Girl Power :: Madonna on Wallis Simpson & "W.E."
Madonna enters a suite at the Waldorf Astoria with surprisingly little fanfare - just a quick "no photos" reminder. Before long a tiny hand, sheathed in a fingerless, leather glove, is pressed into mine. "Hi, Tony," she says simply before moving onto the next journalist present at the junket for her new film "W.E."
She sizes up the room with Terminator-like precision, cutting off the first question with a blunt "Just hold on a second, who are you guys?" directed at a row of publicists seated off to the side. When they introduce themselves as the gay marketers of her film, she clarifies: "So you're not asking any questions, you're just observing?" She considers, then answers, "Okay."
Other than sweating these fine details, the 53-year-old Golden Globe-winning entertainer is on her best behavior. She apologizes for being late - she's no later than anyone expects her to be - and doesn't take on another reporter who interrupts her several times by trying to finish her sentences each time she pauses.
Catch-22 for audiences
Gone are the days of excoriating journalists with the blunt rejoinder: "That’s a stupid question." The closest she gets is a polite, "please don’t throw those tired old clichés around" when someone trots out "the queen of reinvention" label.
It almost makes one wish for a bouquet of hydrangeas. But this shapes up for another year of (oops) reinvention: this movie she’s promoting, her highly acclaimed appearance at the Super Bowl last Sunday, a new album next month and the inevitable tour, Madonna has her work cut out for her.
"W.E.," the film she directed and co-wrote (with her "Truth or Dare" director Alek Keshishian) was bought by the Weinstein Company, but after mixed reviews at this year’s Venice Film Festival, they shifted its release from a December rife with award contenders to the hinterlands of February, a not-so-prime position right on the heels of dump month.
And though it’s not as bad as its Venice notices contend, the film does present a Catch-22 for American audiences. Namely, how to introduce Wallis Simpson to a generation who might mistake the Duchess of Windsor for a distant relative of Bart Simpson while also keeping the Royals-obsessed masses interested.
A spiritual guide
Madonna’s work-around is to plop the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 into a modern day storyline centered on a Simpson obsessive named Wally, portrayed by Abbie Cornish, as she haunts the Sotheby’s auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate, which took place in 1998 New York.
"The Duchess is really Wally’s spiritual guide," Madonna explains, "even though she came from a different era where women didn’t the same kind of choices and opportunities. We as women are all raised on this fairy tale idea that no matter how many opportunities we have education-wise, our knight in shining armor is going to arrive on his beautiful white stallion and sweep us off our feet."
It’s kind of an awkward place to start, considering that Madonna began developing the picture with her now ex-second husband Guy Ritchie before Keshishian stepped in to take over and share a co-writing credit with Madonna.
"One person isn’t going to be all of those things to us," Madonna continues on her gal power rant, "ultimately we have make our own happiness and when we can own that and take responsibility for our own happiness. We can find a mate for ourselves, or whatever you want to call it. That’s certainly what the Duchess imparts to Wally and I hope I can inspire other young women to think that way with my own life and my behavior."
A fulfilling experience
And one of those young women is 30-year-old Andrea Riseborough, who turns in the film’s most riveting performance as Wallis Simpson. She describes the experience of being directed by Madonna as "I could not have enjoyed more working with her, because she’s so prepared, and every moment had to be vital and was, and that’s exactly the way that I feel about my work. We met in a very artistically complicit place. It was a really truly fulfilling experience."
"She was very helpful," Riseborough continues, "invaluable. There was no page unturned. She was so passionate about the story. She’d been working on it for ten years. So it really was just a huge labor of love, and there were so many images, quotes, anecdotes from dinner parties, deeply personal letters that we had at our disposal. It was quite wonderful."
"I first heard the story when I was in high school," Madonna says, continuing to hone in on the Simpson story as a vehicle for her feminist leanings. "In history class reading about pre-war England, but I started to really get to know the details of the story when I got married and moved to England. I felt a little bit lost and like an outsider. I felt like, ’Okay, if I’m going to make myself feel comfortable in this place I want to learn about English history.’"
The most hated woman in the world
At this point, the room stiffens as we realize she’s coming close to her rift with Ritchie (or worse, Gwyneth Paltrow), but Madonna details a London life rich in books. Starting with a bio of Henry VIII, she eventually worked her way up to Edward VIII, who married Wallis Simpson in 1937.
"He gave up the throne for the woman that he loved," Madonna states, "in between Henry and Edward, no one had done that. I wanted to understand the nature of their relationship, why he would do it? What did she have? What really took place? What it must’ve felt like for her? For him? So, that’s what started it."
She continued: "I know that Wallis Simpson moved to England at a certain point to kind of start her life all over when she married Ernest Simpson. I know she felt like an outsider for quite a long time and was treated like an outsider for the rest of her life. Once she married Edward and he gave up the throne for her, she did say, ’I will be the most hated woman in the world if you do this.’
"And she was," Madonna continues, "she received thousands of hate letters every day of her life after that event. She saw the writing on the wall and it must’ve been very painful for her. When someone gives up being king for you then you have to make him feel like a king for the rest of your life. And that’s hard, however much you must love somebody. So, I don’t think she had an easy life, but I do believe that they truly loved one another. It’s a paradoxical story."
Comparisons with Eva Peron
And those paradoxes amp up the comfort level in the room Madonna finds herself in for the first round of interviews - a room comprised largely by members of the gay press. In fact, Madonna’s longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg will text a colleague of mine later to say Madonna asked if she couldn’t just blow off the mainstream press and spend the rest of her day in "the gay room." So the gay room does what any self-respecting gay room would naturally do: we try to subtly shift the topic to "Evita."
"I think what they have in common," Madonna begins, more than game for one of the many forced identifications her film evokes (namely Madonna equals Simpson equals María Eva Duarte de Perón), "is what many people have in common who are public figures that become iconic and who have some kind of historical impact." She trails off, and then seems to remember that we’re talking Perón. "Especially women," she adds, "strong women.
"I think people have a tendency to feel intimidated by the strength of these women," Madonna continues, "and in order to deal with them a lot of people who write history books - humanity in general, really - tends to diminish women or undermine their accomplishments by portraying them as heretical."
And who’s been a bigger heretic than Madonna? "I think they have those things in common," she agrees. "Now, I’m not saying that Eva Perón was not without flaws or that Wallis Simpson was this perfect, holy human being, but I think that they were both unfairly dealt with in the history books."
Women measured differently
So, Simpson ergo Madonna? "Yeah," she laughs ruefully, "sure, of course, but I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s strong women in general." But that’s pretty basic feminist party line. Madonna goes deeper. "Why?" she asks herself, "why because..." She takes a pause and rude sentence-finisher blurts out, "Because you’re a threat to them?" The table is all eyes, waiting, hoping, for evisceration.
"No," Madonna replies calmly, "because it’s the nature of the universe. It’s the nature of the world we live in. We live in a patriarchal society and strong women have to..." she trails off again. "Challenge that?" sentence-finisher practically barks.
"No," Madonna answers back. "They’re measured in a different way. They’re held under a microscope. That’s just the law of the universe it seems right now."
And Madonna’s universe is gearing up for another of those seismic shifts in which, over the next few months, everything will be coming up Madonna: film, Superbowl, CD, new tour. Asked to describe her latest grab at world domination, she simply says, "Busy." When pressed for details, she elaborates, "It’s all too much. It’s why I’m late. I’m late for everything now."
It’s the Twist
You and Marilyn Monroe," sentence-finisher interrupts a final time. "Really?" Madonna asks, "Was she late for everything? When sentence-finisher gushes that Monroe was "notoriously late for everything," Madonna finally rolls her eyes. Someone obviously didn’t get her "patriarchy labeling strong women heretical" takeaway. He senses the gaffe and plows headlong to gush, "I love that last scene, by the way, when she gets up and does the Charleston in front of the dying Duke."
"The Twist!" Madonna corrects in a stern voice. "It was The Twist!" When asked if she can do it, she again rolls her eyes. "It’s pretty simple," she replies as she gets up to leave. Good old Madonna. She is nothing if not consistent. Her Wallis Simpson journey began with a read and ends with one too.
"W.E." is currently in limited release. It goes into wider release on Friday, February 10, 2012.
Watch the trailer to "W.E.":