With one platinum hairdo and three platinum albums behind her, not to mention a Broadway stage role, a new album and a possible tour, Madonna has also had more than her share of hard knocks — as recent tabloid revelations confirm. This was a night out with Sean Penn in only slightly less troubled times.
‘Do something, Lou,’ Madonna Louise Ciooone said, leaning forward on the seat.
Lou, a beefy-shouldered, balding bodyguard with a tendency to sweat, turned from where he sat in the front seat beside the driver and regarded her pleasantly.
Stretch limousines were out by the hundreds — drunken dream fish, silver and schooling there in the late afternoon light in front of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, where Iron Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks were about to go against each other in the convention centre for the pleasure of Madonna and Sean Penn and me and 20.000 other souls, plus untold millions around the world via satellite.
‘Goddamit, do something,’ Madonna said again.
What Lou was supposed to do was not entirely clear. We were in stretch-limo gridlock. That fact did not seem to oocur to Madonna. She had arrived, goddamit. She knew where she wanted to go, what she wanted to do, and she was not prepared to wait on anybody or anything.
Madonna left Rochester, Michigan, for New York at the age of 18 with nothing but a suitcase and a heart scalded by ambition to be somebody. She came with a million nobodies in the annual pilgrimage to the brutally indifferent, dirty, savage shrine of power that is Manhattan. A decade later she was married to a handsome, hot-at-the·box·office, totally unpredictable actor named Sean Penn, had more money that she could ever count, a house in Malibu and an apartment on Central Park. She also still had a heart scalded by ambition, a heart unsated and insatiable that will be lusting for action when the first shovelful of dirt drops on her coffin.
We are approaching the ballroom of the convention oentre now, where we are invited to a private party given by Donald Trump. A crush of people pressing down on the walk leading to the building. As the car pulls to a stop and Madonna becomes visible through the window, a great roar bursts from the collective throat of the crowd.
‘My f*cking fans,’ Madonna said, and the word fans was a greater obscenity in her mouth than the adjective modifying it.
For the first time I noticed the incredible number of men and women with cameras of one kind or another slung from their necks and shoulders. As if on signal all the cameras raised and popped in a great flash of light as Madonna stepped from the car to take Sean’s arm.
Once inside, it went from hair, teeth, and hysteria all the way to nightmare as the howling mob of photographers broke through Trump Security and came in with us. Madonna’s bodyguard was in the lead and we followed. But Lou did not know where to go to get away from the sea of popping flash-bulbs. Finally we ducked out a back door and into an elevator and went down one floor where we stayed inside the lift with Lou positioned in the open door. Somewhere along the way we had picked up a woman who was a Trump Casino employee. Madonna was beside herself with anger, really major-league pissed off.
‘Why where those f*cking people allowed in where the guests are?’ she demanded.
‘They werent supposed to be, but…’
‘Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to do? I can’t believe Donald Trump. This is outrageous.’
The woman was full of apologies: ‘There isn’t a room in the hotel. But I’ve got a conference room you can sit in.’
As we were leaving, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson – Nicholson with a bottle of beer in his hand and wearing his trademark dark glasses — started into the elevator.
‘Man, you can’t go up there,’ Sean said.
‘The hell I can’t,’ said Nicholson.
‘It’s a madhouse,’ Sean said. “They’ve let photographers in.’
‘Come on,’ said Nicholson. ‘Let’s go to the party.’
Instead of the party, we went down back oorridors and back stairwells and sat in a little conference room where Madonna munched on popcorn until fight time.
Of all the celebrities at ringside — and everybody I’d ever heard of seemed to be there, including Jesse Jackson and Richard Pryor – Madonna’s picture was the one on the ‘wanted’ poster. And she was not enjoying it.
Suddenly Donald Trump appeared, hustling between the seats toward Madonna.
‘I’ve better seats for you,’ Trump said.
‘We can’t go,’ Madonna said. ‘I have a guest.’
‘G0o ahead,’ I said. ‘This is a great seat. I’ll be fine.’
Still Madonna refused. ‘We can’t. He’s my guest.’
Trump touched my shoulder. ‘Come on. It’s all right.’
So the three of us, with Trump leading the way, went down to the aisle situated directly on the ring, Trump waved his hand and a gofer in a tuxedo appeared with two chairs. Trump said I could sit two rows behind them, but Sean and Madonna were having none of that either. Sean took Madonna on his lap, and Madonna motioned for me to take the chair beside them.
Later I told her it would have been fine to have left me where I had been sitting initially.
‘Would you have left me if I had been your guest?’ she asked.
‘Well, no, but…’
‘I don’t leave my guests either.’
When Spinks went down, we went out, led by the indefatigable Lou. To wait for the car and escape, we were forced to take refuge in a kitchen. When the steel doors slammed behind us, the sudden silence was like going under water.
And out of the dim recesses of the kitchen came six or seven young men, all black or Hispanic, wearing garbage-spattered aprons and walked-over shoes.
‘Could I have your autograph?’ one of them asked, holding a napkin and a well-chewed pencil out to Madonna.
She stood there, harassed, tired, regarding the napkin for a moment and then said, ‘Sure. Of course.’
They were the first and last autographs she gave that evening. Later, I asked her why.
‘These guys that work back in the kitchen don’t see a hell of a lot. They’re just back there doing a bad job. They sure as hell didn’t see the fight, did they? And they weren’t like most people wanting an autograph, coming up to you and demanding it. It’s that impertinence that bothers you more than anything else. And I didn’t get that feeling from them, not at all.’
On the three-hour ride back to Manhattan, Madonna put on a tape and dozed with her head in her husbands lap. At the Parker Meridien Hotel I thanked them and said good night.
‘You’re coming to the play tomorrow night,’ she said.
‘I’ll be there.’
‘I’ll send someone to get you.’
‘That isn’t necessary.’
‘I’ll send someone anyway,’ she said.
‘In that case,’ I said, ‘thank you.’
The Madonna Play
The next evening at 7.30, Madonna’s personal assistant, a cheerful young woman named Melissa, picked me up and delivered me to Lou, who took me inside the Royale Theatre where David Mamet’s play, ‘Speed-the-Plow’ — or as it was universally known, the Madonna play — was being performed.
The theatre was packed, and stitched through the low buzz of conversation was the single word: Madonna… Madonna… Madonna.
I greatly admire David Mamet’s work, but ‘Speed-the-Plow’ is badly flawed. Madonna’s is the pivotal role, and her character makes less dramatic sense than does the play. But I thought her exceptional, given what she had to work with.
She was sitting, a rather pensive look on her face when I came into her dressing room backstage.
‘Sometirnes it feels like being in jail,’ she said. ‘It’s the monotony, for one thing. It’s having to do the same thing every night.
It’s like you wake up in the morning and even if you have your afternoons free, you still have to do this thing at the end of the day. I’ve never felt so stationary in my life. So in one place.
‘On the road doing my own show everything changes every day – different city, different feel for the audience because the people are always different wherever you go and there’s always something new to pique your interest. Plus it’s my show. I can take great liberties and change whatever I want. I can’t do that here. I’m interpreting somebody else’s work in the same theatre at the same time every night on 45th Street. I get followed back and forth every day. I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle, banging my head against the wall. And it’s almost a hundred f*cking degrees every day in this dirty-ass city.’
Perhaps, I thought, it had all just been a bad idea, something she had fallen into. Surely she had not actively pursued the role?
‘I pursued it like a motherf*cker. I was at a lunch with some people and one of them was a director and he mentioned that David Mamet had written a new play. I was a fan of his so I just started bugging my agents and people I knew. I met the director and the writer and it finally came to a reading. We read in one room, then we went to another room and we read. And then he took me to another room and read. And I thought, Jesus-f*cking-Christ, am I being put through the wringer or what?
‘Finally the director called me up and said, “David really liked you.” I said, “Yeah, what does that mean?” And he said, “He didn’t expect to like you.” “Well, okay.” I said, “What does that mean?” ‘He’s thinking about it. He’s riding his Lifecycle right now and he’s going to make a decision.” Just putting me through the wringer, you know? But, anyway, he finally called me back a couple of hours later and said, “You want to do this play?” And that’s how I got it. But believe me, it was hard f*cking work.’
What was there in this particular role that attracted her, made her want to do it?
“The character is so unlike me, dresses so unlike me, takes shit so unlike me. ‘That’s what I had to do because people kept on saying, she’s just playing herself. So I said, okay, for six months I’m not going to play myself. And I feel like I’m kind of paying my dues right now in this play. But if you asked “Would you ever do it again?” I’d say definitely, I would love to do it again. But I think I’d like to do a part in a play where I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by misogynists and womanhaters, a part where I got to play a little more flamboyant a character. And I’d definitely like to do a shorter run.’
She stood up, ready to leave the theatre. Lou appeared in the corridor to walk us to the car. When he opened the stage door, there were the ubiquitous photographers with their blinding flashes and behind the photographers, her fans, pressing forward trying to see her, hoping to touch her.
Unhelped And Unloved
When I next saw Madonna a few weeks later it was in the living room of her apartment, which she had not yet finished decorating. The space was large, high-ceilinged, with a big fireplace, on either side of which were shelves partially filled with books. An open window gave on to Central Park, where the tops of the trees were a green carpet undulating in the heavy summer air. She was wearing cutoff jeans and a shirt.
Her hair was carelessly twisted and caught in a clip. She wanted to show me a painting by Frida Kahlo, the wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
The painting was in the little hall coming into the apartment, and there was a startlingly nightmarish quality about it that brought me up short. A woman lay naked and unattended on a bed with the head of a baby protruding from between her legs. She is alone, unhelped and unloved in her travail. One knows the baby is dead.
It’ss called “My Birth”,’ Madonna said. ‘Frida Kahlo suffered a great deal, har whole life was suffering. That painting’s about surviving and dealing with pain and hardship. I’m attracted tc people who live those kinds of lives and also manage lc create something out of it — whether it’s an emotional hardship or a physical hardship, and Frida Kahlo had both.
She was crippled, she was married to an insanc man who tortured her and cost her a great deal.’
She went to a bookshelf and took down a biography of the painter and thumbled through it to a picture of Kahlo. ‘I love her,’ sha said, regarding the picture. ‘I tend to be attracted to things that are about the sadness of living, the ultimate loneliness of living. Maybe that sounds silly, but it’s true.
‘I lived in a loft in the garment district where no one was allowed to live. It was for offices and factory warehouses and stuff, and there was no hot water. There wasn’t even a f*cking shower. Finally I had to leave because there was no heat. It was winter and I was sleeping on the floor surrounded by space heaters, and I woke up engulfed in flames. I jumped up in my nightgown and left the building with my shoes.
‘I think about all that a lot. I felt like l was camping outside in the wilderness for seven years. I never had any money and I never had any help, and probably having to deal with all that and having to struggle to survive has made me as tough as I am, turned me into the bitch that most people think I am.’ She paused, looked around at the apartment and out over the lovely expanse of Central Park, and smiled. ‘But it was meant to be, because here I am.’
But success has not been an unmixed blessing.
The biggest trade-off is just lack of privacy, not being able to walk down the street without being bothered, my loss of anonymity. But it’s a double-edged sword. I grew up saying I wanted to be somebody. I tried to be different, tried to dress different, tried to be different. Finally you get what you’ve been searching for all those years, and then you spend the rest of your life trying to hide. It’s really weird. But that’s what happens. You walk around the streets with your eyes down. Just establishing eye contact is like asking for it.
‘But there’s no alternative. Except to change my life; to change what I do for a living. The only way I can end it is if I move to Boise., Idaho, and live on a farm and milk cows for the rest uf my life.
‘But I’m not going to do that. I prayed for 17 years to get out the Midwest, and I don’t want to go back.’
I wondered how far down the road she could see, what she thought she would be doing five years from now.
She smiled, but her voice took that tone of emphatic, hard-edged confidence it always takes when she talks about her work.
‘I’ll be doing everything I’m doing now only I’lI be better. I’m just letting my creative juices take me where they will. There aren’t a lot of great movies to do, so that just works out fime for me because I haven’t done a record in at least two years.’ The David Mamet experience behind her, Madonna is putting together an album of songs scheduled for release this spring. The LP is provisionally entitled ‘Like A Prayer’ and, as cm her last album, she is working with Stephen Bray amd Pat Leonard as cowriters.
But the focus of her life right now is to force the world to see her as she sees herself.
‘They thought they would wake up one day and I’d go away. But I’m not going to go away. They keep waking up and I keep not going away. And that just pisses them off. In the beginning they thought that I was the flavour of the month. A one-act Disco Dolly who was just going to pop in and pop out. But slowly as the years go by I’ve been showing a little bit more of myself. One facet and than another facet. And every time they think they have me understood, I do something else. It took them forever to accept the fact that I could write music and that I have something tp contributc in the world of music. They slandered me for the first two albums. Finally, on my last album, they said, okay, she’s talented. All right, she can write a good song. Now I`m going through the same thing with acting and movies. I was in this play, and it was the same all over again. To be accepted as an actress, I’m just going to have to work very hard, do everything I have to do, and let everybody else goof, say what they want. That’s the way it works. That’s the way it has always worked.’
© Time Out