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Madonna Interview : American Film

Madonna - American Film / July/August 1987

Fearing she’d smother in the cushions of some typecasting couch, Madonna took on the fizzler Shanghai Surprise, starring opposite her husband, Sean Penn. Madonna played the prudish missionary Miss Tallock, a Good Girl who turns Bad Girl to do Good. It was a nice twist in theory, but when Miss (“Just Say ‘No'”) Tatlock swaps her missionary zeal for the missionary position so as to “obligate” a traveling sleazeball to her noble cause, the words “fool” and “hypocrite” leap to mind. But even if Madonna’s character had been believable and likable (or anything else in the movie), it wouldn’t have helped her much. The bottom line was that she just wasn’t convincing as a goody-goody. Shanghai Surprise was her ticket back to Badland.

The problem is, Madonna’s Bad Girl doesn’t just want to have fun. She wants love, too. The happy-ending kind. Madonna’s one of the few stars in this stressed-out, immune-deficient age who can project the erotic elation of romance. But, alas. Bad Girls are rarely romantic heroines. Jane Russell managed it in Macao, but it’s hard to find her a recent rival. Despite rumors of permissiveness in Hollywood, Bad Girls still run afoul of sharks, the law, or Mr. Goodbar. They still end up in dunce caps, B-movies, or supporting roles. No no, Love don’t come easy in Badland.

Can Madonna wiggle her way out of the Bad Girl gulag? Though on-screen she has the frank sexuality, the irreverence, and the easy selfishness of a B-movie brunette, her Hollywood roots are love-goddess blonde. Critics have seen in her the innocence of Monroe, the munch of Mae West, the prole warmth of Holliday, the assurance of Lombard’s womanly brats, and the undertones of Dietrich’s sexual sophistication. The result is sweeter than B-queens or vamps, steamier than smart blondes, and smarter than dumbbelles. She’s not rerunning stereotypes, she’s rewriting them. Her desire to please reads as a generous form of self-interest, not a malevolent strategem or a neurotic need. It’s a win-win offer.

In addition to her fat account at the image bank, she projects an intensely charming personality: Quick to jettison anger (unlike Bad Boys, who marry theirs), her ego is open to new wisdom, and she has a sunburst smile, a collusively teasy wink, and clean energy to burn. Who’s That Girl will utilize Madonna’s Madonnaness. “There’s always been this twinkle in her eye, only now it’s in wide-screen technicolor, and her sexuality is an undercurrent to her playfulness,” says Foley, who directed Madonna’s videos “Papa Don’t Preach” and “True Blue” (Euro-version).

The film’s original script, written by Andrew Smith, was developed by producer Rosilyn Heller at the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company as Slammer. Its cheerful speed, fantasy mood, and street-level heart mix screwball tradition with Madonna’s video best. Heller, a fan of Foley’s film work, offered Stammer to him through Foley’s old friend. G-P president Roger Birnbaum. Foley saw Nikki as a “wicked but good kind of character,” for whom he felt instant affection. He thought Madonna would be perfect.

“Although Foley had never directed a comedy and Madonna had never starred in one. Roger and I loved the team,” says Heller. Foley met with Warner Bros. executives and allayed their initial doubts about his comedic inexperience. New writers were brought in: Ken Finkleman elaborated on the script’s action, and Andy Brockman gave it more romantic focus, tenderizing Nikki and distilling Loudon’s appeal. Once Griffin Dunne was cast, things finally felt right to everybody, and the “go project” finally “was go.”

“Madonna’s under a lot of pressure for this movie to do well, but she doesn’t wear the pressure on her sleeve says Dunne. Madonna attributes her discipline to her years as a dancer in New York: “Being there for other people, showing up on time, and making a go of it when you’re exhausted — I’ve done that all my life.” And she holds her workahol well. The oldest girl from a mid-western Catholic family of ten, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone (“fat man”) Penn treats everybody as a quasi-sibling, from Warners exec Mark Canton to the grips. A kidder of the jab-and-spar school, she has your number before she learns your name. No tact, no malice.

One night back in Los Angeles. they’re shooting at Cartier’s. It’s been a long week, and fuses are short. A bit actress gets in a crewman’s way.

“Get that woman out of here” he barks. “That woman! That woman!” Madonna chirps, parodying his macho snit with a frown and a smile. The guy’s called but not humiliated, and the air’s clear.

Dunne wanted to work with Madonna after seeing her in the limited-run David Rabe play, Goose and Tomtom, at Lincoln Center last August. “She seemed to be very inside herself,” he says of her performance. “When she came out with a cigarette that needed to be lit — all you were concerned about was who was going to light it.”

“We work very differently — which worked well for our characters,” Dunne adds. “She likes her first take best. I think my best is around the fourth. She always says, ‘You got it, you got it,’ and she was driving me crazy, just the way her character would. I mean, she’s a very noisy girl. If you’re having lunch or something, she’s not at all like that, but on the set she’d use this talent she has for grating on my character’s nerves — talking nonstop between takes — and I’d look at her and I really would go: Who is this girl?”

In the long run, Madonna is a girl who wants to Open Your Heart, not simply conquer it. To do this, she’ll have to find roles that mine the emotional richness of her contradictory character and rework commercial standards to let her resident opposites breathe through the veils of myth. Diane Keaton and producer Joe Kelly (Heaven) are renovating The Blue Angel for her at Fox. It’s a Bad Girl role with depth potential. Kelly compares her Adorable Badness to Jack Nicholson’s. Meanwhile, Siren Films, Madonna’s development company, is nurturing two adaptations of French melodramas (including Agnes Verde’s Cleo From 5 to 7) about women — neither good nor bad — who act on the courage of their affections in a morally inscrutable world.

By now it’s late January, outside Studio 16 on the Warners lot in Burbank, where Who’s That Girl is wrapping up shooting, on time and only three Trump Tower Sundays overbudget. Inside her Linx Prowler trailer, we scrunch into a tiny dining enclave. This interview finds Madonna pushing twenty-nine and in transition. When she says, “I’d rather walk through a fire than walk away from one,” she’s jiving and accurate, both. Heads, she wins; tails, she won’t lose. Double or nothing.

Question: How is it going from the control you have in videos to working with the film studios?

Madonna: It’s a whole different ball game. But I want to know every aspect. When I do a video, I have to know how much it costs and who’s doing everything, and I worry like mad and I’m always getting this from people: “Just relax! Other people are hired to do these jobs.” But I can never be just in front of the camera.

Question: You were involved in developing Who’s That Girl?