Surface image aside, there is within this alliance no shortage of contradiction: for starters, we have a major gay icon conjoining with a filmmaker whose work has drawn accusations of homophobia. And then there are — to borrow Christopher Hitchens’s coin-age—the Anglo-American ironies.
With Guy Ritchie, the Michigan-born, Italianate, council-estate-hating Madonna gains Cool Britannia moxie with a light underworld patina and an underlying Anglo-Saxon solidity. Ritchie is known primarily as the writer-director of two British hits (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) that slicked up the Cockney-gangster genre for the MTV generation. He is also the mildly errant, late-blooming son of a military family of good blood and good bone, a man who worked his media-world connections with Madonna-esque vigor on his rapid rise from pop-video director to movie director. (Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, was an acquaintance of Ritchie’s fa-ther when she became the lead investor in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.)
At the Beverly Hills house, Ritchie occupies an uncluttered office on the far side of Madonna’s swimming pool, beside a garage filled with industrial-strength gym equipment. He toils away beneath a portrait of the Queen. “For kitsch value,” says Ritchie in a soft-edged accent that has none of the downwardly mobile Cockney torque I heard three years ago when interviewing him about his first movie.
And now they’re trying to work together! When Madonna and Ritchie’s actor friend Steven Weber suggested that they redo Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 art-house staple, Swept Away, Madonna remembered the film instantly from her 18 months at the University of Michigan, where she imbibed weekly of classic European film: Visconti, Pasolini, Bunuel, English “kitchen sink” dramas. Ritchie does not, by any stretch, share that cinematic vocabulary.
“Guy has a tendency to like action films that are well made, even if the scripts are cheesy,” says Madonna with an indulgent roll of the eyes. “You know … boys’ movies. I tend to like, well, he calls them ‘artsy-fartsy movies: I couldn’t get him to sit through a Fellini movie — put it like that.”
When Madonna discovered that Ritchie’s cinematic education had somehow skipped It’s A Wonderful Life, she screened it for him. “I always weep when I watch the movie,” she says. “And he was crying, too — so I was like, ‘Yes!'”
Madonna hoped that her husband might also embrace Swept Away, a film about a jaded rich-bitch (played by the fine-featured Mariangela Melato) who, during a Mediterranean cruise, gets washed up on a desert island with a swarthy deckhand (hirsute, doe-eyed Giancarlo Giannini) whom she has been systematically terrorizing. When these antagonists are forced to live off the land, the power dynamic between them shifts – he flips her both figuratively and literally. Love blooms on the island, to be tested when the couple are rescued.
“Guy loved the film after he got past the first 20 minutes,” Madonna notes with some relief. “At first he was like, ‘I can’t watch this — it’s too complicated, and the subtitles are giving me a headache.’ But as soon as they got to the island, he tuned in.”
So began a spousal collaboration that last year took Madonna, Ritchie, and off-spring on a two-month location shoot to Malta and Sardinia. Star and director maintain that working together was every bit as easy as living together. They fell out of step only during lunch breaks, when Ritchie would compete with crew-member buddies at speed chess, jujitsu, and off-boat diving contests.
“I couldn’t get involved,” explains Madonna. “I had a bouffant hairdo and all this tan makeup. Guy is a bit hyperactive, like my son — he’s very competitive. Sometimes it’s good to expend some energy.”
The original Swept Away is a parable about class struggle. In translating it, Ritchie turned the female lead from Northern Italian blonde to jaded American jet-setter and skimmed off the politics by replacing her far-right tirades and intra-racial insults with comfort-deprived whining that recalls Goldie Hawn in the 1987 comedy Overboard. When it came to the physical violence inflicted upon Amber, Madonna’s character, by dockhand Giuseppe (played by Adrian Giannini, son of Swept Away’s original star), a British test screening gave Ritchie pause. “I attempted a quarter of what they got away with in the original, and there’s no way an audience would stomach it,” says Ritchie. “You can kill as many people as you like, but don’t slap a bird.” Ritchie also dropped his new title, Love, Sex, Drugs and Money.
Those who remember the original Swept Away, will also note the absence in Ritchie’s version of a memorable line, uttered by the female lead as she succumbs to proletarian love: “Sodomiza m!” she whispers, repeatedly. Her new lover asks her to explain the request, this dismisses it as decadent.
“I just didn’t think anyone could stomach it,” says Ritchie. “Maybe at the time, when people were more into sodomy. But buggery is no longer in fashion like it used to be.”