This isn’t to say that Madonna the performer is Madonna the person or that she practices what she makes pop. The clue to
her fascination, and her inviolabllity, is the protective shield of irony that renders every Madonna move ambiguous. She finds
it outrageous that feminists have attacked her for setting women back with her “Boy Toy” charade. “They didn’t get the joke. The whole point is that I’m not anyhody’s toy. People take everything so literally. I think the public is tired of trying to figure out whether I’m a feminist or not. I don’t think of what I’m doing as gender specific. I am what I am. and I do what I do. I never set out to be a role model for girls or women. I’m a strong woman, a successful woman, and I don’t conform to a stereotype. You know the idea — that you need to be like a chain saw or an army tank to play in at man’s world. Well, I don’t act like a man, and I play in a man’s world.”
Madonna’s sense of life as a joke is what enables her to get away with just about anything. She can appropriate Marilyn’s image in “Material Girl” or raise fire storms of debate with “Papa Don`t Preach,” her song about unwed mothers, or trample tradition in “Like a Prayer,” and her audience keeps expanding. When Cher slings her barely covered pelvis around a video-depicted hattieship, her antics seem more desperate than amusing, but Madonna is always confidently tongue-in-cheek. “Irony is my favorite thing,” she says. “Everythlng I do is meant to have several meanings, to be ambiguous.”
Yet in the past year, a change can he detected in her work: a movement toward a naked form of self-revelation far riskier than her more outrageous gambits. Listen to the lyrics of “Till Death Do Us Part” and you’ll hear a barely fictionalized account of her tempestuous marriage. “He takes a drink, she goes outside / He starts to scream, the vases fly / He wishes that she wouldn’t cry / He’s not in love with her anymore.”
Perhaps even closer to the marrow is the song “Oh Father” and the haunting video story she devised to illustrate it. “It’s my most autobiographical work – with a little bit of drama thrown in. It’s boring to be completely autobiographical.” The song is a melancholy declaration of independence addressed to a brutal patriarch: “You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you. I never thought I would. / You can’t make me cry, you once had the power / I never felt so good about myself.” The video, which David Fincher directed from her story line, graphically dramatizes the trauma of Madonna’s seating early loss, the death of her mother when she was only six, and suggests, by visually linking the abusive father to a punishing boyfriend, what Madonna says is the video’s theme: “lt’s about how you marry your father.”
This new work is a far cry from the bubble-gum music that made her the darling of every thirteen-year-old girl in the nation. But Madonna has had some bruising encounters with the real world since then, and personal themes have begun to surface in her work. “It’s hard to define what I was doing in the beginning,” she explains. “I think l was just having a lot of fun, being provocative, being a clown. But most people are ultimately most inspired by their own experience, their past. I think you have to face that stuff. Obviously, there’s been sadness in my life, and you can cover that up or you can let it come through. I can’t always paste a smile on my face.”
In her shrewd but ever-surprising metamorphosis into an allmedia superstar, no move was more daring than her foray onto Broadway in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. She was an outsider three times over: a pop star invading the sacred realm of the theater, a relative novice among acting professionals, and a woman invading the macho world of Mamet. Facing an often-skeptical audience each night. “I knew I was up against a lot. I’m from a world they have no respect for. It was a really good experience for me to prove myself in that context,” she says. But Madonna’s Broadway debut was painful as well. What may have been hardest for this woman who adamantly believes in controlling her own fate was having to play a victim. “It was devastating — to do that night after night.” Madonna was also troubled because her view of the character, a Hollywood studio secretary, differed from that held by the playwright and director. “I saw her as an angel, an innocent. They wanted her to be a c—.”
In Hollywood, where she has her own production company, Siren Films, and a development deal with Columbia Pictures, Madonna will have more say in the parts she plays. In the fall, shooting will begin on Siren’s first film, Blessing in Disguise, to be produced in association with Warren Beatty. “It’s a serious movie, about people suspended in a state of denial,” Madonna explains. She will play a daughter who returns to her Midwestern family to attend her brother’s funeral and redefine her relationship to her mother and sister.
Hollywood is obviously betting that Madonna has a major movie career ahead of her, in spite of her spotty track record. Except for her smashing debut in Desperately Seeking Susan, her screen ventures — Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl? Bloodhounds of Broadway – have been more flayed than praised. Do these failures bother her? “Yes, they bother me. Of course they do.” She pauses, thoughtful but determined. “But I’m just gonna keep trying. I think Dick Tracy is going to help me a lot. Warren says I’m great in it, and I don’t think he lies about stuff like that.”
A voracious moviegoer who loves old movies and has strong opinions about new ones, she reveals that David Geffen tried to talk her into doing The Fabulous Baker Boys. [The much-lauded Michelle Pfeiffer should be thankful she didn’t.] What did she think of the movie made without her? “I hated it. It was too mushy. Such a Wonder-bread cast. I think of all those people as being California people — blond and boring.” Madonna adds that she found the movie True Love “awesome” – its Bronx working-class milieu spoke to her own Italian-American sense of reality. Nothing white-bread there.
In a sense, Madonna has been a character actress all along, but instead of slipping in and out of movie roles, she has used music videos continually to reinvent her persona. “In pop music, generally, people have one image. You get pigeonholed. I’m lucky enough to be able to change and stili be accepted. If you think about it, that’s what people do in movies. Play a part, change characters, looks, attitudes. I guess I do it to entertain myself.” Videos are obviously much more than mere money-makers to Madonna, who financed her “Express Yourself” extravaganza herself. The cost: nearly a million dollars. “I’ve basically gone wildly out of control. My manager gets insane about what I spend. But it placates me to put my energy into that work. I could be buying a Ferrari, but l’d rather spend it this way.”
In movie matters, Beatty has become her guru. “He’s really helpful reading scripts. He has infinite knowledge about what makes a good movie, a good director. He’s become a sounding board for me. He’s really critical, and that’s good.”
By a strange twist of fate, she met Beatty the night of her first date with Sean Penn. “Sean took me to Warren’s house. I guess he wanted to show me off — I’m not sure. I didn’t know L.A. at all. I remember meeting a lot of movie stars that night… Mickey Rourke, all these people.” But she never really got to know Beatty until the casting sessions for Dick Tracy. When he finally did turn his attention to her, it was focused. “Warren should have been a psychiatrist or a district attorney. When he wants to know somebody, he goes out of his way to investigate. You feel like you’re under a microscope. You’re not used to people spending that much time trying to get to know you. But it’s admirable. Everybody ought to examine the people they‘re going to work with as intensely as he does.”