I Lost My Memory in Hollywood: Madonna’s Career in the Cinema and W.E.

History is neither convenient nor pretty. Unfortunately, in Madonna’s new film W.E. (2011) it is both. While various articles and interviews with the writer-director reference the fact that she intends W.E. to be a modern love story cradled within the soft bed of historical fascination, the film actually ends up settling itself somewhere between historical revisionism and the romanticism of domestic violence.

The story of Wallis Simpson and Edward, Prince of Wales is rather fascinating. However, the film would be a great deal more intriguing had Madonna been less interested in using it as an analogy for her own life and more interested in letting history speak for itself. It seems rather doubtful that Madonna would like to involve Nazism in a loosely veiled analogy about her own existence, so she conveniently disregards it and then fervently denies it to be a part of the historical scenario.

Wallis Simpson and her royal husband did consort with Nazis. This is a fact. While Madonna would love to argue that it was just a “brief meeting” or two (as discussed in the film), this is historically not the case and makes the film greatly problematic. Our heroine and her lover are not the “innocent victims of chance” that we have been told that they are.

It is troubling to me that Madonna’s denial of the couple’s historically proven associations is so strong. It seems that within the context of W.E., she so intently focuses on the storyline of the contemporary investigative figure (Abbie Cornish) that all else falls to the wayside. The film does not concentrate on history but on the revelations of hidden “inner truths” about the “original Wally,” who is exposed by the mirrored-and-modernized “new Wally.” Realistically, this just looks bad for Madonna. It simply looks like she wants to have a locale to “defend” herself from. W.E. appears to be simply another venue through which she, using a very thinly-veiled fictional disguise, can engage a mass audience in a new rhetoric of personality discourse.

Quantitatively more disturbing than the re-working of history in W.E. is the substantial amount of domestic violence that the film portrays. I’m not a weak-stomached viewer by any stretch of the imagination, and I have no problems with physical violence exacted on any character in a film, as long as it seems reasonable and not gratuitous. Please believe me when I say that my scale is extremely elastic, erring on the side of “I enjoy crime and horror cinema, and many things made in the ’70s.” For a film that is supposed to be, for all intents and purposes, a period-piece love story, the domestic and physical violence towards women is not only unnecessary but exploitative.

Madonna, what happened? Your films have always had at least a little bit of fun in them or a bit of cultural value. W.E. has neither and is, in fact, more damaging! While the film is exceptional in its fashion sense (no one should be surprised at that one; we all remember Jean Paul Gaultier!) and is cinematically stunning to look at (a visual aesthete you have always been, my dear), the only other thing that can reasonably be said for the film is that it is a great coup for moving image archives because they make a good profit and show Hollywood how they can be properly utilized in a cinematic product.

If you look at Madonna’s history, she has participated in some of the more revolutionary pop-performance movements within the last thirty years, and, while not every film she has been in has been “hit” work, her roles within the films have generally been fairly decent. I will readily admit that liking Madonna comes with being female and in my thirties. I signed up for that club when one of my first cassette tapes was Like A Virgin (1984) and the first thing I ever attempted (unsuccessfully) to shoplift as a kid was True Blue (1986). As an adult (especially one who is cinematically inclined), my attraction to the artist-formerly-known-as-the-Material Girl hasn’t changed. There are many things about her that I still find to be incredibly dynamic and powerful, especially performance-wise, which is why W.E. is especially disappointing. I believe that she is smarter than she appears in the film, and her irresponsibility is something that I find rather depressing.

In a day and age when Madonna performs with eunuchs, mythological figures, pom-pon girls, and a choir at the halftime show at the Super Bowl, perhaps we should not be surprised that her career has taken such epically surreal proportions. While her performance work always takes on a Buñuelian flair in its criticism of religion (primarily the Catholic church, but that criticism has dissipated as her attraction to Kabbalah has grown), it also tends to look at sexual repression and class structure, especially that of the middle and lower classes (themes Buñuel also studies heavily, albeit in a more male-dominated structural setting). Unlike Buñuel, however, her work, in following her own ego, is absurd and nonsensical, whereas his work is absurd in its streamlined politics.

But this wasn’t always the way. I remember Mama. Oh yes, I most certainly do. A single frame of her singing “Gambler” in Vision Quest (1985) sends you right back to Madonna-square one, a place where she is not the bizarre ego-laden “mistress of Maverick” whom she is today. While I cannot deny the quality of her current music, there is something monopolistic about an artist who feels the necessity to have an album, film, and Super Bowl-performance all drop in the same week. When I saw Vision Quest the first time, her dynamic physicality exploded onto the screen. She was not the most exquisitely beautiful woman, and I found that enticing. Instead, she was powerful. Alone on the stage, dancing for the brief few seconds that the camera held her, with her 80s’ clothes and make-up, reveling in her own world, her simple, clear voice filling my ears. That first song faded and went to “Crazy For You”—a song that I still love to this day (the soundtrack, in general, remains one of the all-time-greats!).

Madonna didn’t stop at performances that year. In fact, she acted in a film that is as relevant today as it was back in 1985. Perhaps the public bathrooms in NYC have made a few “changes” over the years, but the kind of feminist issues that Rosanna Arquette struggles with in Desperately Seeking Susan(1985) have stayed more or less the same for the last twenty-plus years. Madonna’s role as Susan, the bohemian NYC “punk rawk gal,” fits her like a glove. It almost seems that Seidelman modeled it after her, even though the actress who was originally supposed to play the part was Goldie Hawn! Desperately Seeking Susan is a film that, while best known for reaching a semi-cult “80s’ movie” status, is worthy of a higher level of critical acclaim. Female-written, female-directed, and female-produced, the film is a fairly notable achievement in the history of women in cinema. Madonna’s involvement in this film only strengthens it because her own power in the industry helped lead to its production and because her songs appear on the soundtrack.

At the time, Madonna really was Susan. Wild and loose, she was all the things that Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta was not. She was a representative of what a woman could be if she would just (excuse the intentional pun) “express herself.” In 1985, this was Madonna. Seidelman’s use of her in a filmic context is exceptionally shrewd. Madonna’s multi-media identity explodes the themes of the film sky-high. Madonna, no business idiot, knew that her participation in a film that would work on both her visual and aural-exposure levels would work wonders for her career. Her role in Desperately Seeking Susan placed her on a map independently from the men she became involved with soon after. Within this space, it was the real Madonna, and it is probably her best work to date.

Desperately Seeking Susan, while made in the 1980s, is a work that modernized the screwball comedy and women’s film and does so in a skilled and subversive manner. Madonna’s participation in this film likely led to her desire to act in Who’s That Girl (1987), a film that does a bit of genre “updating.” While not a remake, Who’s That Girl is a soft-shoe “retelling” of the 1938 Howard Hawks’s film Bringing Up Baby. Madonna, as the Katharine Hepburn character, modernizes the character using her pop-culture icon status, and the 1980s’ context differentiates it enough from the original piece to let it stand on its own. While many people may not feel that the film is “high caliber” or a great piece of cinema, Who’s That Girl reconstructs ideas of screwball comedy using the “pop persona.” Screwball comedy itself is a somewhat complex form of theatricality that hinges upon the performance abilities of the individuals engaging the text. Who’s That Girl is really the story and the narrative, and the engagement is all based upon the interplay of Madonna and Griffin Dunne, a couple who play off the fact that it is indeed Madonna and a straight man. While it opened to horrible reviews and the film could never meet Hawksian levels, the intent of the film itself hits its mark.

On a more basic level, her work in films like Dick Tracy (1990) introduced an entire generation of kids to a genre of music they had likely never heard. By “sexifying” the music up a bit, and making the character of Breathless Mahoney into something real and tangible, the songs themselves become real and tangible. That soundtrack, full of songs that could not have been further from Madonna’s style at the time, make her a pretty penny that year and serve as an additional character in the film itself. What might have previously been a straight-up comic book adaptation becomes a comic-book adaptation and musical! A great way to see if an actor is right for a role is to see if you could imagine anyone else playing that part and really making it come alive: Madonna just is Breathless Mahoney.

Madonna has had a fruitful film career. Her music video collection is equally as amazing and cinematically stunning, but that deserves its own piece altogether. She has always had a fierce loyalty and devotion to what is aesthetically pleasing and aurally gratifying. Thus, her most recent incarnation in W.E. (as we know, she has had many) is exceptionally disappointing—a woman who finds it necessary to defend her past to a public (and a massive group of fans) that has been accepting and indulging her many successes and failures for years. As someone who has both loved her work and found some of it to be insufferable, her most recent attempt actually saddens me, a feeling worse than love or dislike.

No, I did not watch the Super Bowl. But I do honestly hope that somewhere up above, a group of surrealist artists and filmmakers sat around watching the game, eating heavenly hot wings, and thinking that it’s the sheep’s eyeballs.

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  1. Marc Edward Heuck

    Dick Clark: "We are a couple of weeks into the new year…what do you hope will happen, not just for 1984, but for the rest of your professional life?"

    Madonna: "To rule the world."

    Great piece! Good job.

  2. This is the piece my daughter wrote after we saw W/E. Spot on and very well written. Naches for Mom

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