“My other way of thinking is that I’ve come this far in my life, and I know I’m a survivor. I have a guardian angel or someone protecting me. I moved to New York when I was 17 and I had nothing until I was 25. If no one fucked with me then, they’re not going to fuck with me now. I see someone like Eddie Murphy walk into a nightclub and they’ve got like 20 bodyguards and I just think that’s like driving a big fancy car. It’s showing off. It’s got nothing to do with security.
“There are ways to deal with it, if I can accept that my celebrity is this other reality, this parallel universe outside of me. It’s kind of like this big pet that I carry around with me everywhere — I know it’s there and I can laugh about it and try and live as normal a life as possible.”
The next film Madonna wants to see is Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. She doesn’t like action movies, the big Hollywood blockbusters. The best film she’s seen recently is Spanking The Monkey, an independent film that was a hit at the Sundance Festival. Before that, the last one she really loved was The Plano. Knowing this, her last two choices of acting roles make more sense. Both must have looked great on paper.
Her co-stars in Body Of Evidence were Willem Dafoe and Joe Mantegna, both acclaimed actors (Madonna had already worked with Mantegna in David Mamet’s play Speed The Plow). The director was Uli Edel, known for the arthouse hits Christiane F and Last Exit To Brooklyn. The story – about a woman who may or may not have deliberately killed her rich, ageing lover with adventurous S&M sex – appealed to Madonna, and she liked the twists in the plot that left you guessing. But in the last week of shooting, the ending was changed. Originally, at the end of a courtroom drama, her character got off in spite of her guilt. In the final version, she has to pay anyway, flying out of a window in a hail of bullets. “I fought it every step of the way,” she says. “But I had no control. Woman who has sex must die: that is the theme of that movie, but it wasn’t that way to begin with.”
I first saw the film in a small preview theatre full of critics who tittered at her more wooden moments. The men also shifted bags and coats on to their laps during the sex scenes, but they didn’t write about that. What they wrote was that Madonna was awful. She isn’t particularly good in it. But what’s more noticeable watching it again now is that her more experienced co-stars aren’t any good either, that the director is making an inept try at a mainstream erotic thriller, and failing his cast badly. “I’m disappointed in it,” admits Madonna, “but I’m not sorry I did it. I think I did a good job. But I got the blame for everything. It was like I wrote it, produced it, directed it, and I was the only one acting in it, you know?”
Her next film, Dangerous Game, was produced by her own company Maverick, and again had a strong team: Abel Ferrara and Harvey Rebel, fresh from their success with The Bad Lieutenant. Again though, Madonna plays the victim: a bimbo TV actress who sleeps with the director (Keitel) and the lead actor (James Russo) during the film she is making, which in turn is about a wife battered and finally murdered as her relationship with her husband breaks down. Making a film about the making of a film gives Ferrara lots of space for textual jokes: as the director, Keitel gets to shout at Madonna, telling her that she can’t act, that she’s a commercial piece of shit, that she’s only in the movie because they need her money. I wonder why she subjected herself to this, and she insists that she didn’t.
“In the original film, I turn it around,” she says, explaining that in the script her actress character manipulates both director and actor, destroying their De Niro Scorcese type friendship, and emerges a new star. “I know a lot of people have that point of view about me in real life, so I thought I could take that and do a great performance. It was going to be this great thing for me. And even though it’s a shit movie and I hate it, I am good in it.” For once, many of those who’ve seen it agree: the film is a mess, but Madonna is convincing.
She has two projects in development right now, both being written specially for her. Avoiding specifics until they’re nearer completion, all she’ll say is that she’s being very, very careful, and will make sure this time that the director agrees with her ideas. “I don’t have the power in the film industry that I have in the music industry,” she says, explaining that even though Maverick produced Dangerous Game, Ferrara had the final cut. “The director is the one in control, and everyone else is a pawn for them. You have control over your performance when the camera is going, but you can take that performance in the editing room and completely change the character. That’s what happened to me with Abel. Because it was an entirely different movie when I made it — it was such a great feminist statement and she was so victorious at the end. I loved this character.
“But the way he edited it, he completely changed the ending. He had me killed, which was never supposed to be, and lie edited out all the brilliant things that I said telling Harvey and James’s characters to fuck off. He took my words off me and turned me into a deaf mute, basically. When I saw the cut film, I was weeping. It was like someone punched me in the stomach. He turned it into The Bad Director. He’s so far up Harvey Keitel’s ass, it had become a different movie. If I’d have known that was the movie I was making, I would never have done it, and I was very honest with him about that. He really fucked me over. So c’est la vie. This is all happening for a reason. From Dick Tracy to A League Of Their Own, Body Of Evidence and this movie, I keep coming to the same conclusion: that I have to be a director. I feel like I’m constantly being double-crossed.”
Control is the key to Madonna’s appeal, and the reason why girls especially loved her. At a time when feminism seemed to be asking women to choose between pleasure or progress, Madonna came along and said you could have it all: power, sex, glamour, money. Guilt was not neccessary. Still, she says, women have also been her most vocal critics. “There’s a whole generation of women — Courtney Love, Liz Phair, even Sandra Bernhard to a certain extent — who cannot bring themselves to say anything positive about me even though I’ve opened the door for them, paved the road for them to be more outspoken. Some of Liz Phair’s lyrics are blatantly sexual, and if I said those things, they would be viewed in quite a different way. But she’s just started her career, so she’s not as intimidating. She doesn’t have the power I have, so people are amused by it. But none of these women would want to recognise that. In fact, they slag me off any time anybody asks what they think of me or compare them to me. It’s kind of like what a child does to their parent, they denounce you. They want to kill you off because they want their independence from you.”
And as Madonna gets older, it also becomes apparent that, for the moment at least, she hasn’t got it all. The picture painted is of a lonely, sad figure (not true, says Madonna — the love songs on the new album are to specific people, although she won’t say who in case their egos get out of control). Her relationships are subjected to the intense scrutiny her celebrity invites, and when they end, the media find it hard to conceal their pleasure. “When Sean and I got divorced and he had a relationship with Robin Wright and immediately started having children, I was forever reading stuff about how she was such a nice, sweet person and he seemed so much more happy. You know, how he’s finally found a virtuous woman to be with. They do love to pump that up. Then I broke up with Warren, he started dating Annette and they started a family, and once again, it’s the same thing. When he was once completely lambasted for what I’m lambasted for. But what can you do?”