If the Universal project does get greenlighted, it will have to survive the wrath of the Material Girl.
Most scripts on the Black List — an annual ranking of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, voted upon by the people who read them (many of them agency and studio assistants) — remain just that: unproduced.
But not always. Certainly landing in first place on the list doesn’t hurt. Such was the case with Blond Ambition: The biopic from first-time screenwriter Elyse Hollander about Madonna’s rise to fame earned 48 votes on the 2016 list, 13 nods ahead of the second-place entry from veteran scribe Dan Fogelman (This Is Us).
The script impressed Universal enough to snatch up the property, with two major producers — Michael De Luca and Brett Ratner — attached. Still, no director has yet been attached and the film is not yet an official green light.
Definitely not on board, however, is Madonna herself. The singer has posted several Instagram messages denouncing the project. In the first, posted just hours after The Hollywood Reporter broke the news of the project on Tuesday, she writes, “Nobody knows what I know and what I have seen. Only I can tell my story. Anyone else who tries is a charlatan and a fool.”
On Wednesday, a copy of the script now in hand, her criticism crew more pointed and personal. “Why would Universal Studios want to make a movie about me based on a script that is all lies???” she writes. “The writer Elyse Hollander should write for the tabloids.”
As an example of the script’s inaccuracies, Madonna singled out a line of dialogue on the first page, in which Madonna tells Dick Clark in an interview on American Bandstand, “I was born in Detroit. I’m a famed high school dropout.”
“I was born in Bay City, not Detroit. And I did not drop out of high school. In fact, I went to University of Michigan,” Madonna counters. But Hollander took that exchange directly from the actual American Bandstand broadcast, as evidenced by this YouTube video. (Perhaps that is why Madonna later deleted the second Instagram post.)
If Blond Ambition does get greenlighted, it will have to survive the wrath of Madonna. For Universal, it could wind up being a headache not worth pursuing. It certainly won’t be the first unauthorized biography to make it to the screen, but other recent notable instances — The Queen, The Social Network, Foxcatcher — were not reliant on a highly recognizable musical catalogue.
Figuring heavily into Blond Ambition’s plot are such early Madonna hits as “Burning Up,” “Everybody,” “Borderline,” “Lucky Star” and “Holiday” — all of them hit singles off her self-titled debut album from 1983. For Universal to include these songs, they would need to secure a sync license for the master recording (if they use the originals) and the music publishing rights.
Even if Madonna holds none of these rights herself, one prominent music lawyer estimates that “given her stature in the industry, she probably has an approval right” over the songs and could prevent them from use in Blond Ambition. The resulting film — a Madonna biopic without any Madonna music in it — greatly runs the risk of coming off like a big-budget Lifetime movie in the vein of Britney Ever After.
A second and far less promising tack would be to go after the script for defamation. But while there is plenty of material in Blond Ambition to which the Material Girl might object, calling it defamatory would be a legal stretch.
In one scene, she’s depicted shoplifting in a drugstore, “stashing a toothbrush and some toothpaste in her backpack.”
The script also suggests that Madonna stole her iconic look from another fixture on the downtown club scene, a character named “Bianca Stonewell.”
And as her star rises, the screenplay suggests that Madonna ignores her then-producer and boyfriend, Jellybean Benitez, to cozy up to Prince.
“He tries to move past the bodyguard,” the stage directions note. “Madonna, fully engrossed in a conversation with Prince, doesn’t see him. Or does she?” (Italics Hollander’s.)
And in the final scene, just moments after her triumphant performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Music Video Awards, she callously informs Benitez that she aborted their child.
“I won’t have to choose between my career and a family now,” she says as she applies lipstick in a vanity mirror. “And that’s how I want it.” (The scene was shot by students at the Los Angeles Film School and uploaded to YouTube, making for an inadvertently hilarious piece of Madonna ephemera.)
Oddly enough, what could have been one of the most incendiary and emotionally wrenching chapters — Madonna’s rooftop rape at age 19, something she spoke openly about in 2015 — is barely referenced in Blond Ambition.
“This might sound crazy, but when I first got to New York I wanted to believe the best in everyone,” she tells Benitez. “Of course, it wasn’t too long before someone took advantage of that. Took advantage of me…”
“Wait … Do you mean…” Benitez interrupts.
“I don’t want to get into it,” she replies.
For now, Madonna is not speaking out further on the subject, having passed on a request for comment. Hollander, too, did not respond to a request for comment; her Twitter feed was recently made private.