Her brigade of detractors can breathe a sigh of relief: Madonna has not lost her sense of humor or rebellious spirit just yet.
In an elegant suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, pop music's grande dame prepares to field overenthusiastic questions about her directorial feature debut, "W.E.," from a group of journalists representing her most devoted (and, undoubtedly, most discerning) audience: the gay male community.
As for the lady herself, she is not just surprisingly petite but stunningly, even disarmingly, beautiful. Dressed in a figure-hugging, deep indigo sheath dress, with her hair in loose, strawberry-blonde curls, Madonna knows she can work this crowd the Ciccone way: with a solid dose of old-fashioned sass.
"Let's start with levity," she teases, a point emphasized with a smile, a subtle wink no doubt implied.
As she gears up for yet another cultural assault, Madonna is once again proving herself not just as a woman of many talents, but also a consummate multi-tasker. Not only will February bring about the release of "W.E.," but she's also got a new album, "MDNA," and a highly anticipated, certain-to-be-spectacular Super Bowl XLVI halftime performance in her 2012 pipeline; she's also hinted at, though not yet confirmed, a forthcoming concert tour. It's exactly the type of all-encompassing creative blitz her fans haven't witnessed since her "Blond Ambition" and "Erotica" years, another new era she herself describes as "busy."
Today, however, Madonna's first order of business is her new film, which she not only directed but also co-wrote with Alek Keshishian, the director of her 1991 concert documentary "Truth or Dare." She has already had to endure ample scrutiny of "W.E.," which tells the true-life story of Wallis Simpson (a sublime Andrea Riseborough), the American divorcee for whom England's King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) abdicated the throne in 1936, as seen through the eyes of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappy trophy wife living in Manhattan, circa 1998.
Many critics have likened the film's parallel narrative to both "Julie & Julia" and "The Hours," but during an early screening, I kept thinking about "Desperately Seeking Susan," the 1985 cult favorite in which Madonna herself starred as a downtown vagabond idolized by Rosanna Arquette's bored suburbanite through a newspaper's personal columns. To be fair, "W.E." certainly has more grandiose aspirations than the comedic "Susan" -- in this case, to establish Simpson, whom Madonna feels was "dealt with in a very unfair way in the history books," as a figure worthy not just of praise, but also of serving as a "spiritual guide" for a contemporary woman.
The results are both visually stunning and well acted, if frequently uneven; our director's heart seems more invested in the historical story, which is considerably better executed in its specifics, than the less-intriguing modern one. Still, Madonna insists a straightforward biopic of Simpson was never her intention.
"I don't think it's possible to tell the story of one person, from beginning to end, in two hours," she explains. "It was important for me that I establish that, as much research as I did and close as I tried to stay to the truth, it is a point of view."
Watching the film, it is easy to see why Madonna would sympathize with Simpson, who remains as politically divisive a figure in Britain as Eva Peron was in Argentina during her heyday. Aside from a mutual flair for chic fashion and elaborate hairstyles, how exactly does Simpson compare to the Argentine first lady, whom Madonna portrayed to great acclaim in 1996's "Evita"?
"I think people have a tendency to feel intimidated by the strength of these women," Madonna says. "A lot of people who write history books, and humanity in general, have a tendency to diminish women or undermine their accomplishments...or their intelligence." And is the Queen of Pop drawing from her own experience in that assessment? "Well, sure," she adds with a laugh. "Strong women are held under a microscope and they're judged and measured in a different way. It's just the law of the universe, it seems, right now."
As for the Super Bowl, Madonna remains tantalizingly tight-lipped, other than to exclaim her fatigue throughout the preparation process-- "It's all too much! I'm late for everything right now!" -- but those who fear the diva has softened as her record-breaking career enters its fourth decade would no doubt be appeased by her "unconventional" approach to parenting. "I realize to a certain extent my children are raised with privilege," she says of Lourdes, 15; Rocco, 11; David, 6, and Mercy, 5. "Now my children come to me to they often want to do things because everybody else does them. And I say to them, 'That's just the worst reason I've ever heard for doing something.' And I encourage them to question things, to take responsibility for their behavior, to think outside the box, [as] they will have a different set of challenges."
Exactly how successful "W.E." will be remains to be seen, but Madonna seems aware her shaky Hollywood track record means critics will be more than prepared to scorch it. She acknowledges this point several weeks later at the film's New York red carpet premiere: "Maybe it seems unusual that I would choose to make a film. But it's important to note that I think of myself as a storyteller. When I write songs, I tell stories; when I put on shows and I perform onstage, I'm telling a story...and with this film, I've told a story."
And as long as she continues telling them, we'll be listening.
Can't wait for Madonna's Super Bowl halftime show? Enjoy HuffPost Gay Voices' picks for her best live performances below:
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