PRINT March 1988


American Myths

GIVEN THE CULTURE’S current emphasis on designer condoms and anxious obsession with the nuclear family, you might think that the romantic twosome would be making a comeback, that it’s once again time for Fred & Ginger, Nick & Nora, Gable & Lombard, Bogey & Baby, Hepburn & Tracy, George & Gracie, Ralph & Alice, Liz & Dick, Steve & Eydie, Bonnie & Clyde, John & Yoko, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and so on & so forth. But the most passionate love stories in America these days tend toward narcissism. They’re one-person affairs—Vanna White’s, say, or Eddie Murphy’s. Ask your friends to quickly name the archetypal American couple and an amazing number will propose Nancy & Ronnie—not just for all the obvious Oedipal reasons, but also because who else is there? Cybill Shepherd’s Maddie & Bruce Willis’ David in Moonlighting? The principals in Maurice? Gary & Lee Hart (& Donna Rice)? Julian & Jacqueline Schnabel? Arnold Schwarzenegger & Maria Shriver? Sean Penn & Madonna?

If Sean & Madonna are the most provocative pair, it’s in large part because of Madonna’s apparent self-sufficiency. With her parodic recirculation of feminine signifiers and no-less-systematic resolution of opposites (virgin and whore, sacred and profane, clothing and underwear, gold digger and free spirit, “dumb blondes” like Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe and not-so-dumb ones like Mae West and Marlene Dietrich), Madonna seems to exist in a state of blissful completion. She thrives on these contradictions as much as on her accessories. There’s hardly a star who appears more hardheaded, yet her nostalgia for the intensely romantic screwball comedy of the ’30s and early ’40s is evident not just from her films—Desperately Seeking Susan, Shanghai Surprise, and the aptly named Who’s That Girl?—but also from interviews in which she casually refers to such arcane late-night-TV items as the 1942 Gracie Allen vehicle Mr. and Mrs. North.

Madonna’s alliance with Penn, the latest incarnation of Marlon Brando/James Dean/Dennis Hopper neurotic macho histrionics, is the wedding of total artifice and neo-Method-acting authenticity:“ ‘Bad’ ‘Girl’ ” marries Bad Boy (to appropriate the title of one of Penn’s less-than-deathless films). His sincere hatred of publicity is matched by her show biz exhibitionism, but his h. of p. only provokes further publicity, while her exhibitionism is, in fact, a kind of prophylactic shield. (Who is that girl really?) Sean & Madonna inveigle our gaze only to flee from it. If nothing else, the couple have given us a superb image of themselves taking shelter from the dread paparazzis by cowering beneath their coats. Looking like two Lewis Carroll creatures, they flee into the concrete jungle, balancing their soft, headless bulks on stalky dungareed legs. As reprinted in People, the photograph suggests a joint effort by Weegee and Christo to represent the essence of celebrity. It makes the invisible tangible and marketable. An acquaintance of mine reports spotting S & M wander into a Lower East Side bookstore asking for a copy of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye: “The caress of the eye over the skin is so utterly, so extraordinarily gentle, and the sensation is so bizarre that it has something of a rooster’s horrible crowing.”

Speaking of the rooster’s horrible crowing, Sean & Madonna squabble, separate, date other people, file divorce papers, then get back together for a well-documented tabloid reconciliation. But try as they might, they lack the lurid, tragic depth of Liz & Dick—Taylor’s brush with death, Burton’s alcohol-ravaged baritone, their respective abandoned spouses, the imperial road from Cleopatra to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and beyond. Sean & Madonna are less star-crossed lovers than flaming yuppies, two professionals with separate careers.

This was made abundantly clear in Shanghai Surprise, the disastrous romantic comedy the two released in the summer of 1986. In a confused bit of premature antitypecasting, Madonna plays a missionary stationed in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with Penn graciously slumming as a grungy sailor of fortune. (The obvious models are Hepburn & Bogey in The African Queen.) Half vanity production, half exploitation film, this foredoomed project has the thin, giddy feel of one of Frank Sinatra’s rat-pack flicks. The most striking thing is the utter absence of chemistry between the stars. Their presence is assumed to be sufficient. The pair take each other totally for granted—and so do we. Indeed, one cannot but be struck by the brazenly instrumental quality of Madonna’s sex drive. Prissy and determined, she first climbs into Sean’s bed with the idea of putting him “under obligation.”

It’s mad love as diligent narcissism, a new version of the puritan ethic. Sean and Madonna play at marriage and divorce—or, rather, they work at it. Being irresponsible is a crushing responsibility.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.