How I Caught Madonna In The Act
Still only 32, she’s as famous as Elvis and rich enough to buy Berkshire. What’s Madonna’s secret? What’s she got? And could I have some too?
Well, if I ever get to meet her I’ll be sure to ask, but three hours into a visit to the set of her latest film and Madonna looks like a no—show. Meanwhile I’m stuck bang in the middle of Middle America – in Evansville, Indiana, to be exact – where all the women are called Shanda or Jolene, an evening out is a trip to the seed store, and you feel vaguely effeminate if you’re not wearing a Desert Storm T-shirt. I’m having panic attacks already. Live here long enough, you’d probably buy a
Johnny Cash album and marry a close relative.
If I could just get my interview with Madonna done I’d hitch a ride to the airport on the nearest crop-duster and be on the first plane out of here. The problem is I’m not even supposed to be interested in Madonna, ‘It’s not a Madonna movie,’ the people at the film studio kept saying when they asked me to spend a day on the set of A League Of Their Own. They rattled on about how the film also starred that nice Tom Hanks from Big, and Geena Davis, the gangly half of Thelma & Louise, and how it was based on an incredible true story about women playing professional baseball in the 40s when all the men were away fighting the war. Ho hum. I thought the point of a baseball scene in a movie was to give you a chance to grab something from the fridge, and here they are making a whole film about women’s baseball. Let me talk to Madonna…
‘It’s not a Madonna movie.’ The sentence is like a mantra here on the set too. It’s the first thing the film’s producer, a worried-looking man called Robert, says to me this morning when I arrive at the baseball field which is today’s location, and he manages to sound almost embarrassed that her name is even on the cast list at all.
She’s an ‘added attraction’, he explains, and she isn’t even getting a lot of money for her work. ‘She hasn’t proved to be a great magnet for audiences,’ Robert sighs, ‘so she’s getting a significant amount of money, but not stratospheric — not in a moviestar realm. Try to talk to Geena and Tom, why don’t you?’
Yes, why don’t I? Except that being on the set of a film starring Madonna and not talking to her — even if it’s definitely ‘not a Madonna movie’ and they got her cheap — would be like going to Pisa and missing the Leaning Tower. People will want to know why, and not just people. My mother. The editor. True, Madonna’s movie career, from Desperately Seeking Susan to Dick Tracy, has been up and down. Come to think of it, it’s been more down than up (remember Shanghai Surprise?). But who cares about plot-lines and box office? It’s Madonna’s personality that’s the main event and it`s always going to overshadow her film just as surely as her pointy little black bra overshadows her feet. Let me talk to Madonna…
The extras on the film know how I feel. ‘Honey,’ says one middle—aged local woman with an intimidating bouffant, ‘Madonna coming here is a once-in-a-lifetime thang.’ As for Susannah Schwekendik, a German student studying in New York who’d driven to Indiana to take part in the film, ‘It’s the first time I am doing such a thing,’ she tells me. ‘I am seeing Madonna in the distance, which is very nice, but l’m not knowing who Tom Hanks is, though he’s waving his hand at me sometimes?
Personally, I’m knowing who Tom Hanks is, I tell her, it’s just that I’m wanting to talk to Madonna. ‘But it’s not a Madonna film,’ says Stuart, the film’s publicist, when he comes over to announce lunch.
While we are eating, Stuart waxes lyrical about women’s baseball and the All American Girls Professional Baseball League which was the brain-child of Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum king. In 1943 Wrigley expected the draft board to shut down the men’s leagues and he recruited dozens of women to keep the game alive. He also sent all his female players to charm school, instructed them to wear miniskirts when they were playing baseball, and employed chaperones to guard them when they weren’t.
“We were closely watched in terms of our male friends,’ says blonde—haired Karen Kunkel, a technical adviser on A League Of Their Own, who played in the women’s league during its last season, and joined us for lunch. ‘Mind you,’ she adds with a sniff, ‘we had ways of sneaking that.’
Madonna would have been right at home by the sound of it, although according to the local paper, which I pick up back on set, she’s lately been devoting herself to good works. The front page carries a long story about a blind man who’d been invited to Madonna’s trailer. ‘Whatever false rumours there are about her, well, they’re wrong,’ he’s quoted as saying. ‘I think she’s a very nice, gentle person to be around.’ So there.
Move over Woodward and Bernstein; on an inside page there’s also a report of a pregnant cow holding up filming of a key scene between Madonna and Geena Davis while it gave birth. What with the midday heat and everything, I think I must have nodded off, but in the middle of a dream in which I’m disguised as an expectant Friesian and I’m getting this great interview with Madonna, I wake up with a start and get flashed.
This short woman with dark brown hair, dressed in a leather jacket and Lycra shorts and wearing dark glasses, walked right past me and, as she did, she pulled open her jacket and exposed a low-out black bra. I thought something about that chest looked familiar, but it was only when Stuart the publicist said, ‘I guess she doesn’t want to talk just now,’ that it occurred to me that I’d been flashed by Madonna.
I was still jotting the details down in my notebook when Geena Davis, baseball cap on backwards and miniskirt flapping in the breeze, trotted over to say the reason she’s wanted to do A League Of Their Own was because ‘it paints a picture of the sexism of the 40s, which is around now too’ and how the story’s all about women growing and exploring and ‘claiming their power’.
Since she did Thelma & Louise there’s obviously no talking to Geena, so thank heaven for the politically incorrect Tom Hanks who claimed he was having so much fun making this film, in which he plays the team coach, that it was ‘more like coming to camp than going to work’.
‘I mean, every American actor wants to play a baseball player, a spaceman, a cowboy and an army man,’ he said, ”cos that’s what we grew up pretending we were in the first place.’ Interestingly, Tom Hanks also pretended he couldn’t remember Madonna’s name, when asked about his co-stars.
‘Oh, Madonna!’ he said, and changed the subject.
With the afternoon wearing on and Tom Hanks not being very forthcoming, I decided to meet people who’d met Madonna and see if they would pretend to be her and answer questions on her behalf. This approach actually worked pretty well with the easy questions I put to two other cast members, actresses Tracy Reiner and Lori Petty.
They were able to tell me that Madonna plays a fiercely patriotic Italian character called Mae Mordibato, that she probably found throwing overarm the hardest skill to learn for the film, and that, oh yes, all this running around baseball fields had been hard, but what can you do? That was the part, and thank goodness she worked out so much.
I came unstuck when I tried asking Abe, the cast’s burly six-foot baseball coach, if he thought he’d have ever cut it in the female leagues. In the nick of time Madonna herself appeared, changed into her baseball gear, muscular legs showing beneath her miniskirt, eyebrows arched, face deep in make-up, ready to answer her own questions.
Actually, she’s ready to ask her own questions too.
‘I’ve got one minute,’ she says and immediately launches into an explanation of her role in the film.
‘I play an Italian character, but my Italian roots aren’t really addressed in this movie,’ she explains, ‘except I have an insatiable interest in men. I guess that’s ltalian right? But you don’t see me eating spaghetti or cursing in Italian or anything, although I do kiss an Italian guy and I go to church and spend a real long time in the confessional.’
Madonna says she wanted to make A League Of Their Own because, since it’s about a women’s baseball league, it’s ‘a feminist statement’. A minute later she contradicts herself by saying it’s not much fun being in a film with so many other women ‘clamoring for the spotlight’. ‘I’d rather the other two leads were men, if you want to know the truth,’ she declares coquettishly, ‘and I’m sure the other women feel the same; they just didn’t tell you that.’
That’s the sort of thing Madonna would say, of course, and you can’t help feeling, even in a conversation as short as this one, that she’s acting out a series of roles. When she’s not being mildly shocking, she’s being mildly flirtatious, saying, ‘Oo, were you about to have sympathetic pangs for me?’ when I ask her about a bandage on her left hand, batting her eyelids and saying she’d show me her baseball bruise, it’s just in such an inconvenient place.
In fact, she seems to be giving serious consideration to allowing me the world’s first sighting of the bruise when her minders get restless and decide to take her away.
She says sorry, one of the producer’s assistants says, ‘Well, it’s not a Madonna movie, and you’ve talked to everybody else,’ and that, it seems, is that.
Back in Los Angeles a few weeks later I notice that the Hollywood trade papers are reporting rumours that most of Madonna’s footage has been cut out of the film. Everyone furiously denies it, and I doubt whether it’s true, but even if her part in A League Of Her Own has been cut to the bone, you can bet she’ll have a leading role on the posters. When your name’s Madonna, why be in the film at all? You’re still the star.