She’s been gamine and glamour queen, material girl and romantic, virgin and whore. In her new film, Madonna tries to have it all.
It’s New York, New York, and Who’s That Girl. Madonna’s first movie since Shanghai Surprise, is filming in front of Trump Tower on Marathon Sunday because the city doesn’t want midtown shopping blocked during the week. In the background, grimacing runners and their tired fans stagger into Central Park. Producer Rosilyn Heller is standing near the corner, chatting with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who’ve stopped by to see their nephew Griffin Dunne, Madonna’s co-star.
This is supposed to be a funny, sunny screwball romance, but the November sky’s rolling with rain clouds. Gaffers are bouncing lights off scrims to simulate spring. Director James Foley (Reckless, At Close Range) alternates anxious glances at the thunderheads with happy, mood-elevating smiles at Madonna, who glows back as if to reassure him that Reality stops here, no prob. She seems almost comfy in a forest of production, hair, and makeup people, crewmen, stand-ins, and extras, all surrounded by a swelling flock of oglers.
The character Madonna’s playing is Nikki Finn, tough, adorable, out on parole, and hell-bent on finding out who framed her for murder. Nikki’s bad, but not that bad; Madonna describes her as ‘Puck.” She’s costumed in a red tutu mini, pointy suede shoes, and a black leather jacket, accessorized (occasionally) with matching black handgun. It’s as if Jimmy Dean and She-Ra had spawned a biker daughter, the Rebel Princess of Power. Dunne is Loudon Trott, the twit of wealth and taste who loses his Rolls-and-Rolex heart to her, tick by tick and fender by fender. What drew him to the script, he says, was Madonna’s character getting into his Rolls, seeing a ferocious cougar in the backseat, and saying, “Oh, neat.”
Attitude, it turns out, is the attitude to take toward cougars, because, as coproducer Bernie Williams explains, “Cougars by instinct will go for the weakest of your species when they’re hungry. And they’re always hungry, because we skip their dinner the night before. We have four of these cougars because their trainer rewards them after each scene, and they get full and lazy and don’t want to do anything, so we switch them with a hungry one. Also, they cant work when they’re in a bad mood; they bite chunks out of the seat of the Rolls.”
Paparazzi, like crocs in a swamp, snap at Madonna’s every step. Middle-aged shutterbugs sight a canvas chair that says “MADONNA” on it and, trying to impress their daughters, shoot the star’s double by mistake. With so much visibility, the shoot would be a bit of a zoo even without the snack-happy cougars, their trainers, their Humane Society watchdog, and the four guards armed with sniper rifles [New York City cougar regulations). Madonna’s makeup man, Ed Ternes, can think of some stars who’d be having a breakdown. He won’t name names. The crowd-control crew is giddy. Producer Heller and unit publicist Stuart Fink volunteer to help corral gawkers.
“This isn’t happening; we aren’t here,” Fink suggests hopefully.
“Picture up …”
Some fat cat up in Trump Tower pitches a rock off his balcony.
Literally. Transit police help Madonna’s bodyguard bandage his bleeding arm. “It’s always worse in the better neighborhoods,” a cop confides. “In Harlem this morning, we had no trouble at all.” Then the rain starts, and another New York movie packs off to Los Angeles: cast, crew, cats, and cameras.
What kind of creature is this Madonna? Media taxonomists make her sound like the blind men’s elephant. Rolling Stone found her opportunistic. Time humorous, Vanity Fair cannily retro, the Village Voice brilliantly postmodern, and the New York Post synthetic. James Foley swears she’s all intuition, “not a preconceived bone in her body.” Whom to believe? “There are about a million opposites living inside of me,” she told New York’s Daily News, and it’s the best clue yet. Madonna’s self-presentations flash black-and-white, like a zebra’s attention-grabbing camouflage.
Drawn to controversy like a kid to a jam jar, she has toyed with crucifixes, dressed undies-out, and, at the height of her rock-pop appeal, hatched the hit video “Papa Don’t Preach,” which is about a pregnant teen who keeps her kid. Naively conceived as a minidrama, “Papa” was emotionally lucid. But its uncondescending kindness to its teen mom (good!) made it hazardous agitprop in her impressionable preteen market (bad!).
In other hit music videos — “Like a Virgin,” “Borderline,” “Material Girl,” and “Open Your Heart” — Madonna is intercut as slut and lady, gamine and glamour queen, goldbricker and romantic, decadent and innocent. “It has to be both,” she insists. “It can’t be one or the other.” Double or nothing, she lets you eat your cake and diet, too.
In Hollywood films, whose narrative conventions are newer to her, Madonna has to project her morally stroboscopic identity into one role at a time. When casting Desperately Seeking Susan, coproducer Sarah Pillsbury says she saw in Madonna’s “punk Mae West” a “total fantasy for both men and women.” Audiences agreed. Madonna’s insouciant Bad Girl stole the picture and parlayed a supporting role into a co-star’s. As a result, Madonna got offered more Bad Girls and Bad Women.