The next evening, aboard a plane en route to Los Angeles, Madonna seems surprised, even a tad miffed, to learn that her performance of “Live to Tell” may be seen as a commentary on Marilyn Monroe. Apparently, she never intended for the portrait that accompanies the song onstage to bear such a striking resemblance to Monroe.
“Actually,” she says, “I think ‘Live to Tell’ is about something very different. It’s about being strong, and questioning whether you can be that strong, but ultimately surviving.”
But she’s aware, isn’t she, that many people see certain similarities between her and Monroe? After all, she was the one who deliberately evoked Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video. And both artists inspire arguments about sexual values and share a certain allure.
“Oh, sure,” she says. “I mean, at first I enjoyed the comparisons between me and her. I saw it all as a compliment: she was very sexy – extremely sexy – and she had blond hair, and so on and so forth. Then it started to annoy me, because nobody wants to be continuously compared to someone else. You want people to see that you have a statement of your own to make.
“But yes, I do feel something for Marilyn Monroe. A sympathy. Because in those days, you were really a slave to the whole Hollywood machinery, and unless you had the strength to pull yourself out of it, you were just trapped. I think she really didn’t know what she was getting herself into and simply made herself vulnerable, and I feel a bond with that. I’ve certainly felt that at times – I’ve felt an invasion of privacy and all that – I’ve felt an invasion of privacy and all that – but I’m determined never to let it get me down. Marilyn Monroe was a victim, and I’m not. That’s why there’s no comparison.”
But has she, like Marilyn, ever had times of wondering…
Madonna anticipates where the question is headed. “Of wondering, ‘Oh, God, what have I created?’ Oh yes. Like when Desperately Seeking Susan came out, and I was going with a well-known actor, then I announced my marriage, then the Playboy and Penthouse pictures came out – everything sort of happened at once, one big explosion of publicity. No matter how successful you want to be, you could never ever anticipate that kind of attention – the grand scale of it all.
“And at first the Playboy photos were very hurtful to me, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about them. Now I look back at them and I feel silly that I ever got upset, but I did want to keep some things private. It was like when you’re a little girl at school and some nun comes and lifts your dress up in front of everybody and you get really embarrassed. It’s not really a terrible thing in the end, but you’re not ready for it, and it seems so awful, and you seem so exposed. Also, Penthouse did something really nasty: they sent copies of the magazine to Sean.” Madonna pauses and shakes her head, as if to dispel her memory.
“That whole time was almost too much,” she says after a moment. “I mean, I didn’t think I was going to be getting married with thirteen helicopters flying over my head. It turned into a circus. In the end, I was laughing. At first I was outraged, and then I was laughing. You couldn’t have written it in a movie. No one would have believed it. It was better than anything like that, it was just so incredible. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical. Or something that somebody would stage to generate a lot of publicity for one of their stars.”
Why does she think she and Sean Penn have attracted so much scrutiny? After all, other celebrity couples manage to avoid that much brouhaha.
“But they don’t love each other as much as we do!” she says, then lets go with a nice, loud, goody laugh. “Maybe people sense that. I don’t know. We’re both very intense people. Plus, he had a sort of rebellious-bad-boy image in Hollywood, and I had the same one, only, you know, for a girl, and I think the press really wanted to seize on that opportunity of that combination.”
Does she ever get the feeling that people want her marriage to fail?
“Oh yes, from the time we got married. They couldn’t make up their mind: they wanted me to be pregnant, or they wanted us to get a divorce. That put a lot of strain on our relationship, too, after a while. It’s been a character-building experience, and a test of love to get through all of it.” She falls silent for a time, studying the darkening sky outside the window. “A lot of the times,” she says, “the press would make up the most awful things that we had never done, fights that we never had. Then sometimes we would have a fight, and we’d read about it, and it would be almost spooky, like they’d predicted it or they’d bugged our phones or they were listening in our bedroom. It can be very scary if you let it get to you.”