The morning after the ceremony, I received a phone call at the hotel, a woman’s voice. She tells me, as if she were not conscious of its impact, but confident that her voice was going to have an impact on me: “Hello, it’s Madonna. I’m filming Dick Tracy and I would love to show you the set. I’m not filming today and I can dedicate the day to you.”
It could be a false Madonna, or a psychopath who was thinking of cutting me into pieces on one of those waste grounds James Ellroy describes so well in his novels.
(If you read The Black Dahlia you’ll know what I’m talking about: Ellroy’s mother was dismembered on one of those wastelands. You can also watch the film by my beloved Brian De Palma based on the book, with Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, but the truth is it didn’t turn out that well. It’s not bad for quarantine, but I would recommend you many others by De Palma before that one: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carlito’s Way, Body Double – with Melanie Griffith at the peak of her powers, skinny as a rake – and above all, Scarface with Al Pacino. Don’t bother with The Black Dahlia and organise yourselves a programme with all of those films. You’ll thank me later. They are all gems, seriously accessible and really enjoyable. I will make you a list of recommendations at the end.)
Coming back to Madonna, it could always be someone who was playing a joke on me, but my self-esteem – despite not winning the Oscar – was high enough for me to have no doubt this was an authentic phone call. Madonna’s voice gave me the address for the studio where they were filming, and I turned up there, pleased as punch.
The truth is the whole team, from Warren Beatty to Vittorio Storaro, couldn’t have been kinder to me. They treated me as if I was George Cukor. Beatty forced me to sit on the chair with his name on – the director’s chair – so I could watch the sequence they were filming. I was about to confess that when I was a child I discovered my sexuality when I saw him in Splendor in the Grass (the builder in Pain and Glory never existed), but I stopped myself from doing so, of course. They were filming a sequence where an unrecognisable Al Pacino was yacking away non-stop. He was nominated for the Oscar the following year, and the film was awarded three statuettes.
Madonna took me around all of the sets and I met someone who I deeply admired: Milena Canonero, the costume designer who by then had already won three Oscars (she’d be nominated for Dick Tracy the following year), Chariots of Fire, Barry Lyndon and The Cotton Club. I recommend all three films to cope with the quarantine. My favourite is Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Milena Canonero would go on to win a fourth Oscar, I don’t remember which film. Visiting her workshop was what probably left the strongest impression on me during that visit. It would have been the only reason why I would have liked to work in Hollywood: the obsession for detail.
One of Dick Tracy’s features, the character in the comic, is his yellow hat. Milena was obsessed with getting the exact yellow you can see in the comic. She showed me around two hundred hats with only the slightest change in colour differentiating them. I completely identified with that obsession for detail. To some extent, within my abilities, I do the same when I’m filming. I don’t know how to work any other way (but I do know how to work for less money).
If Madonna calls you and gives you as much attention as she did the following day, despite not having won the Oscar, that means that the material girl has an enormous interest in yours truly. It didn’t take that long for us to meet again – the following year on the occasion of her Blond Ambition Tour.
I went out with her during the days she spent in Madrid. I organised a big flamenco party for her with La Polaca and her husband, El Polaco, in the Palace Hotel, with Loles León, Bibiana Fernández, Rossy de Palma; but she had already made it very clear to me that she was only interested in meeting one other guest, aside from myself: Antonio Banderas. I promised her that Antonio would be there, but I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t invite him without his then wife, Ana Leza, a huge fan of the singer.
She, Madonna, decided how we had to be seated (there were a number of round tables for my friends and her dancers). Naturally, she sat at the main table, with me on her right and Antonio on her left. And she sent Ana Leza to the table furthest away in that great salon.
Other than us two – and a little bit La Polaca, who was divine – Madonna did not pay attention to anybody else. A member of her team was carrying a very good quality camera to film it all – “for a keepsake”, Madonna told me. It seemed strange to me, but a good host does not ask about certain things.
I had to translate for Madonna some of the questions that she was greatly interested in with regard to Antonio. At that moment in his career, Antonio was about to take off like a rocket. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! had just opened in the US and the critics and Hollywood (and Madonna) had fallen in love with him, but that night in 1990 he didn’t speak a word of English.
I say this because a year later the film In Bed with Madonna premiered, and a great part of it is filmed at my party at the Palace. Antonio’s harassment was one of the main storylines and she, obviously, edited in how she dispatched Ana Leza with only one sentence. At the end of the dinner, Ana dared to get close to our table and told the divine blonde sarcastically, “I see you like my husband, it doesn’t surprise me, all women like him, but I don’t mind because I am very modern.” To which Madonna replied: “Get lost.”
All this may seem frivolous, and it is, more like a chronicle written by Patty Diphusa than one written about the isolation we live in. But memory is that absurd when selecting things. I don’t mind if this seems like a settling of scores: had it been the other way round (me filming Madonna and her team and making a film with all that material which I would then premiere around the world) I would have taken such a hit in the form of a lawsuit that I’d still be recovering from it. Madonna treated us like simpletons and I had to say it one day. She didn’t ask for permission to use our images, and she even dubbed me – my English mustn’t have been so good.
Back to my story. At some point during the dinner, Madonna told me, “Ask Antonio if he likes hitting women.” (I swear it was like that.) I translated it for him. Antonio doesn’t say anything, he mumbles, and he pulls a face as if to say, “I am a Spanish gentleman and I’ll do whatever a lady asks me to do.” For me it was an eloquent silence and gesture. But Madonna wanted more. “Ask him,” she told me again, “if he likes women to hit him.” I translate it for him: ‘to hit’ and ‘women’ were two words that I was already familiar with in 1990. Antonio made the same gesture, which meant neither/nor, but that he was at the service of ladies’ desires.
I say this, first of all because it was true, and the most amusing moment of the night, but she didn’t deem it appropriate to include it [in her film]. And there had to be a pandemic for the world to know what that dinner was like in reality.
Sight & Sound