“I wanted to change my clothes,” she tells me determinedly. “You wait for things to cool off. You wait for your image not to be plastered up everywhere. It goes in cycles. If you’ve got a product, you promote it.” And then again: “Obviously, if you spend a couple of years wearing lots of layers of clothes and tons of jewelry and it just takes you forever to get dressed and your hair is long and crazy, then you get the urge to take it all off and strip yourself down and cut your hair all off just for a relief. Everybody does that, you know?”
Everybody doesn’t have to go as far as she does, however, in her bid to become Myth America. A product promoted that strongly can only be replaced with something equally powerful. Threatened with self-image immolation, Madonna conjured one of the icons that had fascinated her pre-teen years in the Midwest, the one that shared her beauty mark and her bleach job, the most potent image of stardom in the post-Warhol world. Marilyn. (Others had already invoked Monroe — Debbie Harry, for instance, and that weird English boy who called himself Marilyn.) Madonna’s re-enactment in her “Material Girl” video of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was knowing, defiant, and successful.
The subsequent transformation must have been self-inspired; no one manipulates Madonna. “It was Madonna’s idea,” confirms “Material Girl” producer Simon Fields. “She loves Marilyn.” So much so, apparently, that the National Enquirer ran a story about Madonna (b. 1958) believing she was a reincarnation of Marilyn (d. 1962). Madonna calls that the best lie she’s ever read about herself. Whatever, throughout our conversations, each time Monroe came up, defensive blue-green eyes challenged me to dare again to state the obvious.
“This gal has control over her own destiny that Marilyn never did,” says Arnold Newman, an acquaintance and photographer of Monroe. “She reminds me more of Streisand in her determination.” The Barbra comparison may come out of left field, but the point about Madonna’s self-determination rings true.
“I think she does a lot of homework,” says Kevin Dornan, who did her costumes for the Lincoln Center workshop of David Rabe’s Goose and Tomtom. “She’s consciously trying to evoke her idols, but she’s enough of a star to fit each style and make it her own. She goes about it very methodically.”
Ever since “Material Girl,” Madonna has been shuffling looks like playing cards, a Judy Holliday – Lana Turner gangster’s moll in Goose and Tomtom, a Deborah Kerr – Veronica Lake missionary sinking in the swamp of Shanghai Surprise, a knocked-up blue-collar Italian Jean Seberg in the “Papa Don’t Preach” video. She had a gown previously worn by Sophia Loren flown in specially from the West Coast for the Vanity Fair photo session. But she wouldn’t try on Catherine Deneuve’s 1964 Chanel suit that the-stylist had discovered. “It’s not me,” she said.
Observes Bill Travilla, who designed Marilyn’s costumes in eleven films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “She’s searching for herself.”
Madonna thinks she’s found herself. “I’m aware of the messages I’m sending out,” she says. “People are more aware that I have a brain in my head and a head on my shoulders and I am in control of myself and I have a sense of humor.”
She’ll need the latter for the one role that’s giving her the most difficulty, that of Mrs. Sean Penn. If she’s intent on making herself into one of those mythic beauties, he’s dead set on something in the James Dean – Ernest Hemingway mold—truculent, brooding, hard-drinking. She says she was first attracted to the baddest young dude in Tinseltown because he seemed “reckless, adventurous.” They shared the same juvenile-lead cockiness. Now, as she grows up, cynical observers have already started to question his usefulness and versatility as a style accessory. When he took to spitting on photographers, each expectoration splashed his wife’s once only tactically tarnished image. Of their recent joint ventures, Shanghai Surprise continued his string of bombs. And when the press was banned from Goose and Tomtom, word nonetheless leaked: only Madonna was mesmerizing. A star is born?