asks, referring to a roll call of famous women that included Diane Keaton, Joan Collins, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, and Madonna herself. It’s the reader’s job to figure out the common thread that links the names, easy enough in this case – the link is Warren Beatty. But the current conundrum. which puts Sean Penn alongside such unlikely characters as Lemuel Gulliver, T. E. Lawrence, Snidely Whiplash, and O., is proving more diflicult to penetrate. What clever innuendo is being implied here? We are all, for the moment, slumped.
The Past year has been a breathless one for Madonna watchers. What other figure, save Mr. Gorbachev, had such a knack for igniting headline-grabbing events? In January l989, amid a storm of tabloid dirt suggesting she’d been the victim of domestic violence, she filed divorce papers, bringing to an end her stormy three-and-a-half-year marriage to the mediaphobic Sean Penn. Soon after, her critical stock crested with the release of the new album, Like a Prayer, her most ambitious, personal – and pain-inflected-work. Then came the Pepsi scandal. After paying the superstar $5 million for her promotional video, Pepsi yanked its “Like a Prayer” ad when the other prayful video appeared — a provocative commingling of sex and religion in which the Naughty One seduces a black saint and exposes her dripping stigmata in church. Just about the only Madonna event not to make a splash was Ihe quick und quiet release of her movie Bloodhounds of Broadway, a reminder that the one uncaptured flag in the inexorable Madonna juggernaut is a victory over Fortress Hollywood.
The second time I meet Madonna, five months later, she is in her own Hollywood fortress in the hills, an airy, sparely furnished hideaway that commands a glorious view of the town she has set her mind on conquering. Dirk Tracy has finished filming, and the latest issue of the hip L.A. Weekly has plastered four silk-screened images of her on its cover, under the rubric “In the Age of Madonna” — further confirmation, if any were needed, that her reign, launched in 1983. as the world’s dominant female pop star and sex symbol, shows no sign of abating as the new decade rolls in.
But the Madonna who greets me now bears little resemblance to the funky, restless creature in the trailer. Ravenhaired, elegantly put together, she’s the picture of selfcomposure. Her sleeveless navy blue velvet turtleneck stops at midtorso, revealing the famous Madonna midriff but not the trademark belly button. Her black, semitransparent Romeo Gigli pants suggest a Spanish flavor, and her small, exquisitely toned body is alert, posture perfect, the product of rigorous workouts in the well-equipped exercise room of her bedroom. Even her speech seems different, her elocution more precise, her tonality softer. She is at once the gracious host of her vaguely neoclassic manor – Madonna’s Italianate furniture suggests the eighteenth century — a briskly efficient businesswoman-artist ready for the tasks at hand, and a veteran Hollywood star impeccably turned out to meet the press.
Do I broach the subject of the SPY list, which I have by now decoded? My motives, of course, are base: When I announce the link between her ex-husband, O. and Snidely Whiplash is an affinity for S and M and bondage, will her face betray some dark matrimonial secret? Silly me. Madonna is, as always, ahead of the game: She’s the one who blithely announces what the list was implying. Her reaction combines amused contempt for waggish potshots with the weary acceptance of a favorite target, “They nail me on a regular hasis.” she says.
Madonna is tough and seemingly shameless, two of the characteristics that have helped secure her phenomenal popularity. Her everevolvingg persona has always been tauntingly poised outside the flat landscape of conventional middle-class morality. Take me or leave me, she seems to say, whether she’s wearinga BOY TOY belt buckle in concert, appearing as a peep-show dancer in the video of “Open Your Heart,” or posing atop a bed with a manacle and chain around hcr neck in the steamy-satirical video “Express Yourself.” lf there’s no possibility you won’t admit to, you’re safely beyond embarassment – and exempt from scandal.
This isn’t to say that Madonna the performer is Madonna the person or that she practices what she makes pop. The clue to
her fascination, and her inviolabllity, is the protective shield of irony that renders every Madonna move ambiguous. She finds
it outrageous that feminists have attacked her for setting women back with her “Boy Toy” charade. “They didn’t get the joke. The whole point is that I’m not anyhody’s toy. People take everything so literally. I think the public is tired of trying to figure out whether I’m a feminist or not. I don’t think of what I’m doing as gender specific. I am what I am. and I do what I do. I never set out to be a role model for girls or women. I’m a strong woman, a successful woman, and I don’t conform to a stereotype. You know the idea — that you need to be like a chain saw or an army tank to play in at man’s world. Well, I don’t act like a man, and I play in a man’s world.”
Madonna’s sense of life as a joke is what enables her to get away with just about anything. She can appropriate Marilyn’s image in “Material Girl” or raise fire storms of debate with “Papa Don`t Preach,” her song about unwed mothers, or trample tradition in “Like a Prayer,” and her audience keeps expanding. When Cher slings her barely covered pelvis around a video-depicted hattieship, her antics seem more desperate than amusing, but Madonna is always confidently tongue-in-cheek. “Irony is my favorite thing,” she says. “Everythlng I do is meant to have several meanings, to be ambiguous.”
Yet in the past year, a change can he detected in her work: a movement toward a naked form of self-revelation far riskier than her more outrageous gambits. Listen to the lyrics of “Till Death Do Us Part” and you’ll hear a barely fictionalized account of her tempestuous marriage. “He takes a drink, she goes outside / He starts to scream, the vases fly / He wishes that she wouldn’t cry / He’s not in love with her anymore.”
Perhaps even closer to the marrow is the song “Oh Father” and the haunting video story she devised to illustrate it. “It’s my most autobiographical work – with a little bit of drama thrown in. It’s boring to be completely autobiographical.” The song is a melancholy declaration of independence addressed to a brutal patriarch: “You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you. I never thought I would. / You can’t make me cry, you once had the power / I never felt so good about myself.” The video, which David Fincher directed from her story line, graphically dramatizes the trauma of Madonna’s seating early loss, the death of her mother when she was only six, and suggests, by visually linking the abusive father to a punishing boyfriend, what Madonna says is the video’s theme: “lt’s about how you marry your father.”
This new work is a far cry from the bubble-gum music that made her the darling of every thirteen-year-old girl in the nation. But Madonna has had some bruising encounters with the real world since then, and personal themes have begun to surface in her work. “It’s hard to define what I was doing in the beginning,” she explains. “I think l was just having a lot of fun, being provocative, being a clown. But most people are ultimately most inspired by their own experience, their past. I think you have to face that stuff. Obviously, there’s been sadness in my life, and you can cover that up or you can let it come through. I can’t always paste a smile on my face.”
In her shrewd but ever-surprising metamorphosis into an allmedia superstar, no move was more daring than her foray onto Broadway in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. She was an outsider three times over: a pop star invading the sacred realm of the theater, a relative novice among acting professionals, and a woman invading the macho world of Mamet. Facing an often-skeptical audience each night. “I knew I was up against a lot. I’m from a world they have no respect for. It was a really good experience for me to prove myself in that context,” she says. But Madonna’s Broadway debut was painful as well. What may have been hardest for this woman who adamantly believes in controlling her own fate was having to play a victim. “It was devastating — to do that night after night.” Madonna was also troubled because her view of the character, a Hollywood studio secretary, differed from that held by the playwright and director. “I saw her as an angel, an innocent. They wanted her to be a c—.”
In Hollywood, where she has her own production company, Siren Films, and a development deal with Columbia Pictures, Madonna will have more say in the parts she plays. In the fall, shooting will begin on Siren’s first film, Blessing in Disguise, to be produced in association with Warren Beatty. “It’s a serious movie, about people suspended in a state of denial,” Madonna explains. She will play a daughter who returns to her Midwestern family to attend her brother’s funeral and redefine her relationship to her mother and sister.
Hollywood is obviously betting that Madonna has a major movie career ahead of her, in spite of her spotty track record. Except for her smashing debut in Desperately Seeking Susan, her screen ventures — Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl? Bloodhounds of Broadway – have been more flayed than praised. Do these failures bother her? “Yes, they bother me. Of course they do.” She pauses, thoughtful but determined. “But I’m just gonna keep trying. I think Dick Tracy is going to help me a lot. Warren says I’m great in it, and I don’t think he lies about stuff like that.”
A voracious moviegoer who loves old movies and has strong opinions about new ones, she reveals that David Geffen tried to talk her into doing The Fabulous Baker Boys. [The much-lauded Michelle Pfeiffer should be thankful she didn’t.] What did she think of the movie made without her? “I hated it. It was too mushy. Such a Wonder-bread cast. I think of all those people as being California people — blond and boring.” Madonna adds that she found the movie True Love “awesome” – its Bronx working-class milieu spoke to her own Italian-American sense of reality. Nothing white-bread there.
In a sense, Madonna has been a character actress all along, but instead of slipping in and out of movie roles, she has used music videos continually to reinvent her persona. “In pop music, generally, people have one image. You get pigeonholed. I’m lucky enough to be able to change and stili be accepted. If you think about it, that’s what people do in movies. Play a part, change characters, looks, attitudes. I guess I do it to entertain myself.” Videos are obviously much more than mere money-makers to Madonna, who financed her “Express Yourself” extravaganza herself. The cost: nearly a million dollars. “I’ve basically gone wildly out of control. My manager gets insane about what I spend. But it placates me to put my energy into that work. I could be buying a Ferrari, but l’d rather spend it this way.”
In movie matters, Beatty has become her guru. “He’s really helpful reading scripts. He has infinite knowledge about what makes a good movie, a good director. He’s become a sounding board for me. He’s really critical, and that’s good.”
By a strange twist of fate, she met Beatty the night of her first date with Sean Penn. “Sean took me to Warren’s house. I guess he wanted to show me off — I’m not sure. I didn’t know L.A. at all. I remember meeting a lot of movie stars that night… Mickey Rourke, all these people.” But she never really got to know Beatty until the casting sessions for Dick Tracy. When he finally did turn his attention to her, it was focused. “Warren should have been a psychiatrist or a district attorney. When he wants to know somebody, he goes out of his way to investigate. You feel like you’re under a microscope. You’re not used to people spending that much time trying to get to know you. But it’s admirable. Everybody ought to examine the people they‘re going to work with as intensely as he does.”
Or the people they marry. Though Madonna doesn’t care to talk at length about her relationship with Penn, she will say that the breakup of her marriage has made her “more suspicious of people. You imbue men with characteristics you want them to have. Then they’re not what you expect at all. But it’s your own fault, too, for not doing what Warren does — not doing the homework, the investigating. I’m more cautious now. But I’m still a hopeless romantic…”
Of her personal relationship with Beatty, which she doesn’t want to “belittle” by talking about, she says. “Let’s just say what I’m doing this time is starting out being good friends with somebody.” But what does it feel like, being linked with a man whose list of former girlfriends reads like a Whos Who of three decades of Hollywood celebrity. “You can be either threatened by it or flattered by it,” Madonna says. “I choose to be flattered.” A droll pause. “At least for today.”
Is there a specific type of man who attracts her? “I’ve been drawn to so many different kinds of men, 1 couldn’t say I’ve got a type. Let’s say I’m attracted to men who are in touch with their sexuality. Who are aware of it and who work it.” She also prefers a man who’s able to acknowledge his feminine side. “I think I have a lot of masculinity in me. Macho guys don’t really go for me — certainly not when they get to know me. They’re frightened of their own femininity.”
Madonna, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be frightened of much of anything. Or at least that is the strong impression this small, iron-willed, head—on-her-shoulders woman makes. But people’s strength also contains their deepest fear. For Madonna, a self—confessed “control freak” who has choreographed her meteoric career with flawless finesse, the true terror would be a loss of control, one reason drugs have never had the least allure for her. “Drinking martinis is about as out of control as I will ever get,” she says, laughing.
Though she’s a symbol of rebellion for millions of girls the world over and did herself rebel against her strict Catholic father, the imprint of Madonna’s Michigan childhood is what has really shaped her workaholic soul, “I’m a middle—class Catholic girl deep down inside, and it’s hard for me to enjoy things I don’t think I deserve.” Like the vacations she never takes. “We will not have leisure time,” she says, mimicking some faraway voice of childhood authority. “We will always be busy and productive.” To her, a vacation is “a weekend when I don’t have to do any work. That’s fun. I read, go to movies, drink martinis, have dinner parties.”
Which is not to say that the Material Girl doesn’t enjoy her success, her fame, and her many millions of dollars. “Do I know what to do with my money? Yes, I do. Buy art, and invest money in writing good scripts, and give it to people who need it. Having money is just the best thing in the world. It gives you freedom and power and the ability to help other people.”
Where does this woman of many faces see herself thirty years down the road? “I don`t know. Hopefully, I’ll have a movie career. There was a point in my life when I wanted to be Peggy Guggenheim — be this patron of artists, have a gallery and a great art collection. When I’m really, really old, that’s what I want to do. She had a wild life. I like that.”
But first, this future Peggy Guggenheim is completing a twelve-week world tour that began last month. And there’s no doubt that from Europe to Japan to Madison Square Garden, entire stadiums will be overflowing with masses of her adoring fans. Which Madonna will greet them? The sassy blond tramp goddess? The new torch singer, crooning suggestive Stephen Sondheim songs from Dick Tracy? The soulful brunette survivor of a dark childhood and a tortured marriage? Or, most likely, all of the above as well as whatever new persona she’s picked up along the way?
Custom has not yet staled thirty-one-year—old Madonna Ciccone’s infinite variety. And one suspects she’ll see to it that we remain in the amazing Age of Madonna for just as long as she sees fit to stay in the game.