Nearly 30 years into her reign as the greatest gay icon, Madonna is back in a big way with her new film, W.E., and her first studio album in four years, reminding us why so many adore her.
The temptation to apply layers of meaning to the story Madonna tells in her new film, the cryptically titled W.E., is irresistible.
The pop superstar’s second feature film as a director, W.E. is a tale of two women, two cultures, and two eras. Wallis Simpson was a real-life American socialite of the 1930s who was vilified for falling in love with England’s King Edward VIII; he abdicated the throne to marry the divorcée. Madonna’s movie attempts to reclaim Wallis’s image by turning a polarizing woman often perceived as a villain into a sympathetic figure.
And then there’s Wally Winthrop, the other woman — this one fictional — in New York City in the late 1990s, at a time when Simpson’s jewels and other possessions were being auctioned off for charity. Trapped in an abusive marriage that appeared to be fairy-tale perfect, Wally obsesses over Wallis, her bygone namesake, and turns to her for support.
Like Madonna’s best videos and music, W.E. is a pastiche of eras past and present, with a heavy emphasis on style, fashion, and design. Her presence is clearly felt. More oblique is the connection to Madonna’s own life. The movie depicts Wallis as a dramatically different person than she was in her private, tortured reality. Wally’s fantasy facade, concealing a darker truth, invites comparison to Madonna’s now-dissolved marriage to filmmaker Guy Ritchie and raises the question of whether Madonna feels as vilified as Wallis.
“I was intrigued,” Madonna says of the royals. She had a vague awareness of Wallis but only really got to know her story when she moved to England. “Like Wallis Simpson, I felt like an outsider. I thought, Life is so different here, and I’m used to being a New Yorker, and I have to learn how to drive on the other side of the road. Suddenly, I found myself living out in an English country house and trying to find my way in this world, so I decided to really take it on and do research and find out about English history and learn about the royal family.”
Madonna read every book she could find about Simpson and her time. She became obsessed with the tragic notion that a woman then was only as good as the man she would marry. “The idea of making a choice for love wasn’t really part of their world,” says Madonna. “The fact that they eventually found each other and were willing to jump into this fishbowl of scandal and rile people up, even though Wallis knew, as she says in the film, that she would become the most hated woman in the world” — that’s what captivated Madonna.
While she doesn’t claim the title “most hated” for herself, she feels a connection to Simpson. “I mean, I certainly don’t engage [with the media] as much as I did,” she says. “When people are writing about you in the beginning and they’re saying nice things, you’re like, ‘Oh!’ You feel this lift of energy. Then they say bad things, and of course, you’re affected by that too.”
Madonna spent a lot of time caring about the bad, but she claims to have moved on. “I don’t really dwell on it anymore. I used to be kind of fixated on it and think, It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, but it is what it is, and I just have to get on with my life.”
But Madonna’s passion for this topic belies that resolute attitude: “If you are threatened by me as a female or you think I’m doing too much or saying too much or being too much of a provocateur, then no matter how great of a song I write or how amazing of a film I make, you’re not going to allow yourself to enjoy it, because you’re going to be too entrenched in being angry with me or putting me in my place or punishing me.”
Meeting Madonna in person can be a little jarring. For someone so larger-than-life, she’s surprisingly petite. Sitting down and launching into conversation, she is disarmingly engaged, and she slouches a bit, like any mere mortal. But she’s not, of course. A burly man is guarding the door of the suite at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where she has settled in for the afternoon. And she’s dressed eccentrically — black leather fingerless Chanel gloves cover her hands, silver bracelets of varying shapes run up both forearms (and, predictably, a red kabbalah string), and a royal blue asymmetrical shift hugs her taut figure.
Her experience of feeling burned by the press has made her particularly deft at dodging questions, discussing what she wants to discuss. But after a few tangential monologues about duchesses and dowagers, the most famous woman in the world offers a bit of insight into the connection she feels to Wallis Simpson. “It’s intriguing because we are raised to believe in the fairy-tale kind of love, that we are going to be swept off our feet by … you know, in both of our cases, Mr. Right, and our knight in shining armor is going to come along and save us, pick us up, and put us on the back of his beautiful steed, and we’re going to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.” She pauses. “God knows, that doesn’t happen.”
Now she’s on a roll. “There are so many things about her. The fact that she said he left his prison” — Madonna’s talking about King Edward feeling imprisoned by the monarchy — “only to incarcerate me in a prison of my own.” And with that, Madonna answers the question. And doesn’t. “In spite of it all, I think she lived her life in a very dignified manner. And she wasn’t a victim.”
When Madonna first became famous, almost 30 years ago, she was defined by that very quality: She was no victim.
For the gay men who were there in the beginning, when she was shaking it on the dance floors of New York City, the men who reveled in her early hits, Madonna was the ultimate expression of in-your-face sexuality. She was self-possessed and uninhibited. She dressed up for the party, and she took it all off for the after-party.
Her impact wasn’t limited to gay men. Madonna boldly toyed with transgender imagery on a grand stage: She co-opted the Harlem drag balls for the “Vogue” video, she featured trans people and cross-dressers of all stripes in her banned “Justify My Love” video, and her coffee-table tome, Sex, posited couples in all sorts of configurations. Her high profile are-they-or-aren’t-they friendships with such queer women as Sandra Bernhard, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ingrid Casares as well as her promotion of bisexual artists like Meshell Ndegeocello helped to take queer sensibility into the mainstream.
In the midst of the AIDS crisis, when fear was rampant and gay men were dying at a horrifying rate, Madonna was among the first to take a stand, to say, as she did in the tour documentary Truth or Dare, that it’s OK to be a gay man who is openly sexual.
“That it’s OK to be gay, period,” Madonna says emphatically before launching into an impassioned recounting of her experience of the AIDS onslaught. “I was extremely affected by it. I remember lying on a bed with a friend of mine who was a musician, and he had been diagnosed with this kind of cancer, but nobody knew what it was. He was this beautiful man, and I watched him kind of waste away, and then another gay friend, and then another gay friend, and then another gay friend. They were all artists and all truly special and dear to me.”
In retrospect, Madonna sees that as the moment when her sense of self became entangled with that of gay men. “I saw how people treated them differently,” she says. “I saw the prejudices, and I think probably I got that confused with, intertwined with, you know, maybe things that…ways that people treated me differently.”
As Madonna reinvented herself, gay fans hung on through thick and thin, through Who’s That Girl and Body of Evidence, weathering reported flings with Dennis Rodman and Vanilla Ice. Fans bowed down at the sight of her as Evita and shored up support upon hearing Ray of Light, only to have to endure Swept Away and American Life and that British accent. It’s been a bumpy ride for Madonna fans.
Perhaps Madonna wasn’t the only one to “confuse” her personal treatment with that of gay men. The feeling was mutual. As she exploded in popularity Madonna became identified with the collective gay male sense of self. So when she moved on, devoting less and less time to her gay compatriots, many felt a twinge of abandonment. That’s when bitching about Madonna became the great gay pastime.
“I never left them,” insists Madonna, echoing a lyric from Evita. “When you’re single, you certainly have more time to socialize and hang out with your gay friends, but then you get married and you have a husband and you have children, and your husband wants you to spend time with him. I’m not married anymore, but I have four kids, and I don’t have a lot of time for socializing.” She’s been back in New York for two years, after splitting with Ritchie.
“I hope nobody’s taking that personally. It certainly was not a conscious decision. As it stands, most of my friends in England are gay. But I’m back,” she says, adding reassuringly, “Never fear.”
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