In her eight-year rise from disco-pop contender to international multimedia legend, Madonna has never failed to incite fascination and controversy with one hit record, one sensational video, one mediocre movie after another. One of the first pop stars made by and for MTV, she titillated viewers with her bare belly button and her boy-toy belt buckle. She also made the word “virgin” not only speakable but unavoidable in teen-girl parlance.
She challenged feminists by putting the choice back in pro-choice with her song about teenage motherhood, “Papa Don’t Preach” — and then in concert used the song to chide the Pope for opposing birth control. Her “Like a Prayer” video, in which she seduces a black saint and ends up with dripping stigmata, scared Pepsi into canceling the commercial it had paid her $5 million to do.
She endured a stormy, highly publicized marriage to and divorce from photophobic actor Sean Penn. Then her public escapades with comedian Sandra Bernhard courted rumors that the two were having a lesbian affair. During her Blond Ambition tour, she was threatened with arrest in Toronto for masturbating onstage. When MTV banned her “Justify My Love” video, depicting a pansexual orgy in a Paris hotel room, she went on ABC’s Nightline to well, justify her love of provocation.
You ain’t seen nothin’, though, until you’ve seen Truth or Dare, her documentary film. Salacious tidbits from the film, shot during the Blond Ambition tour, became conversation pieces weeks in advance of its opening: Here’s Madonna reminiscing about the childhood girlfriend who finger-fucked her, there’s Madonna bluntly asking one of her dancers if he’s ever taken it up the ass and then watching open-mouthed while two others act our her dare to tongue-kiss each other.
Not the least of the film’s groundbreaking aspects is its perspective on gay culture. It’s hard to think of another film about a nongay subject in which the presence of gay people is not only normal and accepted but treasured. Of her seven dancers, all are ethnic minorities, and all but one are gay. Madonna clearly identifies with them, camping and partying and flirting with them freely. The film shows her lead dancers, Jose Guitierez and Luis Camacho, communing with Queer Nation at a gay pride march in New York; the film also records the tension that arises from the homophobia of straight dancer Oliver Crumes. But Madonna’s attitude toward her supporting cast — not to mention her then-lover Warren Beatty, manager Freddy DeMann, and her backstage crew — is less than saintly. She manages to be generous and condescending, nurturing and narcissistic in the same breath.
Hollywood doesn’t really get Madonna. She doesn’t fit any past models of Hollywood stardom. She belongs to the first generation of video babies, the generation of what New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow calls “the cold child,” formed by the false cheerfulness, the pseudo-intimacy, the corrupt smiles of television. The sensibility is scattershot and postliterate. It combines an infinitesimal attention span with an instantaneous absorption of visual information; a picture is worth a thousand books.
Madonna’s attention span and her ability to withstand barrages of computer-age information make her uniquely unafraid of contradiction. In fact, in true postmodern fashion, she is drawn to complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity over harmony, clarity, and simplicity. And she embraces a fragmented wardrobe of personas (Bitch, Little Girl, Vulnerable Love-Seeker) rather than a false, integrated personality. Truth or Dare is the first movie to capture this quality of Madonna’s, and until Hollywood understands it, her future in movies will probably remain uncertain.
The gay world, of course, gets Madonna in a big way. Among Madonnaholics, the intensity of engagement is sometimes breathtaking. Performance artist Karen Finley has even turned her name into an adjective. “All women,” says Finley, “Should be as Madonna as possible.”
The love affair is mutual. “Effeminate men intrigue me more than anything in the world,” she told Vanity Fair. “I see them as alter egos.”
She has lost many gay friends to AIDS, including her first dance teacher Christopher Flynn, former roommate Martin Burgoyne, artist Keith Haring, and filmmaker Howard Brookner. She has done numerous AIDS fund-raisers (the Hollywood premier of Truth or Dare will benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the New York premiere will benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research).
She has long been gay-positive both privately (she helped bankroll the Los Angeles run of drag artist John Epperson’s I Could Go on Lip-synching!) and publicly (she received one of this year’s Media Awards April 21 from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). And she had no qualms about being interviewed for The Advocate.
The interview took place at her house in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles one afternoon in March between rehearsals for her appearance on the Academy Awards show. Madonna lives at the end of a twisty-turny road in the Hollywood Hills. It’s not the baronial estate one might expect to house a woman who Forbes estimates has earned $125 million in the last five years. A friend accurately describes it as the L.A. equivalent of an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It has the provisional feel of many Hollywood stars’ homes. Yes, there’s the patio, the pool, the spectacular view. But the interior seems art-directed rather than designed for living. White orchids float in crystal bowls throughout the house. Massive square columns separate a hallway work space from the living room, whose heavy, brocade-covered furniture makes the room feel stiff and uncomfortable, a place for Sunday behavior.
No wonder everybody feels more relaxed hanging out in the kitchen, with its library-style magazine rack, dining table with banquette, and never-empty bowl of popcorn. Madonna’s brother Anthony, a friendly guy with long hair and two pierced ears, is visiting for a couple of weeks from New York, where he works in film production. Her assistant Melissa Crow (also known as “Baby M”) makes coffee and works the phones, while her publicist, Warner Bros. Records’ Liz Beth Rosenberg (who’s been called “the most quoted woman in America”), crochets and pores over the fruits of the latest photo session. With evident reluctance Madonna abandons this cozy nest for the formality of the living room and the interview.
In person Madonna exudes less glamour than one might expect of someone so careful about her image. Today her hair is in disarray — an inch and a half of dark roots showing underneath a blond dye job turning sickly yellow — though her makeup is perfect. She’s wearing a black lace bodysuit with something else black pulled over it and lots of jewelry.
Later in the day, at a screening of Truth or Dare attended by “the suits” (agents, studio heads, record company executives, and a few celebs and colleagues), Madonna shows up in a hideous calf-length black smock dress and black boots that make her look like a little girl playing dress-up. It maybe that she’s indulging in the latest fashion trend, the one Allure magazine calls “Deliberately Dowdy.” Or perhaps she’s simply pregnant with her next look. In any case, her appearance reflects the restlessness and surprising fragility that runs through the interview.
She seats herself in front of the plate-glass window on the oddest piece of furniture in the room, a bench with no back. It’s designed so that anyone on the sofa can see the patio, the pool, and the spectacular view. But it also allows her to lie down and gaze at the best thing in the room, a lush Langlois panting of Diana, Cupid, and Endymion (all nude) that’s mounted on the ceiling.
Although she made no effort to hide her lack of enthusiasm to talk to the press, she was a dream to interview. She never declared anything “off-the-record” (although she did call the next morning requesting that The Advocate not print the astonishing title of the song she’s supposed to be writing with Michael Jackson). She answered every question without hesitation. And in true Madonna fashion, what she said was often…well, see for yourself.