“I’VE SHOWN this movie at festivals in France, Canada and England. And each time I’ve taken something different away from the movie, and recognized the different ways audiences react.
“Now, I am so thrilled to be here with the movie at the Museum of Modern Art. As a child, museums were my escape and they formed the idea that I would grow up and become an artist — of some kind.
“However, unlike my experiences in Venice, London or Toronto, nobody here has yet offered me a glass of champagne. So I’m going to see this movie sober. I hope I still like it!”
* * *
THAT WAS part of Madonna’s charming speech as she introduced her film, “W.E.” and one of her stars Andrea Riseborough (who plays Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor) to a fashionable crowd Sunday. (It was a “hot event night” in NYC. Over at the Ziegfeld Theater, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” was having its premiere.)
This was supposed to be a “small” screening, but what with Madonna could ever be small? Hosted by The Cinema Society and Piaget, it ended up with a lot of media, and mobs, outside MOMA, behind barricades, screaming for the icon. She was late, of course, which only increased the tension and hysteria when she finally slid glamorously out of her car. (After an aide adjusted her skin-tight pants and glittering top. She looked delicate and petite even in her towering heels.)
Madonna gave the red-carpet reporters and photographers inside as much as she could — if they had their way, she’d still be posing.
Among the throng — Kim Cattrall, Anderson Cooper, Donna Karan, Jeffrey Donovan, Jeremy Piven, Sandy Gallin, Nina Garcia, Hamish Bowles, Julian Schnabel, Barry Diller, Jacob Bernstein, Patti Smith. And but of course, Harvey Weinstein who is distributing “W.E.” He greeted Madonna affectionately as she strode in, surrounded by her security, her press rep, her personal assistants and others who try to smooth out the bumps for one of the world’s most famous women.
Harvey introduced Madonna, praising her as a “renaissance woman” with whom he has worked happily since 1990 — they first collaborated on her documentary “Truth or Dare.” He also remarked that if “W.E.” had been “made by, you know … Joe Smith, well …” He was attempting to comment on the bad rap Madonna often receives for anything she does in film, whether acting or in this case, directing. When Madonna got to the podium she joked, “By the way, Harvey, I don’t want to be Joe Smith” (I’m sure she would have preferred Scorsese or Polanski as a comparative reference point.)
Madonna also commented ruefully that now the movie is set in stone, “I can’t change anything!” Nothing is ever perfect, nothing is ever easy for Madonna, and she has worked tirelessly on the editing of “W.E.” melding her two onscreen tales — one, the real-life legendary sensation of a king abdicating his throne for “the woman I love” — Edward VIII for divorcee Wallis Simpson. There is also the story of a contemporary young woman named Wally, suffering through an abusive marriage, who is obsessed with the story of Wallis and the man who became, briefly, King Edward VIII. (His close friends and family called him David.)
Both of these are compelling concepts. Either would have made a splendid film. It has been Madonna’s job to weave Wallis and Wally. “Every little girl loves a fairy tale, a happy ending,” Wally declares, explaining her fascination with the Duke and Duchess. Having co-written the script with Alex Keshishian, those are Madonna’s words for sure. At heart, Madonna is a romantic and she does believe in happy endings, though she has yet to find one. (She has not stopped looking, however. Madonna genuinely respects romance.)
The crowd appeared fascinated by “W.E.” which is a long movie, but there was no sense of restlessness — they loved the clothes (exquisite designs by Arianne Phillips) … they loved the eclectic score, which includes a new song by Madonna, sung over the closing credits … they loved the romance and the tragedy, too. (The Duchess was an unhappy woman, who felt she had ruined the King and trapped herself forever, “playing out the world’s greatest romance — and now I can never leave him.”)
Abbie Cornish as Wally, James D’Arcy as Edward VIII, Richard Coyle as Wally’s husband, Oscar Isaac as Wally’s charming savior, David Harbour as Ernest Simpson, James Fox as Bertie — who would step in as king after Edward abdicates — and Natalie Dormer, the future Queen Mother, are all splendid. Madonna certainly knows how to get the best out of actors. (Miss Dormer is especially delicious in her brief but telling scenes.)
And Miss Riseborough is simply brilliant as Wallis; brittle, poignant, imprisoned.
There was a party after, at a place called Crown. Madonna attended, and so too, it appeared, had everybody in the MOMA audience. It was one of those events where you had to just get over the embarrassment of being jammed up intimately against total strangers. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few pregnancies resulted from the “W.E.” party. Yeah — it was that close. Madonna was at a corner table, ringed by bodyguards. People kept reaching in frantically, attempting to touch her or get her attention. It was kind of like a well-dressed zombie movie. But she was cool with the crush. This is her life.
Madonna’s “W.E” opens in L.A. on Dec 9th for a week. (For Academy consideration.) It goes wide on Feb 3rd. Of course she is still a great pop star and concert attraction. She is scheduled to perform at halftime at the upcoming Super Bowl. Her new album will soon be upon us. But if Madonna wanted to devote herself only to filmmaking, she could. She is a fine director, and she made a beautiful, complex and moving work of art. And one that, despite its vintage subject matter, reflects this most modern woman in every frame.