Toronto 2011: Madonna says she has auteur dreams
Of all the personalities to turn up at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, none seemed more outsized, and yet oddly appropriate, than Madonna.
The singer and actress is looking to make her mark on the directing world (AFI students, beware). And Toronto, place of 300 films and a thousand dreams -- not to mention a strong dollop of celebrity and hype -- seems the perfect venue for one of the most famous women in the world to take up a new career.
So into town she rode with "W.E.," a time-jumping historical romance that made its North American premiere at the festival earlier this week, ahead of its opening for general U.S. audiences on Dec. 9.
Sitting primly (in fishnet stockings) on an ornate chair in a hotel suite high above Toronto earlier this week, the 53-year-old made no secret of her latest ambition."I want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker," she told 24 Frames, her blond locks falling carefully onto and around a red-sweater top.
"I directed 'Filth & Wisdom' to teach myself about filmmaking," she added, alluding to her first movie, a lightly regarded immigrant tale of music and cross-dressing. "And now, with this self-punishing process of being a producer and a writer and a director, I'm taking the next step."
The film cross-cuts the 1998 story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappily married upscale young woman in a spiritually cold New York apartment who becomes increasingly obsessed with early-20th century Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson, and the tale of Simpson herself. A playful firecracker, Simpson fell in love with and ultimately married the Duke of Windsor, a king-in-waiting, in a scandal that rocked England and caused the Duke to abdicate the throne (Guy Pearce played the duke in "The King's Speech").
In a series of flashbacks and shared-screen fantasy moments with Wally, Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) reveals that any happiness she felt with the Duke was gilded at best. The pressure for their relationship to essentially take the place of the monarchy proved, in the end, too much for Simpson to bear.
Madonna said she didn't set out to make a pessimistic film, but that her own once-starry attitude toward romance has, as it has for Wallis, dimmed over the years.
"When we were young, my sister and I would sit around and say we wanted to marry a cowboy poet. That was the ideal," she said. "And as soon as you have an ideal, the universe conspires to humiliate you. Like you might get that cowboy poet, but they're a raving lunatic."
But the film's central theme is arguably not love but fame. Specifically, it's the gap between Wallis Simpson as perceived by the outside world and Wallis Simpson as her life was really lived -- the illicit Buckingham Palace romance, in other words, as TMZ indictment.
Madonna doesn't shy away from the parallel between Simpson's circumstance and modern celebrity. "We think we know people like Michael Jackson or Martin Luther King or Marilyn Monroe," she said. "And yet most people who aren't in their lives don't know them at all. Even if you read every book about them, you could never know them."
Asked if she would put herself in the same category of people few could ever know, she said, "Yes," then added, "And I don't have the time to get to know everyone."
The response from critics to this and other "W.E." messages has come with an added judgment about the author of those messages, and whether she is more dilettante than director. Madonna, after stating she had only heard about reviews secondhand, said she's tried to remain unbothered by any personal criticism. "I expected people to let me get in the way," she said, a coy smile crossing her face.
For her next cinematic effort, Madonna said she has "a few ideas kicking around," including a movie she has been developing with 14-year-old daughter Lourdes. (Family played a role in this movie too: "W.E." was ready in time for the fall because Madonna imposed a summer deadline so she could spent time with Lourdes as the teen starts high school in New York.
If critics aren't exactly on board with "W.E.," Madonna does have at least two devotees at this festival.
Asked about Madonna's directing technique, Cornish noted that, "Because of her background, she's a natural choreographer, and she's very visual down to the finest detail."
Riseborough, who did a heavy amount of research to play Simpson, said Madonna's familiarity with the drawbacks of celebrity elevated the movie beyond a simple romance. Said the actress: "Madonna was a guiding light through what could have just been a historical fairy tale." A ray of light, you could even say.
-- Steven Zeitchik in Toronto
Photo: Madonna at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Getty Images