The superstar who’s been everything tries on two new roles – Eva Peron and Mommy. Julie Salamon drops in on Madonna on the set of Evita.
“Oh, God, I’ve done something horrible.”
That’s what raced through Madonna’s mind as she stopped cold in the middle of a blistering tango and urgently called for a break. A doctor was summoned to the Evita set on a smoky Buenos Aires soundstage. Over the preceding 36 hours Madonna had repeated an arduous dance sequence requiring fifteen partners at least 40 times.
Now she decided she couldn’t dance another step until she was sure her baby was all right. The film crew stood around idle while Madonna stopped to hear fetal heartbeat.
“OK, I didn’t kill it,” she remembers thinking. “I can’t go back to the set now.”
This is Madonna, out of control.
Evita had already tested the limits of her famous energy. She had spent months recording the sound track in a London studio and five months on location in Buenos Aires, Budapest and London. On arrival in Argentina, Madonna, known for her insistence on control, found herself a pawn of political opportunists unhappy with her portrayal of Eva Peron, and a virtual prisoner of screaming mobs of fans.
Not long afterward, her guarded private life became a giant peep show with the publication of Dennis Rodman’s autobiography and its intimate “revelations,” including his dismay to find that Madonna not only enjoyed but demanded oral sex – a maneuver, he confessed, that was surprisingly beyond his considerable athletic talents. As if all that weren’t enough, after long proclaiming that she wanted to have a baby, she had become pregnant at what was arguably the most inconvenient time imaginable – as filming began on Evita, the movie that could profoundly change her career.
And she was in the hand of a director – Alan Parker – who has asked her to give up her personal retinue of makeup and hair people, singing songs that she hadn’t written for a production that was totally out of her hands.
“I was scared the whole time I was going to hurt the baby.” Madonna told me, referring to her tango scene. “It’s getting harder and harder. I can’t hide in my costumes anymore. I’m becoming very self-conscious about my body. Very protective.
“You have no control with being pregnant. Things just happen and you have to hope for the best. I had to do that with Alan. I have approached work from a completely different, more submissive point of view,” she said. “In the beginning I really fought it, and finally I realized I had to have a leap of faith. It was a real letting-go process for me.” Never one to miss an opening for irony, she added in a mocking whisper, “It’s prepared me for having a child.”
Even the Kensington town house she’d rented for the London shoot was defying her. At 7:30 a.m. on the morning after Madonna moved in, workmen arrived at the adjoining house, and the jackhammers began.
“Isn’t it hideous?” said Madonna upon entering the room, referring not to the awful noise but to the decor, lots of books and chintz and heavy furniture bespeaking a certain kind of gentility. As she had done so many times before, she had altered her physical appearance to reflect the persona she currently wanted to project. She was a portrait of matronly elegance, with barely a trace of the bawdy girl who had become, by dint of her inventive outrageousness, the most famous woman in the world. The much-photographed musculature was softened by pregnancy, then seventeen weeks along. Wearing a pretty flowered dress, cut low but not inappropriately low, a deep pink cardigan with cloth-covered buttons, and simple jewelry, which did not include a nose ring (though she would confess a navel ring remained in place), she looked tired but quite beautiful. The only clue to those other incarnations lay in her hair, bleached and tired, tucked behind her ears, the casualty of innumerable bouts of experimentation.
I was unable at first to connect this pristine apparition with the dangerously frisky woman I’d seen clothed and unclothed on film and video and in books, simulating sex with humans and objects, including crucifixes and bottles.
Madonna, who would have had to be bleeped only three or four times if our interview had been televised, spoke with a voice modulated to sound as if it were the product of Connecticut boarding school. She talked about the research she’d done for Evita. She had traveled to Buenos Aires early to interview friends and enemies of the Perons. “I had to assure them that I wouldn’t reveal who they were or take their picture. They were really paranoic,” said Madonna, telling war stories with the bravado of a seasoned foreign correspondent.
Madonna revealed more than a little identification with Eva Peron, an ambitious girl from the hinterlands who changed her hair and clothes a lot as she acquired enormous fame and power. “There’s such a fleshed-out story now that the film barely resembles the stage production, and thank God,” she said. “I was actually enraged by the play because I felt it was only the British-aristocracy point of view and portrayal Eva as this one-dimensional ambitious bitch.
“It’s as ridiculous as portraying or thinking of me that way,” she said. “People don’t accomplish the things that she accomplished, or that I accomplished, by being one-dimensional or power hungry. She affected too many people. So it was really important for me to do the research I did to give her a humanity I don’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice gave her in the musical.”
I was leaning over to check my tape recorder for the second or third time when Madonna stopped mid-spiel scooped up the machine from the coffee table. Locking her glacial eyes on mine, she said coolly, “You are driving me crazy.”
She placed the recorder on her nicely swelling stomach. “There,” she said, grinning. “I’m going to hold it. You can’t touch it.”
And with that gesture, she both humanized this formal proceeding and took control of it. Not that there was ever any doubt about who was in control.
Playing a legend like Eva Peron, who is still remembered as both saint and despot, would be a defining moment for any actress, the kind of epic role that has all but disappeared from movies today. Madonna wanted the part badly as soon as she heard that Parker had signed to make the movie, she sat down and wrote him, by hand, an eight-page letter. Though she had has some conversations with Michelle Pfeiffer, Parker says that he didn’t have a doubt: “Madonna promised me from the very beginning she would give her all, and she has kept her promise. She’s given herself to the film and to me.”
Finally making the transition from pop star to movie star with this, her fourteenth major movie, is particularly crucial for Madonna. She doesn’t want to end up a female version of Mick Jagger, a geriatric rocker trying to pretend that the walls of nature don’t apply. She has, after all, remained a powerful presence for a remarkably long time, always resurfacing in a new guise just when everyone is really to write her off. (“People have accused me of getting pregnant for the publicity because I’ve run out of things to do,” she says unhappily.) Yet through it all, she has always said she wants to be an actress.
But however savvy she is about marketing herself. She has been a bumpkin, for example, when it comes to packing movie roles. Her film output in the ten years following Desperately Seeking Susan was undistinguished.
Remember Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise? Or the awful Body of Evidence?
What, exactly, makes a movie star (as opposed to a video star) is elusive. It isn’t about putting on a show but about a willingness to be the repository for the audience’s collective yearnings. Madonna’s gift has been something else – to provoke, to exhibit herself, to entertain but never to disappear, even when she’s playing somebody else. But when director Parker showed the crew a ten-minute promotional reel for Evita, even the most hardened gaffer confessed to tear a two. This was a new Madonna, powerful yet unguarded.
“On video she is like a product to sell,” said Evita cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Madonna’s “Fever” video three years ago. “We glamorized her to the maximum. We never do that to her here. She gives so much to the camera, you don’t have to give her look. Her look comes from within.”
Still Evita is hardly a safe bet. Many a talented director has stumbled trying to make a movie musical in recent years, from Spike Lee (School Daze) to James Brooks (I’ll Do Anything). And Evita is even riskier. Except for few lines, the entire film is sung, putting it somewhere closer to opera than musical. It could be the pop-culture phenomenon of the year or merely strange, a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the nineties.
Madonna thinks of herself as an avant-garde performance artist, and in some ways she is. She doesn’t seem aware, however, that her enormous success comes not so much from her East Village sensibility as from her Las Vegas packaging of it. She is a bundle of contradictions: ironic yet sentimental, astute yet strangely obtuse about her own inconsistencies. She needs to think of herself as a rebel, but she can also sound like a stern guardian of propriety, particularly when she talks about money and children.
Certainly her mother’s death when she was five years old forged her personality, giving her an early sense that the world was out of her control. She has been formed, on one hand, by middle-class respect for Catholicism and capitalism and, on the other, by early knowledge that the system won’t protect her from sorrow. The internal push-pull between admiring “good values” and rebelling against them has been a powerful force, and so has fear.
“Until I passed the age that my mother was when she dies (31), I kept thinking, Here comes my death sentence,” she said. “Then once I passed I breathed a sign of relief.”
For years, she says, she didn’t worry about it, until she became pregnant and began dreaming again of death. Madonna described these dreams with great poignancy, quickly metamorphosing into the sad little motherless girl from Bay City, Michigan:
“One was a dream I’m sure most women have when they’re pregnant. I went to the doctor and she said, ‘Oh, fetal heartbeat is really weak. I want to do an ultrasound,’ and when she did, she said, ‘The baby’s dead. You have pushed yourself too hard, and the baby’s dead.’ And I watched the baby detach itself from the placenta and sort of float around in my stomach, and I was just sobbing hysterically, thinking, I killed my baby. My God, I’ve killed my baby.
“Then I had a dream I was sitting at my mother’s deathbed and she had an oxygen tent around her and I sad, ‘You have to tell me what my fate is going to be. Tell me. Is the same thing going to happen to me? Am I going to have a child, have children, then get breast cancer and die? You have to tell me if that’s going to happen to me.’ She died and didn’t give me the answer.”
Madonna seemed very fragile just then, her eyes damp with sadness, very human.
Then, on to a more practical discussion of the mechanics of pregnancy and childbirth. Astonishingly, this world-class control freak was almost twelve weeks pregnant before she realized what was making her so tired all the time. “It’s not unusual when I’m working very hard or under a lot of pressure to miss my period,” she said. “So I assumed that’s what was going on.”
Her first response was guilt – about the movie, not the baby. “Oh, God, I’m going to screw the movie up,” she remembers thinking.
Like any other pregnant woman, she immersed herself in the terrifying literature of childbirth – and became preoccupied with pain. “I’m obsessed with having an epithomy, getting cut,” she said. One day, during one of many phone conversations, her sister said to her, “You’re a hard-ass. This is going to be a piece of cake for you. After all you’ve been through and all you do physically. you’ll be fine.”
Madonna wasn’t reassured. “My sister had natural childbirth, no drugs, and she doesn’t pretend it was a f*cking day at the beach,” she said. “I’m not interested in being Wonder Woman in the delivery room. Give me drugs. Sometimes I get really wimpy and think I’m going to have a C-section. I don’t want to go through all this.”
In addition to fear (“The scariest moment of my life was going in for amniocentesis”), there was also the problem of sleep. “Since I was a child I’ve only been able to sleep on my stomach. I can’t go there anymore, and it’s keeping me awake at night,” she sighed.
Oh, pregnancy, the great leveler. Yet it’s a mistake to try to identify too closely with Madonna as she expresses these prosaic fears, because she belongs to another galaxy, the highly specific realm of celebrity, where something as personal as pregnancy becomes a commodity to fuel gossip and sell newspapers. Most of us don’t feel compelled to plan a press strategy to announce our pregnancies. Madonna did (she gave the scoop to friendly gossip Liz Smith). But you get the sense that even Madonna and her handlers couldn’t have anticipated the scopre of the news barrage. In addition to inspiring countless political cartoons (Madonna’s cone-shaped nursing bra was a popular gag image) and talk-show punch lines, the pregnancy pushed the Unabomber off the front page of many of the nation’s newspapers. Even Newsweek weighed in, with columnist Jonathan Alter solemnly urging Madonna to take this opportunity to promote family values by marrying her child’s father.
Madonna refused to discuss her relationship with Carlos Leon, the handsome 29-year-old personal trainer who is her baby’s father, except in the abstract, as a political matter. “It is perfectly socially acceptable for a man to find a beautiful girl who hasn’t accomplished the things that he’s accomplished, and make a life with her. Why does the man always have to be the one who makes more money?” she asked. “It’s pathetic and sexist and disgusting, and if people don’t change the way they view things – the man and woman’s place in society – nothing’s ever going to change.”
The relationship seems serious, though Leon visited the Evita set infrequently. “It’s a long trip and he has his own work,” said Madonna. “And I’m not someone who needs my boyfriend around all the time. I’m not Melanie Griffith.” (She was referring to the near-constant presence of costar Antonio Banderas’ girlfriend, whom he subsequently married.) The baby, who Madonna says is a girl, will have some combination of Ciccone and Leon as a last name. Madonna’s people now keep an eye on Leon, for example, it was Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s publicist and adviser, who persuaded him not to endorse a line of World Gym sportswear last summer because she thought it was a bad deal.
Madonna, who has any number of angry speeches (another thing she has in common with Eva Person) railing against the press, doesn’t mind using the press to air her own private grievances. It was she, for example, who neatly segued from a discussion of her pregnancy to the matter of her ex-husband Sean Penn’s second marriage.
“I can give you this whole thing about me being pregnant and not being married or living with the father of my child,” she said. “Does anybody make a stink when guys do it? Does anybody say a damn word about my ex-husband having two children with Robin Wright and not living with her for five years and having any number of girlfriends on the interim? Did anyone say a word about it? He is a celebrity, and people pay attention to the things he does.”
Did this bitter note mean she’d felt a twinge when she heard that Penn had finally married Wright last spring? He and Madonna had remained close; he’d periodically called her on the Evita set.
“A twinge? What do you mean?” said Madonna, her voice still carefully modulated. “I know that up until two weeks before the marriage he had another girlfriend. Actually I thought the marriage was sort of knee-jerk response to me, if you must know. When it was revealed that I was pregnant. My reaction was, this is Sean trying to be dramatic. You know what I mean?
Sort of, though it’s hard for mortals to comprehend the strange reality of the world Madonna lives in.
“Have you read the book?” I asked, referring to the literary work that occupied the number-one slot of The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for eight weeks earlier this year, Dennis Rodman’s Bad as I Wanna Be.
“No,” she said dismissively.
“I only read the Madonna chapter,” I assured her.
She gave a frosty smile. “I’m sure that’s all anyone’s reading.”
Madonna had plenty to say on the subject of Dennis Rodman, and said it in the affronted tone of damsel whose knight in shining armor turned out to be a flasher.
“It’s not the first time I feel he’s exploited his very brief relationship with me,” she said, “When I first knew him I sent him a few very silly faxes with really childish drawings on them, and moths after I’d stopped seeing him appeared on Hard Copy and I thought, This is only the beginning.
“It really wasn’t much of a relationship, which is why it astonishes me that he’s gotten so much mileage out of it,” she continued. “I’m sure somebody wrote the book for him, and I can only imagine they urged him to be as imaginative and juicy as possible and to make things up and maybe offered him more money if he would talk about me.
“He is someone I would classify as a borderline psychotic personality,” she said. “He is a very exciting person to be around, like most crazy people, and during the whole two months I dated him – and that was not on any sort of regular basis – it was like this fun adventure, and then I soon discovered that he was a seriously damaged person, and I really couldn’t get away from him fast enough.”
She continued for some time, then leaned back on the couch to deliver the final sally in her rebuttal of errant Rodman. “Much as I should hate him, I actually feel compassion for him. This is a person with a few screws loose.”
“Not easy, not easy,” Alan Parker was muttering. A small round man dressed in black, his hair newly cut in early-Beatles style, the director shuffled around the set like a worried gnome guarding his treasure. He clutched a cigarette; he’d been smoking a lot lately.
It was late afternoon and sunny at Shepperton Studios outside London, but inside Stage D it was evening in Buenos Aires. A baquet table was artfully cluttered with platters of food and giant candelabra; extras in evening dress milled about.
A familiar sound pierced the quiet. “Colonel Peron?” sang Madonna.
Yet there was Madonna sitting on a chair sucking a candy, even as her voice filled the room. She looked frail and tense, her hair a 1940s pile of blonde rolls, her blue eyes darkened by brown contacts, the gap in her front teeth covered by a dental piece. A long fur stole hung limply to the floor. (The fur was one of the many ways Madonna’s growing tummy would be camouflaged, along with artfully places purses and careful camera angles.) She had spent much of the day standing on high heels, and this scene was taking forever.
Because parker had recorded the sound track before filming began, nearly every scene had to be lip-synced, a nerve-racking process that Madonna excelled at, never missing a cue. It was 6:20 p.m., and Madonna, who’d been working since eight that morning, was tired. Suddenly she stood up, “I need Martin,” she said.
Martin was Martin Samuel, the film’s chief hairstylist, a small, worried-looking man with a dramatic mane of hair and a scarf around his neck. He had been well aware from the outset that his very presence was irksome to Madonna. Samuel’s job was to hover above the star and make sure that the hairdo shot today matches the same hairdo in the part of a scene that was filmed weeks earlier, halfway around the world. The problem, as he saw it, was that Madonna considered this her job, too – along with choosing her wardrobe and fine-tuning her makeup.
“We’ve had our little faces,” said Samuel carefully after he’d tended to Madonna. “Very good actresses know what they’re supposed to look like and you work together, but they allow you to take over. But Madonna is a controlling spirit. It was difficult for her to give up to me with her hair, and also for me to give up to her. I am very involved with my hairdressing.”
In the documentary Truth or Dare, Warren Beatty, then Madonna’s lover, said, “She doesn’t want to live off-camera.” Yet Madonna does have her private zones, which I discovered after we had had a frank discussion of her birth control. Two days later she summoned me to her dressing room, and I found myself in the strange position of having Madonna as a supplicant. “I’ve been thinking about something I said to you the other day, and it’s really bothering me,” she said, looking impossibly glamorous in a long white silk robe and high-heeled pink satin slippers, her hair brows and short to play Evita as a teenager. “The whole discussion of birth control, which I think is nobody’s business. Everything I say gets distorted. Forrest Sawyer asks me on television if I want to get pregnant, and I say yes. Then, as a joke, I say I’m going to put an ad in the newspaper, and this becomes fact.
“I’m asking you to respect what little privacy I have,” she said. “Why is the kind of brith control I use a matter of public interest?”
It seemed incredible that birth control, a subject pregnant yuppies discuss with strangers in the obstetrician’s waiting room, made Madonna squeamish. Was it really a privacy issue, or was it something else: the onetime sexual renegade trying on a new hat – that of the ladylike mother-to-be? It’s hard to understand how this woman, so disciplined and controlled about every other aspect of her life, could have been so cavalier and reckless about sex.
A conversation with Madonna, almost always brings you around to one of those incongruities. She can seem warm and even confiding, then she pounces, sneers, calls you to task for a rude question (though it’s hard to understand where the boundaries are for the author of Sex). She can be thoughtful and intellectual, talking about Matisse with the authority of someone who’s thought it out for herself, then the vengeful bitch – neatly lacerating ex-lovers, whining about the press, coolly dismissing Normal Mailer, who interviewed her for Esquire, as a “dirty old man,” even as she says she found him interesting. All these faces seem genuine, including the vulnerable face of the pregnant woman carrying on an arduous task without complaining much. But somehow they don’t make an explicable whole.
As the product of a solidly middle-class home, Madonna is worried that her fabulously wealthy child with her very famous mother is going to be spoiled. “I can think of lots of people who were raised with money who are lazy, shiftless people who don’t seem to value money in any way, shape, or form,” she said. “But they also had parents who didn’t pay attention to them in a lot of ways I intend to pay attention to my child. I hope to instill a respect for money and that whole process of working hard and being rewarded for it.
“The last thing I’m going to do is raise my children the way I see a lot of celebrities raising their children now,” she continued. “I don’t want to traipse around with nannies and tutors. I think it’s really important for children to stay in one place, to socialize with other children. I had that, and I want my child to have it. I’m not saying I don’t want to go on tour or make movies anymore, but I realize I’m going to have to make a lot of compromises, and I’m comfortable with that.”
Will she be a tough mother? “Yup, yes definitely,” She laughs and puts on a “mom” voice: “Why are you sitting still with nothing to do for ten minutes?”
She also plans to tell her children (she often uses the plural) that she believes in God and to introduce them to Catholicism, though she doesn’t agree with man of the church’s principles. And though she insists that she has no regrets about Sex, she would prefer that her children didn’t see it. “They’d have to be older and understand society’s expectations, sexuality to a certain extent, what I was trying to do,” she said. “If you look at the book at face value and think it’s just a collection of really hot fantasies meant to turn somebody on, you’re not going to get it all. I never made that book for children.” She doesn’t seem to understand (or won’t allow herself to) that many, many readers missed the “statement” she was making in Sex (“a challenge to the hypocrisy of the world,” as she puts it). They were too busy getting off on the really hot fantasies.
She says she will probably raise her children in Los Angeles, to shield them from the paparazzi who form a gentler outside her Manhattan apartment building. “In L.A. there are so many famous people, everyone cancels everyone else out.”
It’s hard to think of Madonna as middle-aged, but that is what she has become. How does she feel about turning 38, still trying to break into movies at an age when most successful actresses are looking around for character roles?
“Why does everyone always ask that question?” she asked, annoyed.
Why does she think?
“I think they want to watch somebody fall apart, ” Then: “Why don’t they ask men those questions?”