Wouldn’t it be easier if she and Sean just accommodated the press?
“Well,” she says, “I can never speak for Sean. He will always deal with the press in his own way. For myself, I have accommodated the press a great deal. I’ve done numerous press conferences, numerous interviews. But I’m a lot more outgoing and verbal that way than Sean is. Also, in the beginning of my career I invited controversy and press and publicity, and I don’t think he did at all. He was a very serious actor, and he wasn’t interested in having a Hollywood-star image and didn’t do a lot of interviews, and it took him quite by surprise, whereas I had already kind of thrown myself into that whole world. And therefore we deal with it differently.”
Unfortunately, Penn’s way has often been belligerent: he has perhaps become more famous for fighting than for acting – which has led him to legal difficulties, as well as a troubled public image. Madonna herself has been present for some of the fisticuffs.
“It was traumatic,” she says. “I mean, I don’t like violence. I never condone hitting anyone, and I never thought that any violence should have taken place. But on the other hand, I understood Sean’s anger, and believe me, I’ve wanted to hit them many times. I never would, you know, because I realize that it would just make things worse. Besides, I have chances to vent my anger in other ways than confrontation. I like to fight people and kind of manipulate them into feeling like they’re not being fought, do you know what I mean? I’d rather do it that way.
“But yes, those were very traumatic experiences for me, and I think…” She pauses thoughtfully. “I don’t think they’ll be happening anymore. I think that Sean really believes that it’s a waste of energy. It antagonizes the press more and generates even more publicity, and I think he realizes that. But once they realized he was a target for that, they really went out of their way to pick on him, the point where they would walk down the street and kind of poke at him and say, “C’mon, c’mon, hit me, hit me.’ It’s not fair. And they insult me, and they try to get in to react that way, so, God, you just have to have the strength to rise above it all.”
Madonna looks suddenly tired. In just a few hours, she will be landing in Los Angeles, then shortly winging off to Miami, Florida, where the American tour begins. One has to wonder: with all this work, all this scrutiny of her private life, does she ever question whether the fame is worth all the trouble?
“Sure,” she says quietly. “There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘If I’d known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have tried so hard.’ But I feel that what I do affects people in a very positive way. That’s the most important thing, and that’s what I always set out to do. And you can’t affect people in a large, grand way without being scrutinized and judged and put under a microscope, and I accept that. If it ever gets too much, or I feel like I’m being overscrutinized, or I’m not enjoying it anymore, then I won’t do it.”
Isn’t it possible, though, that things are just heating up? That by the end of this year, she might be an even bigger star? Maybe even, if only for a while, the biggest star?
Something in Madonna’s face closes off at the question. “I don’t like to think about it,” she says. “It’s…distracting.”
But is the prospect…
“Is it scary? Sure, it’s both scary and exciting. Because who knows what will come of it and what responsibilities I’ll have and what things will be taken away and what I’ll lose and what I’ll gain? I mean, you don’t know until you get there.”
Madonna’s life stays interesting after her return to America. On the day she arrives in Los Angeles, the press is abuzz with the latest about Sean Penn, who has just been sentenced to sixty days in jail for punching an extra during the filming of his movie Colors and for a reckless-driving charge. Several local commentators seem downright gleeful about what they view as the actor’s comeuppance; some, in fact, urge his jailers to lock him up with dangerous criminals – an attitude that seems no less odious than Penn’s violence.
Matters grow even worse a few weeks later, when – after having won a reprieve of his jail term so that he can finish work on a new film in West Germany – Penn apparently violates his agreement with the court by turning up in New York to see his wife’s AIDS benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. Back in L.A., the city attorneys grow furious and obtain a warrant for the actor’s arrest, then quash the warrant when Penn belatedly heads for Europe to make his movie. Madonna, meantime, prefers to stay mum on the issue. “I don’t know all the details,” she says, “and I don’t want to know.”
Still, the whole affair manages to kick up several rumors – namely, that Penn’s sentencing has either saved or helped finish what has reputedly been an often tempestuous marriage. “All this talk,” says Madonna, “is heightened dramatics. We are a ‘Hollywood couple,’ so people are going to pay a lot of attention to our marriage and whether it’s going to work or not…If we have our fights, I think that’s pretty normal for young people in their first few years of marriage. It’s normal for anybody who’s married, but when you put all the pressures that we’ve had on top of that, I think the fact that we’re still together is pretty amazing You know, we’re working it out, and that’s all I can say…It’s easy to give up, but it’s not easy for me to give up.”
Amid all the hoopla about Penn, Madonna’s AIDS benefit is relatively overlooked. Shaken by the death of a good friend, artist Michael Burgoyne, and mindful that much of her initial support came from the gay, black and Latin communities – the same groups that have been hardest hit by AIDS – Madonna decided to lend her name to the cause of raising money for medical research against the deadly disease and, in the process, became the first major American pop star to stage such a large-scale fund-raiser. Not surprisingly, many of the concert’s songs, such as “Open Your Heart” and “Holiday,” take on a new resonance in the context of the event, though none is more affecting than “Live to Tell,” dedicated on this evening to Burgoyne. Indeed, the moment when Madonna pushes herself up off the stage floor and back to her feet comes across as both an act of hope and a gesture of solace in the face of terrible, fearful impossibilities. Two days later, The New York Times calls the show, “shallow, kitschy pop entertainment.” Madonna says, “There are still those people who, no matter what I do, will always think of me as a little disco tart.”
As the tour progresses, “Live to Tell” seems to take on more and more of the focus in the show. By the time she hits Los Angeles, Madonna has taken to halting in the middle of the song and gazing thoughtfully up at the large photo of herself that looms above her head. What is she thinking about while looking at her own larger-than-life image? “I see it and I say, “Oh, God, what have I done? What have I created? Is that me, or is this me, this small person standing down here on the stage?’ That’s why I call the tour Who’s That Girl: because I play a lot of characters, and every time I do a video or a song, people go, ‘Oh, that’s what she’s like.’ And I’m not like any of them. I’m all of them. I’m none of them. You know what I mean?”
© Rolling Stone