BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – “At dinners and parties,” Madonna recalls, “I found that whenever I brought up the topic of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, it was like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the conversation.” Of course, the same story could be told about the speaker herself.
Few people remain neutral about Madonna Louise Ciccone, the pop-music supernova whose concert appearances still draw legions of fans and, sometimes, controversial headlines (as this year’s “MDNA” tour has repeatedly proved). Musically, she’s an icon. This week she was named the best-selling female singles artist in U.K. chart history. In the cinematic realm, however, the 54-year-old is still somewhat of an underdog.
Madonna’s low-key directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom” (2008), was not received well by critics. Her second effort, the far more ambitious “W.E.,” opened overseas early this year and is now about to take a bow in Japan.
“It was only very recently that a woman was presented with an Academy Award for directing — and for directing a traditionally male sort of movie,” Madonna tells The Japan Times, referring to Kathryn Bigelow’s film “The Hurt Locker” (2008). “When a singer or actress directs, she gets blamed for being ambitious. And I guess history is seen as a male preserve, so my having tackled a historical subject, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, I invaded their territory. But you know what? Too bad.
“Japan still has royalty, while Britain is in a way too close to the topic of Wallis and Edward, who nearly wrecked their monarchy. They’ve seen the purported story dozens of times. But it’s newer and even exotic to the Japanese,” the director says.
The film’s subject has been tackled many times before: The taboo romance of two-time American divorcee Wallis Simpson (1896-1986) and the then-Prince of Wales, who ascended the British throne as Edward VIII (1894-1972) in 1936 and abdicated that same year for the “woman I love.”
In addition to composing and singing the film’s theme song, “Masterpiece” (for which she won a Golden Globe Award), Madonna coproduced the film and cowrote the script. She provides a new take on the subject, and Simpson specifically.
“People have always gone on about what Edward gave up for her. But Wallis also gave up a lot, including her reputation and being liked and accepted,” Madonna says. “Overnight, she became hated by millions who had never met her … and because Edward gave up so much, including his family, she knew she had to stay by him forever — regardless.”
The spin on Madonna’s version of the story comes with the modern-day character of Wally Winthrop, played by 30-year-old Australian actress Abbie Cornish. Madonna says she realized that a simple retelling of the familiar duke-and-duchess story wasn’t commercially viable. So, with Alek Keshishian, her collaborator on the highly successful tour documentary “Truth or Dare” (1991), she fashioned a parallel story about young Wally, who like Simpson was violently abused by her first husband (the movie gives this as the reason Simpson could never conceive). Numerous film highlights occur during the 1998 Sotheby’s auction in New York in which the duke and duchess’ estate was put up for sale. Wally looks to Simpson for inspiration in her own life.
“By the film’s end, (Wally is) smarter, more realistic and — something that every woman can identify with — stronger and happier,” Madonna says. “She knows where happiness comes from, and it’s not necessarily — and almost never — from a man or from material things.”
British actress Andrea Riseborough plays Simpson and feels there was nobody better for the job of directing her in the role than Madonna.
“I had expert guidance from Madonna,” Riseborough tells The Japan Times. “She already had the complete vision in her head. Who better knows the ups and downs of global fame and notoriety?”
Riseborough, 31, began theater work early in her career, and in 2009 she was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award after playing Margaret Thatcher, another historically controversial figure, in “Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley.”
“What Madonna shows us is that this was not a fairy tale,” notes Riseborough. “What Wallis achieved wasn’t without its dark side — and it stayed dark for her after Edward died.”
Cornish agrees with her costar’s assessment of what Madonna brought to her role behind the camera.
“Madonna said she needed to tell this story,” Cornish says. “She knew Wallis wasn’t the social climber or golddigger that’s always conveniently presented.”
The filmmaker gives much more screen time to exploring Simpson’s pre-Edward past than has been usual with the topic. Madonna says this is because “W.E.” is about women and she wants to present a new side to the Simpson-and-Edward story. The pop star’s biggest cinematic splash has thus far been acting the title role in the 1996 film “Evita,” for which she won a Golden Globe. That film, about former first lady of Argentina Eva Perón, also focused on a famous woman in history whose detractors would attack her as a tramp no matter what she achieved. It was not a position unfamiliar to Simpson — or Madonna. Critics of “W.E.” have pointed out that its portrayal of the duke and duchess has given more insight into the couple, particularly Simpson, but also glosses over some historical elements such as the couple being Nazi sympathizers. It has also been pointed out that the men in the film habitually defer to their wives, to which Madonna replies: “Yes, it is about women. Women take center stage. Is that something to cry about?”
Cornish thinks, “Madonna would have been happier if more movie critics were women. It’s understandable.”
However, Riseborough goes a step further in stating how she identifies with the director’s vision.
“If a woman directs — period — that’s one thing,” she says. “But when an actress chooses to, especially if she’s successful — and I suppose more especially if she’s from the music world — the reception turns nasty and sexist. But as Madonna says, music is the universal language, it’s not a trivial thing or a superficial field.”
In contrast to the notion that Madonna’s music background somehow hindered her, both Cornish and Riseborough point out specific elements of the film that they felt were enhanced by the director’s other job.
“Madonna originally trained as a dancer, and she was very involved in our cinematography,” Cornish says. “She made sure the camera work was carefully choreographed.”
As a result, the camera’s pace is often in a rapid, music-video style, with the film’s focus being almost as often on objects as it is on people.
“The duchess had exquisite taste,” Madonna says. “Her enemies even acknowledged that. Every object she owned had its own personal story.”
She says that part of the fun of making the film was, “researching the costumes. … We got to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum and actually touch some of her clothes.”
“W.E.” earned an Academy Award nomination for costume design — between Wally, Simpson and Edward, there were 120-plus costume changes.
Riseborough adds, “Madonna has an expert eye for things. She can appreciate what’s gritty, but she loves beauty and elegance. She always offers something to the eye. There’s a documentary out about Diana Vreeland (titled “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”), the fashion-editor icon who was a friend of (Simpson) the Duchess of Windsor, and who used to say that the eye has to travel. That’s Madonna’s philosophy, too. Movies aren’t static — they’re about motion. This film is always moving, always taking you somewhere. It’s a wonderful ride.”
Of course, the talk about Madonna’s musical past affecting her cinematic endeavors leads to one question: Will the queen of pop return to Japan for a tour?
“You think they want me there?” she laughs. “I’m game.”
“W.E.” opens in cinemas nationwide on Nov. 3. Kaori Shoji reviews the film on today’s Film page. For more information, visit www.we-movie.net .