The Queen and Her Subjects

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Byline: Jacob Bernstein

Who else but Madonna can identify with scorned royalty? Trying her hand as director of a lush period piece, she is candid about everything from Lady Gaga to her wayward marriage.

Madonna would rather not waste time with the pleasantries and nonsense of another junket interview. She is sitting on a sofa in a posh midtown Manhattan hotel, wearing a blue silk dress and fingerless black leather gloves, and she has just been asked, perhaps for the 50th time today, how she began making her upcoming movie.

"Not that question," she says, putting her head in her hands. "Anything but that question. Ask me what you really want to know."

It's not exactly what you expect someone will say to you two minutes into a conversation, but there's also something refreshing about her bluntness, her impatience, what Liz Smith calls her "lack of concern with being loved by people." One of the interesting things about Madonna is that although she has been offending people throughout her entire career, she seems incapable of being offended by anything--except stuff that bores her.

In February she is releasing W.E., the second movie she has written and directed. The film centers on a modern-day woman named Wally Winthrop, who's stuck in a preternaturally unhappy marriage and finds escape in the story of Wallis Simpson, the diva-licious divorcee from Baltimore who stole the heart of King Edward VIII, leading him to abdicate the throne so he could marry her. "How could any man love a woman so much he'd do that?" Winthrop wonders, only to realize over the course of the film that the great love story may not have been so great after all. Wallis and her ex-king were forced out of England. They regret everything. Simpson finds, much to her surprise, that being an appendage isn't exactly a privilege.

It is the first major piece of work Her Madgesty has released since her 2008 divorce from filmmaker Guy Ritchie. She doesn't wince or get oversensitive when asked whether this was on her mind when she made the film.

"I'd been married 10 years when I started writing it," Madonna, 53, says. "And I was certainly asking a kind of existential question that I think people ask when they've been married that long: what is the perfect love? Because when you start off, everything's great and lovely, and the person you've married is flawless, and you're flawless. Then time goes by, and you share a life, you have children, and there are cracks in the veneer. It's not as romantic as it used to be. You think, 'This isn't what I thought it was going to be,' and 'How much am I willing to sacrifice?'"

At the same time, she says, "when you get to the end of the movie, I think it's very clear they really loved each other, and that I am a romantic and that I do believe in true love."

So here we are on the cusp of Madonna's latest reinvention, but the truth is that it's not really a reinvention at all. W.E. is just another opportunity to explore the kinds of questions that have consumed her for the last decade and a half, an era in which she's transformed into a Kabbalah-devotee mom of four who is more likely to spend her day off at a Maurizio Cattelan retrospective than at an afterhours club. Madonna is still obsessed with sex, power, and fame, only now she's approaching those topics from a slightly different vantage point.

For one thing, she makes it very clear that she relates to Simpson, a woman she believes was "misunderstood on a global scale." (Insert irony here.) Also, the film is about a question near and dear to her celebrity heart: is love ever worth more than power? Moreover, the duchess appeals to Madonna's inner drag queen--her fascination with a particular subset of iconic women, from Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich to Eva Peron, whose eternal celebrity personas inhabit all manner of sexual territory. …