She is small, and her hair looks terrible. Distressed. Long and ratty, a bad white-yellow with a greenish tinge (dark roots are struggling back), it appears to have fallen victim to one too many dye jobs. Blond Ambition takes its toll in more ways than one. She does not quite glow with health. Her less- than-perfect skin is pale and lightly powdered; her lipstick is dark red. She is wearing a cream-of-asparagus cardigan over a decollete blouse; an edge of gray-blue brassiere shows. Her trademark. Her chest is freckled. Her denim cutoffs are festooned with a nightmarish profusion of spangles, doodles, flags. On her feet are pointy turquoise mules. Madonna at home would have pleased Charles Addams.
Yet withal, she is a lovely woman. She could, you have the feeling, change clothes, do something with her hair, and look ravishing in five minutes. And she's done it, a thousand times. Only she could bring it off. There is, first of all, that body. And her blue humorous eyes, which pierce and search. Her calm, measured, only slightly provocative presence. And her speaking voice, which sounds the way a pretty girl would sound over the telephone before you ever met her: subtle, teasing, with just a hint of brass.
She can say singular things with it, too. I met her once before, in passing, when an actor I was interviewing introduced me. The chirpy remark she made, at the actor's expense, was as funny as it is unprintable. Today, however, she's on her best behavior. Sort of. One does not enter Madonna's home ground with equanimity, nor does she exude phony hospitality to unknown inquisitors. A certain tension hovers in the air, like sachet. We're sitting in the living room of her home, atop one of the Hollywood Hills. The exterior of the house is rectilinear and severe; the terrain is steeply sloped and forbidding. This is reclaimed desert, after all: There are snakes, of many varieties, in these hills. Not to mention armed security guards. It's not the kind of neighborhood you stroll through at night.
The inside of Madonna's house is also severe, with the saving grace of a sexuality that reaches every corner of the sparsely but quirkily decorated place. The art is beautiful and eclectic but, like its owner, dark and challenging. A consistent theme, in paintings, photographs, and books, is the female nude. One remarkable black-and-white photo, prominently displayed in Madonna's office, superimposes the outline of a cross on the naked posterior of a woman.
''That's a Man Ray that butt right there,'' Madonna says, as she shows me around.
''That's great,'' I say. ''He really foresaw...''
She finishes my sentence for me. ''My future,'' she says.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone a petite Italian/French Canadian brunet out of Pontiac, Mich., with gapped teeth, badly bleached hair, and a mole on her upper lip appears to unsettle us inordinately. How does she do that? Hard to say. Precise definition, in any case, would diminish her omnipresence. And her longevity. A public figure, any public figure, is Scheherazade. The moment she ceases to interest us in her story, she's dead. (Where have you gone, Cyndi Lauper? Debbie Harry?) Madonna has lasted far longer than 1,001 nights (it's been eight years now, a pop-culture eternity) by never repeating herself, never pinning herself down. Were she a more than effective singer-songwriter, she would somehow matter less; were she a great movie star, she would not impinge so on our dreams. And now here she is in a movie that will probably lift her star above the zenith.
Truth or Dare, opening nationally this week, dares to presume that a great many of us are sufficiently fascinated by Madonna to want to watch a two-hour quasidocumentary about her last tour, the one entitled Blond Ambition. It appears very likely that, as has almost always been the case with Madonna, her presumption will guarantee our interest. The movie takes its title from a party game that Madonna and the rest of her group played while relaxing on tour: It is a game of psychic (and sometimes physical) disrobing, and the title's conceit is that the star is engaging in a similar self-revelation by appearing in the film.
It's a strange and complex move. The very form of the movie is presumptuous: Documentaries are usually a type of journalism, in which the filmmaker has some kind of objective distance from the subject. In this case, the filmmaker, 26-year-old music-video director Alek Keshishian, was hired by the subject; some rumors had the filmmaker literally in bed with the subject. At the very least, he was a big fan. Madonna herself put up the money ($4 million) for the project, and served as its executive producer.
And yet the movie's dark and often unflattering vision of its own star makes it more than an exercise in vanity. Or does it? If there's one thing Madonna's always claimed to be, it's an artist: Now she seems to have latched onto the extraordinary idea that not just her image but her life itself can be art. It's a facile, open-ended aesthetic, one in which no excess is out of bounds. But excess has always been right up Madonna's alley. The gamble she's taking here is that she might heaven forbid bore us.