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Madonna Interview : Vanity Fair

Madonna - Vanity Fair / April 1990

When an executive in the music business was told that another story about Madonna was in the works, he grinned knowingly, then moaned, “There certainly is a lot of ink about her.” There certainly is a whole lot of ink about her. As songstress, temptress, and titan, Madonna has not only taken the stereotypes that have kept women trapped in their cultural roles and used them to her own advantage, but has also turned them upside down and shrewdly capitalized them. “Boy—Toy is for my music,” she states, referring to her first enterprise. “Siren is my film company, And Slutco is for my videos.”
Slutco: it is the perfect moniker for someone who is always letting us in on the vulgar joke. It shows that her savvy sense of business is more than matched by her savvy sense of humor. “There is a wink behind everything I do,” she says. Madonna is more than a celebrity: she is that perfect hybrid that personifies the decadently greedy, selfishly sexual decade that spawned her — a corporation in the form of flesh.
Although she’s made $90 million in the last four years and is the president of each of her companies, she doesn’t like to talk about business, and it irks her even to be thought of in those terms.
“The public shouldn’t think about this,” she flares. “Part of the reason I’m successful is because I’m a good businesswoman, but I don’t think it is necessary for people to know that. All that means is that I’m in charge of everything that comes out.” Does anybody ever say no to the boss? “God! People say no to me all the time, but I guess the balance is tipped in the yes direction. If they do say no, you can be sure there will be a tantrum to follow.”
There is no tantrum, however, if others meet the high standards she sets for herself. “I sleep a certain number of hours every night,” she says. “Then I like to get up and get on with it. I set aside the three hours I have to make phone calls and do business. Then I set aside the hours I have to exercise. Then I set aside the hours for creativity.”
Hours set aside for creativity? “Yes, I can summon my creativity,” she says flatly.
It seems as if she treats that creativity as if it were just another of her employees. When pressed, she admits to being directly responsible for hundreds of jobs. Comfortable with her cultural power, she is equally at home with the day-to-day sort. “It’s a great feeling to be powerful. I’ve been striving for it all my life. I think that’s just the quest of every human being: power. There’s a constant struggle for power in a relationship too — no matter what. Even if you achieve it for a while, somebody else gets it for a while. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t know any other way. I’m not interested in anyone I can’t compete with. There’s got to be that fight.”
Madonna hires handsome young men to dance behind her and play music behind her and even garden behind ber, but all her important employees are women. Dawn Steel, the only woman to head a major motion-picture company when she was president of Columbia Pictures and still Hollywood’s most respected (and feared) female executive, is not surprised by Madonna’s genderstaffing. “She is a real girl’s girl,” Steel insists. “Usually women are their own worst enemies. She’s not threatened by other women. She’s completely open and honest.”
Throughout Madonna’s career, many have criticized her for her co-option of and reliance on man-made female images. But Madonna has a theory for those who misunderstand. “It has nothing to do with whether I am a man or a woman. I think I am a sexual threat, and I think, if anything, there is a prejudice against that. I think that it is easier for people to embrace people who don’t frighten them and poke at their insides and make them think about their own sexuality. I don’t do things because I may be afraid of what people might think. The thing about me is what you see is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. That may explain my longevity.”
Whatever the reasons for her staying power, intense political debates have been sparked by her vixen-as-victim poses, serious essays written about her role as a creature of our culture. Feminists who admire women with wills of politically correct iron have failed to recognize a woman with true power – one with a will of politically correct irony. “It’s flattering to me that people take the time to analyze me and that I’ve so infiltrated their psyches that they have to inteliectualize my very being. I’d rather be on their minds than off,” she says. “I guess I just have a sense of mischievousness. I never want to hit something on the head. I never want to present A as A. You can take what I do at surface value or you can go underneath the surface. I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, which is releasing this summer’s Dick Tracy, starring Beatty in the title role and Madonna as one of his love interests, Breathless Mahoney, is amazed by Madonna’s ability to synergize her assets. “She has a very secure sense of her life and her business. As far as I can tell she’s always had a vision of exactly who she is – whether as an actress or a performer or a lyricist or a music producer or a businesswoman. And she’s also had a
strong enough sense of it to balance it all.
She’s always evolving; she never stands still. Every two years she comes up with a new look, a new way of presenting herself, a new attitude, a new act, a new design. And every time it’s successful. There is this constant… genesis. When something like that happens once, O.K., maybe it’s luck. Twice is a coincidence. Three times it’s just remarkabie talent. A kind of genius. And Madonna’s on her fifth or sixth time.”
Her own theory: “It comes from a rebelliousness and a desire to fuck with people.”
“I’m a really disciplined person,” Madonna says in her most disciplined voice. She could also be talking about Beatty. He invites me up to his Beverly Hills editing room, where he is busy working on Dick Tracy – although it is Super Bowl Sunday, the weather is Southern California perfect, and the movie isn’t scheduled to be released until June. Even if Madonna’s relationship with Beatty is akin to her own interpretation of the now kaput Kim Basinger — Prince affair (“They make an interesting couple. If it’s not real, they’re sure working it good”), the fact that Beatty, the most private of stars, has agreed to make any sort of public statements about Madonna attests to his affection for her.
“Listen — how can you say I’m a private person if I’m in show business?”
Beatty asks, surrounded by giant posters from past Dick Tracy movies on the walls of his Spartan office. “Just because I conduct myself in a particular way, you couldn’t straight-facedly call me a private person. I’ve had a lot of years of it whatever this is — and I just feel in the years I did give interviews, which was a hell of a long time ago… when I said something it would be taken out of context or magnified in such a way so that if I ever said anything about another person I had immediately invaded their privacy and made some sort of comment about them that would affect my relationship with them and so I just don’t do it.”
“Warren understands the bullshit” is the way Madonna puts it. “He’s been an icon for years. He’s had a lot more practice at it than I have. Obviously somebody who hasn’t experienced it would be more threatened by my fame than he is. You can’t understand being hugely famous until it happens and then it’s too late to decide if you want it or not. Warren’s been a sex symbol for so long he’s just not surprised by anything.”
Madonna’s own attitude toward the press is more fatalistic than Beatty’s. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem bitter about the rash of sordid headlines that accompanied her breakup with Sean Penn. “In a way, I asked for it. When I started out with Sean I broadcast our relationship. But if you do that — if you advertise anything, whether it’s a movie or anything – then it’s up for public scrutiny.”
Though she has toughened her hide against the public headlines, she is still coming to grips with the private details that caused them. When finally speaking about her time with Sean, the famous fuck-you smolder in her eyes is replaced by a you-fuck sadness. “The first date I went on with my husband” – she blushes, realizing her mistake — “my ex—husband, he brought me to Warren’s house. It was an auspicious evening. I met my friends Sandra Bernhard and Warren Beatty on the same evening on my first date with Sean. He was introducing me to all his friends. Basically, he was friends with Warren, not me.”
Next to her mother’s death, her divorce from Penn must have been the most tragic event in her successful life. “I went through a period when I felt like a total failure — as any good Catholic girl would. But I’m over it now. I don’t feel like a failure anymore. I just feel sad. Every once in a while at night I’ll wake up and go, ‘My God! I was married once. I was married and he was the love of my life.’ It is like a death to deal with. It’s very, very difficult.”
Are she and Sean able to see each other? Tears well up in her eyes at the question. “No. No. It’s too painful, It’s horrible.” She quickly gives the tears the back of her hand and tries to regain her composure by laughing away the moment.
“I hope someday we can be friends again. Time heals everything. It’s kind of schlocky to believe that, but I think it’s true. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore. It goes into another compartment.” Again her eyes fill with tears. “But there was that year when every time you turn the radio on or see a color or experience a smell it reminds you… and you just crumble.”
The juxtaposition of Madonna’s uncensored honesty with Beatty’s self-censored sort is an interesting amalgam. Careful not to say anything that can be misinterpreted, he nervously — and sweetly — tries to limit his comments about Madonna to the professional sphere. “I think Madonna has energy, beauty, humor, talent, intelligence. And I think the most surprising thing about her after I had worked with her was to see the level of diligence that she has. She really works hard.”
Does her Breathless seduce his Dick? Beatty laughs. “It’s an attempted seduction. I think that he’s very tempted. It’s ‘The Last Temptation of Dick Tracy.'”
For her part, Madonna loved working with Beatty. She also learned from him. “I think you want the approval of anybody you’re having a relationship with, and even if I wasn’t with Warren I would want his approval because he’s a brilliant guy. I think 75 percent of the country wants Warren Beatty’s approval.”
“Probably 35 percent have had it.”
“Have had his approval or had him?” she grins.
“Him.”
“Oh, probably seventy-five percent have had him.” she laughs.
Does that matter to her?
“I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t. Sometimes I think, He’s been with the world’s most beautiful, most glamorous, talented women, I go, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God’ That’s one part of me. I mean, how can I ever be as fabulous as Brigitte Bardot when she was twenty—five. Or Natalie Wood. Or any of those people. Then there is the other side of me that says I’m better than all of them.”
Beatty seems to have more respect for her than she has for herself. “I don’t know that there are many people who can do as many things as Madonna can do as well. People who are in a positive frame of mind, who bring as much energy and willingness to work as Madonna does.
She has, in this respect, a real healthy humility about the theater. I think this is a prime requisite to be able to function in theater — or, actually, in art.” What does he think of her artistic forays into androgynous sexuality? “Well, I think she’s courageous in the areas that she explores artistically. I think that’s what she wants to explore. If you mean what do I think are the resonances of that or the personal motivations for that, I don’t know that I would address myself to that.” Back to business: “Off the top of my head, her generous spirit would be the thing I think that informs her work the most. As she goes on she will gain the artistic respect that she already deserves.”
As their relationship goes on, will it too gain respect?
“That depends on what mood I’m in,” Madonna teases. “Sometimes I’m cynical and pragmatic and think it will last as long as it lasts. Then I have moments when I’m really romantic and I think, We’re just perfect together. He’s just past so much bullshit. He has an outlook on life, an overview, that I don’t have, and I think that makes for something that will last.”
Is he a father figure for her? “Sure. Definitely. He’s very protective. He’s not easily shocked, either — which is great — by the things that have happened to me. He’s just been through so much that in a way it’s comforting.”
Any last words from Beatty?
“She’s no accident.”