When Madonna’s film “W.E.” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it was savaged by critics. The Times of London called the drama “screamingly, inadvertently funny” while Daily Variety said it was “burdened with risible dialogue and weak performances.”
Since dropping out of the University of Michigan and moving to New York with $35 in her pocket, the woman christened Madonna Louise Ciccone has adopted a dizzying array of identities: the sexpot Material Girl; Esther, the Kaballah enthusiast; Queen Madge, the Anglophile. Now, she’s trying again to be a highbrow director—she cites Wong Kar Wai, Visconti and Antonioni as inspirations—following the dismal critical reception of her first film, 2008′s “Filth and Wisdom.”
At 53, she has taken her knocks—Ricky Gervais took a shot at her at the Golden Globes (she shot back, and later won the best-song award). So she identifies with her film’s subject, Wallis Simpson, the American socialite for whom King Edward VIII abdicated his throne, becoming her third husband. She and the Duke of Windsor were suspected by many to be Nazi sympathizers. Next Friday, “W.E.” will hit theaters in wide release, after a weeklong run in December. The film, re-edited since its Venice debut, interweaves the historical love story with a modern-day tale of a young woman in an abusive relationship.
When Madonna takes the stage on Feb. 5 at the Super Bowl XLVI half-time show, the performance will mark the intersection of various elements of Brand Madonna. Her first record in four years will be released in March. The first single, “Gimme All Your Luvin,’” featuring M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, breaks in February and another new song, “Masterpiece,” plays to the closing credits on “W.E.” Her first fragrance, called Truth or Dare, will follow in the spring.
Dressed in a silk dress by the French couture house Vionnet and Chanel fingerless gloves that showcased her yoga-enhanced chaturanga arms, Madonna was perched on a Louis XVI-inspired settee in the Royal suite at the Waldorf-Astoria—where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor once lived in New York—as several of her favorite gardenia-scented Diptyque candles burned during a recent interview. Her comment on the suite: “I like this one, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer the one in the Ritz Hotel [in Paris]. It’s more Art Deco, which is more my era in furniture.” Below, an edited transcript.
The Wall Street Journal: You have a movie coming out, a fragrance, a new album and a tour—and now the Super Bowl. Was this a master plan?
Madonna: No, everything kind of converged in a bottleneck. I was always planning on making a record when I finished my film but I ended up finishing my film much later than I had expected so, because I had already scheduled time with all the producers and writers for my record, I had to multitask and work on my record at the same time I was finishing my film. And then somehow it worked out that the record was being finished right around the time the movie was coming out. Then I got talked into doing the Super Bowl.
That sounds like a lot of obligations.
I want to do everything really well. I kept saying to my manager, “I don’t want to do the Super Bowl unless I can really give it my all, and really focus all my attention on it.” And he said, “Don’t worry! There won’t be any problems. You’ll be able to concentrate just on the Super Bowl.” Now of course my movie is coming out during the Super Bowl so it’s a little bit nerve-racking.
How’s the rehearsing going?
It’s not an easy show to do because you have such a short period of time to set the stage up. And you’re performing in the round so you can’t direct anything that walks off anybody’s sight line. You have eight minutes to put your stage together, 12 minutes to do the show and seven minutes to take it down.
What did you find so fascinating about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?
What intrigued me about their story was how polarized people felt about her and him, and the abdication [of King Edward VIII], and that period of history and what they were: Did they love each other? Were they Nazis? Was he gay? Was she vicious and a social climber? They were a very controversial couple. I am very interested in that period of history, prewar England, and in deconstructing the cult of celebrity, which is another layer of the film, the way we peg and sort of diminish a lot of people who we don’t understand and who we are afraid of.
What convinced you that they were not Nazi sympathizers?
Research. And not being able to find any empirical evidence whatsoever that they were. People came to me and said they were, and I said, “OK, show me. Prove it to me. What is the evidence? That [Edward] had a meeting with Hitler in 1936? Give me the reason.” It would always go back to “This is what I heard.”
Did you identify with Wallis Simpson on a personal level, in the way she was judged all the time?
Yes, to a certain extent. I think that she didn’t have the ability to defend herself the way I do now, or we do now. It was a different time. The media was different, and women didn’t have the choices that they do now. Even so, there were moments, there were lines in her letters that I thought, “I could have written that.”
Anything in particular that resonated?
Just the experience of being treated unfairly in the press, not having a nice word said about you. There was a time where I actually read what people wrote about me, and that’s a slippery slide to get on. So, if you do that, and you’re doing something controversial or unpopular, then you’re just going to be reading a bunch of stuff that isn’t nice about you. I certainly know that feeling of devastation, like “Oh, my God, the whole world’s turned against me.”
So, you really don’t read any press about yourself?
No. I haven’t even read any reviews of my film yet, and I don’t want to.
When did you decide to ignore all that?
When I adopted my son from Africa and I was accused of kidnapping him. I was so devastated by what people wrote about me, that people basically accused me of doing something criminal. That was my turning point.
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