These have not been an easy two years for Madonna. Since the release of "Truth or Dare," it seems she can do little right. Proud of the film documenting her "Blonde Ambition" tour, she had granted more interviews than ever before, and familiarity bred contempt.
Even more hype surrounded the release of her "Sex" book, followed by the disappointing "Erotica" album and the critically panned 1993 film "Body of Evidence," all of which were seen as signs of her decline.
The box-office success of Penny Marshall's feel-good female baseball film "A League of Their Own," the hit singles "This Used to Be My Playground" and "I'll Remember" (which is one of her best-selling singles ever, spending 24 weeks on the Billboard charts), and the sell-out Girlie Show tour have conveniently been forgotten.
"Madonna a-gonna!" screamed the headlines when the Girlie Show tour went to Britain, and tabloid stories this year have often portrayed her as a sad, sagging figure. In the United States, a perhaps ill-judged appearance on David Letterman's late-night talk show in which the F-word was uttered more than once led to another thrashing.
The usual rescue remedy for American celebrities is the confessional: some expression of regret, followed by the public airing of a hitherto private problem, be it addiction to drink or drugs or childhood abuse. But Madonna, 36, is not up for such staged soul-searching. She isn't after the sympathy vote. Instead, she has a theory, a theory she returns to again and again as we talk.
"I'm being punished," she says in an interview in her Miami house, one of her three homes. "I'm being punished for being a single female, for having power and being rich and saying the things I say, being a sexual creature--actually, not being any different from anyone else, but just talking about it. If I were a man, I wouldn't have had any of these problems. Nobody talks about Prince's sex life, and all the women he's slept with. You have to be intelligent about that and say, 'OK, what's being said here?' I'm being punished for having a sex life. For enjoying it and for saying that I enjoy it. I really think it's that simple."
The Madonna I meet is nothing like the Madonna in her photographs: She looks younger, smaller, less imposing. Nor is she the pale, spotty, plain woman interviewers claim to have been greeted by. This Madonna has short, yellow blond hair slicked back from a very pretty face with minimal makeup: black mascara, red lipstick.
There are a couple of very fine lines on her forehead, but nothing more--probably rather less--than most people in their 30s. She is wearing a long black dress, black bra peeping fashionably out between the narrow straps, high-heeled mules, a pale blue ribbon tied 'round one ankle. She is relaxed, friendly and has a loud, open laugh.
Her house, decorated by Madonna's younger brother Christopher, is beautiful in a simple, expensive yet unostentatious way. The arched doorways are picked out in fossilized local coral, the main ceiling is paneled wood. The furniture is tasteful, minimal and comfortable: big cream sofas sprinkled with fat cushions, church candles everywhere, dark wood in the 12-seater dining room. The art on the walls is mainly 19th Century and by Charles Victoire Moench, Bouguereau and School of Tiepolo.
"I feel I've been misunderstood. I tried to make a statement about feeling good about yourself and exploring your sexuality, but people took it to mean that everyone should go out and have sex with everyone, and that I was going to be the leader of that. So I decided to leave it alone because that's what everyone ended up concentrating on. Sex is such a taboo subject and it's such a distraction that I'd rather not even offer it up."
She agrees that there is a defensiveness in some of the lyrics on her new album, "Bedtime Stories" (see review, Page 77) , particularly "Human Nature": "It's my definitive statement in regards to the incredible pay-back I've received for having the nerve to talk about the things that I did in the past few years with my 'Sex' book and my record. It's getting it off my chest. It is defensive, absolutely. But it's also sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek. And I'm not sorry. I do not apologize for any of it."
Control is the key to Madonna's appeal, and the reason why girls especially love 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 necessary. 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 has 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 recognize 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."
T he night before the interview, Madonna went out to the mall to see "Color of Night"--no bodyguards, just one friend. She says the best film she has 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 Piano."
Knowing this, her last two choices of acting roles--"Body of Evidence" and "Dangerous Game"--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" on Broadway). The director was Uli Edel, known for the art-house hits "Christiane F" and "Last Exit to Brooklyn."
"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?"
She has two projects in development right now (she is also reported to be close to signing to appear in Quentin Tarantino's next movie), 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. "I don't have the power in the film industry that I have in the music industry," she says, explaining that even though her production company Maverick produced "Dangerous Game," director Abel Ferrara had the final cut.
"From 'Dick Tracy' to 'A League of Their Own,' 'Body of Evidence' and this movie ("Dangerous Game"), I keep coming to the same conclusion: that I have to be a director. I feel like I'm constantly being double-crossed."
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. 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 (Penn) and I got divorced and he had a relationship with Robin Wright and 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 (Beatty), he started dating Annette and they started a family, and once again, it's the same thing. When was he once completely lambasted for what I'm lambasted for . . . But what can you do?"
Madonna lives in a world where every casual anecdote develops a life of its own, where every quote or flip comment in every interview has been recycled again and again in other magazines, in papers and trashy, badly written biographies. Is it hard, in these circumstances, to know who your friends are?
"It's something that happens over time. I meet lots of people and we have a lot in common and I have fun with them and stuff, and then I realize that they're not really my friends.
"There's that in every relationship I have, whether it's a friendship, a lover, someone that works for me. Any time someone comes into my circle, I immediately go, 'OK, what are their motives? What could they gain from this?' I have a whole filing system, and I watch for it. But I'm fooled sometimes, believe me--I think people have the best interests and they don't. It doesn't keep me from having friends or allowing people to get close to me, but it does add a whole other layer of anxiety to the normal ones when you're getting to know someone."
We're talking about Madonna's other life, the tabloid life. I ask if her sex life is as active and imaginative as the press seems to think. "You know the answer to that question," she says. "I don't think that I could get any work done if I was spending all that time in bed or horizontal. The idea is ludicrous. Because I talk about sex, it's assumed that I'm having sex and they're quite different."
I suggest a game: I'll tell her a "fact" that appeared in the press or on the rumor mill, she'll answer in one word, with no need to comment further. "You mean you're going to ask me if they're true or not?" she laughs, settling back into the sofa. "OK."
You're having a torrid affair with your neighbor Sylvester Stallone.
You're having a torrid affair with model Jenny Shimizu.
You pestered Hugh Grant for a date, but he turned you down.
You haven't had sex with a man for three years.
She laughs. "False."
You're about to buy a basketball team.
You were dating John Kennedy Jr. until Jackie Onassis put a stop to it.
You slept with Mick Jagger as a groupie before you were famous.
You've placed ads to find a baby to adopt.
You've had several abortions.
Warners is in serious trouble because of Maverick, the entertainment company that houses a record label, her music publishing, as well as TV, film, merchandising and book publishing divisions.
"What? Because of funding Maverick?" Another laugh. "False!"
Madonna says she still wants a child. Soon. She says she feels the clock ticking now. "Oh yes, definitely. There's anxiety." Would she bring the child up a Catholic? There's a long pause. "I don't know. I reek of Catholicism, and I'm sure that even if I didn't make it go to church, (the child) it would be influenced in a Catholic way. But I don't think it would be devoutly about being a Catholic."
How can you bring up a kid in anything like normality?
"In theory, I could probably bring up a child as normal as I can live my life. I think that I surround myself with people who don't treat me like a celebrity or a freak or whatever, and I would do the same with my child."
She's asked about speculation that she's had affairs with women. "What it boils down to is very good friends who happen to be lesbians and the public automatically assuming that I'm sleeping with them because I have this sexual image. I never bothered to say I'm not, because my attitude is, 'What if I am? Do you have a problem with it?' It's irrelevant. I'm not a lesbian, but I thought it was undignified to say so. I'm not going to say that I've never slept with a woman, but"--and here she interrupts herself with her own laughter--"I love men."
Sandra Bernhard, once Madonna's official best friend, now is so bitter that the comedienne included a version of "Erotica" in her last stage show, reworking its chorus as "Neurotic." There's a long sigh, and what follows is punctuated with long pauses, more sighs, and then reluctant spillages of words. "Ever since our friendship fell apart, I've never really spoken about it. She's spoken so much about it that I felt it would be more dignified if I said nothing. Um. And every year that goes by, I think she's finally going to be sick of talking about it. But then I just read something today. Obviously I'm still very important in her life--which is quite the opposite of what she's saying--or she wouldn't talk about me."
There's another pause. "Sandra is a brilliant woman who has a lot of talent and I had some great times with her. And in the end the reason that most friendships fall apart is envy, jealousy, those kinds of things. But I'm not going to fall into the same trap that she has and slag her off. There are a lot of instincts in me that want to, because she's said some really nasty things, but I can only tell you that there was a huge misunderstanding."
I ask if she regrets revealing so much of herself, whether she'd have been better retreating from public view as Prince and Michael Jackson did in the '80s.
"Prince's demure behavior and Michael Jackson's running away from the truth is much more revealing about them than any of the things that I've told. I could talk to you for hours and you could read all my interviews, but you'd never feel you completely knew me. That's just another thing that people do to punish me for being honest. 'How much further can she go, what more can be revealed?' Because I've taken my clothes off in public doesn't mean that I've revealed every inch of my soul."
Madonna was 25 before she released a record. She says this is important to understand. Prince signed to Warners in his teens. Michael Jackson could see himself as a cartoon on TV as a child. Madonna had 25 years to live without scrutiny.
"They isolate themselves too much," she says. "If they would just come outside and mingle with humanity, everything would benefit--their art, and whatever relationships they may have. They've made such a big deal about being secretive that now it's going to be even harder for them, because the more you say, 'I'm not going to show you, you can't see', the more everybody wants to see. It's just the way it is.
"I could never say that either of them were friends. I've spent a good deal of time with both of them. They're very different people, but I felt the same with both. I felt like a peasant next to them, like this big clumsy farm girl. Like, when I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it. And they have these manners and they're just so careful about what they eat and what they say. I had dinner with Prince once, and he was just sipping tea, very daintily. I was stuffing food down my face and I was like, 'Aren't you going to eat?' " She mimics a delicate, whispered "no." "And I thought, 'Oh my God!' I have this theory about people who don't eat. They annoy me. It's something about being in control."
But people say you don't eat.
"Honey! I have flesh. You could grab any part of my body and come up with a handful, so that's absurd. It goes with the thing that I'm lonely, I can't get a man and I'm suffering. But going back to Prince and Michael Jackson, it's never too late to start being a human being. If they could just try being something close to that, then that would be the way to . . . I mean, (forget) salvation in the public eye, I'm just talking about being happy in your private life. Just being able to go to a basketball game or for a bike ride. I can't imagine either of those guys putting on sweat pants and sneakers and going for a run, playing outside with a dog or just being silly and hanging out with your friends without your make-up on. You know what I mean? I don't think they do that."
The deals struck by Madonna and Michael Jackson at the start of the '90s are the deals most pop stars now use as a benchmark, the reason why someone like George Michael can feel that his own deal is "professional slavery." It is unclear how much either deal is worth even to those involved, as so much of it is dependent on the performance of the companies that were set up as a result. Ever since Madonna opened Maverick's plush offices in West Hollywood, there have been whispers of impending bankruptcy. Madonna herself is claiming no great successes, but says it's early yet.
The film company has so far produced one film--"Dangerous Game." "Canadian Bacon," the first feature film directed by Michael Moore ("Roger and Me"), is scheduled for release in February. Other films are in development and Madonna says Susan Sarandon has committed to one of them, "The Year of Frank Sinatra." "I love her, she's the best. It's about a mother and a child and it's a great story, and we're just trying to find the perfect director."
The TV company has yet to get anything off the ground, although it is working on several projects, one of them involving Madonna's friend, actress Rosie O'Donnell. But the music publishing company is taking off nicely, she says, and the record label is enjoying its first Top 10 album in the U.S. with the band Candlebox (the record has already sold 2 million copies). They recently supported Metallica on tour, and Madonna went to see them in Miami: "I felt like a proud mother."
The label's other success is Me'shell NdegeOcello, the singer-songwriter who contributes a rap to Madonna's new album, and whose own "Plantation Lullabies" album was one of last year's overlooked gems.
There's a theory that female icons are only really loved if they have suffered. Diana, Jackie Onassis, Marilyn Monroe. And Madonna refuses to be a victim. "Absolutely. I'm not an orphan, I wasn't sexually abused as a child, I don't let people take advantage of me, I don't drink myself into a stupor, and I'm not beholden to a man. Listen, I could cut my heart open and give people a million reasons to feel sorry for me, I haven't had an easy life. But I'm a survivor."
She plans to grow old, and she's prepared for her fame to fade. "I think what's important changes for you. For me. Your values change. I know what it's like to be incredibly famous. I know what it's like to be on top, and there are great things about it and there are horrible things about it and I know that I can never be in that place and at that time again in my life--my fame will take a different shape, a different form, and it will be what it will be. All I hope is that I will be happy in my personal life with my friends, my family and the person I'm in love with. That's the most important thing. If people are buying my records that's good, but if they're not it's not the end of the world.
"I want to be good to my body. I don't want to stay in the sun too much and eat lots of crappy food and I want to exercise because I want to stay healthy and look good for as long as possible. But I don't sit here wondering if I'll still be making videos when I'm 50. I hope that I'll have three children and that they'll be the center of my life, not being on MTV."
Will you have a face lift when the time comes?
"I've thought about it, and I can't decide if I would because I hate being put to sleep, I'm really scared. And there's that one in a million chance that they might f--- up. Then there's this other thing, which is I am what I am, take it or leave it. Look at Jack Nicholson, look at all the movie stars. They're allowed to have pot bellies and lines on their faces and that's fine. But where's Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep, who are beautiful women and great actresses and no one's giving them parts? But even women don't want to see women growing old--it's just the way we're programmed to think, and it's awful."
Months after her single "I'll Remember" went to No. 1 in America, her father called her up. He couldn't remember the title of the song, but he'd seen the video on TV, and wanted to tell her she looked nice in it. "Dad, it's been out for six months now," said his daughter, "you just saw it for the first time?" "Oh well, we don't watch much TV," he replied.
And Madonna decided not to fight him anymore, finally realizing that she wasn't going to get the pat on the head she had wanted, and realizing too that perhaps she didn't need it anymore. "I just accept it now. But before, it used to send me into rages. I'm so envious of other people whose parents are like sophisticated enough to be right there with them and understand them, but you can't have everything. It's annoying, but then because my father refuses to acknowledge who I am and what I've accomplished, it makes it easier for me to go home and be around my brothers and sisters and not feel like a freak. I think he does it on purpose so that everyone gets treated the same."*