James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough in W.E./Image © The Weinstein Co.
It is specious to presume that just because America lacks a monarchy proper that there isn’t royal protocol. This is evidenced when Madonna enters a suite at the Waldorf Astoria wearing royal blue Vionnet couture paired with beat-up, fingerless leather gloves to discuss her latest film, “W.E.,” and the phalanx of publicists in the room hop to their feet. As they’re positioned behind me, this part of the ceremony escapes me and I remain seated. Later, after recounting the gaffe to a friend, he replies, “Oh please, it’s not like she’s the president.” This falsehood hangs in the air for a moment and we soon agree that, actually, she is our Madame President. And like our commander-in-chief, Madonna has her work cut out for her.
This is Madonna’s first stop in a campaign year that also includes a Super Bowl halftime performance in February and a new album in March, but the juggernaut is definitely front-loaded by a film that’s got to be the hardest sell of the Golden Globe winner’s thirty-year career. “W.E.” is two films, actually. The first is a fascinating, Merchant Ivory-ish take on notorious American Wallis Simpson – played ably here by Andrea Riseborough – a climber who became the Duchess of Windsor after King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry her in 1937. The second film is like a framing device run amok. Imagine Gloria Stuart, the old woman with the necklace at the top of “Titanic,” gobbling up half that film’s runtime instead of just appearing briefly to bookend its open and close.
The decidedly b-plot tracks two New Yorkers, an Upper East Side Simpson obsessive – a wooden Abbie Cornish – and a Ukrainian security guard – the infinitely watchable Oscar Isaac – who falls for her while policing the 1998 estate sale of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s personal effects at Sotheby’s. This double helix never quite fuses, begging the question: Why not just film a biography of Simpson? It’s a query that’s hounded “W.E.” since its Venice Film Festival debut last summer, where Madonna received a thunderous, eight-minute ovation – if she’s our president, she’s their pope – but the film itself was jeered.
“I wasn’t interested in making a straightforward biopic,” Madonna says. “I don’t think it’s possible to tell the story of one person from beginning to end in two hours. That’s actually an unfair challenge to give oneself.” Perhaps she’s right. Even her own unauthorized television biopic, 1994′s “Madonna: Innocence Lost,” only purported to cover the early years of her music career. “Each of us could read the same five books about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” she continues, “and we would walk away with a different interpretation so I never intended to just tell the story of Wallis Simpson.” Even her research was nontraditional: She waded through the reams written about Simpson, but also qualifies “little gems like this note we found in a handbag that was auctioned off twenty years ago” as part of her investigation.
Indeed, Simpson is less a subject and more an obsession for the fifty-three-year-old entertainer. Madonna was keen on Simpson in her high school history classes, but the Duchess eventually became a topic friends shied away from bringing up at dinner parties in her London home as Madonna would hold court for hours. She even recounts an astrological chart she stumbled upon “going through my papers, boxes, and files the other day.” It dates back thirty years to a time when, according to a source for “Madonna: Innocence Lost,” the burgeoning pop star reportedly marched into the Lenox Hill hospital room of Sire records chief Seymour Stein and emerged with a recording contract. The astrological reading contained a quote – “All for love and the world well lost” – from the always quotable Wallis Simpson. “I thought, how weird,” Madonna continues. “She was already part of my life. That was a little foreshadowing thirty years ago so who knows what will happen thirty years from now and how she will come in and out of my life again.”
When asked how many months she actually researched the film, Madonna blanches. “Months?” she asks. “Try three years.” This timeline would fold the project into her eight-year marriage with second husband Guy Ritchie, rumored to be her original collaborator on a script that now splits the writing credit between her “Madonna: Truth or Dare” director Alek Keshishian and herself.
Ritchie is a no-fly zone for Madonna. She is on her best behavior. “‘He was just ‘cunt struck’ as they say in England,” is as salty as she gets discussing the abdication. King Edward’s, that is. But the days when Madonna would blurt out “That’s a stupid question!” are long gone. The polite request, “Please don’t throw those tired old cliches around” is as heated as it gets after the title “mother of reinvention” is foisted upon her. Motherhood, however, is something she’s a bit more open to discussing. She qualifies her answer: “Not that this has anything to do with my film, but it’s an interesting question.” She then goes into detail about her maternal role. “I don’t think that I’m a conventional parent,” she begins. “I realize, to a certain extent, my children are raised with privilege. They have housekeepers, I didn’t.”
She begins addressing private schools, but then remembers her oldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Lourdes, goes to public school. She trails off. “You know, there are a lot differences … My children come to me and often want to do things because everybody else does them,” she continues. “I say to them, that’s just the worst reason I’ve ever heard for doing something.” If “W.E” can be considered her latest baby, it’s clear this same maternal logic was applied to raising the film.
“They will be compared to me,” she continues of her four children. “I will be a benchmark that they have to live with, but they are going to have to find their way in the world. They will have a different set of challenges, but we are all formed by our challenges and born into them. I don’t think for a second that life is going to be so simple and easy for them.” And they’ll have to muddle through it without the benefit of a lifelong secret service detail. “I love my children and they run my life,” she finishes, begging the question: What would it take for our fearless leader to abandon her country, chuck it all a la the Duke and Duchess? Madonna takes a beat to consider, then replies, “No one has actually asked me to do that yet.”