“We’re seeing a Madonna movie, right?”
This is the question posed by a film critic at the W.E. screening we attended back in December. Another critic nods. “Why the hell not,” shrugs the first. Early reviews had been ambivalent at best, and the audience is equal parts skeptical and amused as we wait to see Madonna‘s directorial debut.
The day after the screening we find ourselves face-to-face with the Queen of Pop herself. The legendary entertainer shakes each of the journalists’ hands and has us recite our names one by one as we sat at a table at the Waldorf Astoria. Her skin is luminous, and fingerless leather gloves reveal an understated French manicure. Her longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg sits in a corner typing away on a Blackberry, Minnie Mouse ears on her head, neon pink socks on her feet. A bodyguard stands nearby.
She answers questions deftly, with the confidence and quick wit she’s built her reputation on. ”I’m tired. I’m very organized, and I’m very tired,” she responds upon being asked how she manages to balance her multi-faceted career. And why the move to filmmaking? “Because I’m a storyteller, and I love film. I’ve always loved film.”
W.E. tells the dual stories of Wally Winthrop and Wallis Simpson. Wally, a woman in modern-day New York, is obsessed with Wallis, the American divorcée who stole the heart of King Edward VII. In structure, W.E. is nearly identical to Julie & Julia — it may as well be titled Wally & Wallis. (For the record, Madonna’s actual working title was The Punk Rock King.) While the gimmicky device was cute in Julie & Julia, it falls flat in W.E.
Why didn’t Madonna stick to a straight-up period piece? The Wallis storyline is infinitely more compelling than that of Wally, a wealthy woman in an abusive relationship. Perhaps she thought the duality added depth, or that the juxtaposition of time and place created nice cinematic tension. Either way, it doesn’t quite work.
What does work, however, are the clothes — specifically the 1930s wardrobe worn by Andrea Riseborough‘s Wallis. Costume designer Arianne Phillips‘s work on the film has garnered her a much-deserved Oscar nomination, her second as she was also nominated for Walk the Line. (She also did the costumes for Tom Ford‘s sartorially stunning A Single Man.) While we had seen many of the standout pieces in Vanity Fair long before the movie’s release, they were even lovelier in motion on the silver screen. We were equally if not more impressed by the the film’s jewelry, much of which was sold in the semi-fictional auction of Wallis and Edward’s estate at Christie’s that acts as a catalyst for the Wally story.
Wallis wasn’t known for being beautiful, but rather for dressing better than everyone else. A blue velvet Schiaperelli gown with a metallic vest plays a part in the plot, as does Wallis’s beloved Cartier cross bracelet gifted to her by Edward. She wears headpieces that recall the masterful work of Philip Treacy and totes around luxe Louis Vuitton luggage. Wallis’s style is enviable, though as Wally (and the audience) finds out, her life is not.
As Madonna fields questions, we notice she’s wearing the cross charm bracelet that was so integral to W.E.. Or is she?
“This is not the actual one,” she says wistfully. “This is a bracelet that Cartier gave me at the end of the shoot. It was a gift. I actually wanted the one that they made for Andrea, but they wouldn’t give me that one. They made two for us, but because they’re considered works of art, I think they’re actually going to destroy them. It’s quite sad. They’re copies of something, and they don’t want them to be recreated in any way, shape, or form. I dont know if they’re really going to destroy it. Hopefully they’ll keep it in a vault somewhere.”
She’s also decked out in a dress by Vionnet, the legendary house that dressed Wallis and made some of Risebouough’s costumes. This is a deliberate outfit choice on the part of Madonna, who has long identified with the controversial Wallis. As Americans living in England, they both suffered their fair share of heartache and were misunderstood by the press. While reading Wallis’s letters, Madonna said she found herself thinking that she could have easily written them herself. “It’s like, can’t a girl just get a break?” she grins.
It’s safe to say that Madonna’s ties to Wallis echo that of Wally’s in the movie, but in the end it was the universality of the unconventional love story that ultimately appealed most. ”Really that’s what the world’s made up of,” she explains. “I don’t know why everyone’s bamboozled us all into thinking that conventional relationships actually exist. Do you know of any? Is anyone at this table in a conventional relationship?”
Everyone laughs. ”I’m very romantic. I love the idea of love, and I love poetry. I love the idea of two people being inextricably intertwined with one another — informed and inspired and attached.”
W.E. is in theaters now.