By Jacob Bernstein
In the new movie W.E., which Madonna wrote and directed, Abbie Cornish plays a young woman named Wally Winthrop who’s stuck in a bad marriage, and has a kind of imaginary, sister-sister, platonic affair with Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the American woman King Edward VIII fell in love with and abdicated the thrown to marry. “How could any man love a woman so much he’d do that?” Winthrop wonders, as she seeks to find out every thing there is to know about Simpson.
In real life, Madonna has been having her own sister-sister, platonic love affair, with Patti Smith, the 65-year-old godmother of the punk movement.
The two met about a year ago at The Berlin Festival and Madonna instantly felt they were “kindred spirits.”
In December, she invited Smith to the Cinema Society screening of W.E at the Museum of Modern Art.
Smith, it turns out, had been a secret admirer of Madonna’s music, their divergent musical styles being no impediment to mutual respect. “I never compared myself to her,” Smith says, “I just loved her songs and enjoyed dancing to them.” (She is particularly enthralled, for the record, by “Into The Groove.”)
Madonna, it turned out, had been a secret admirer of Smith’s for many years, and had devoured Smith’s best-selling memoir, “Just Kids,” which in 2010 won the National Book Award. (She is particularly enthralled by “Because The Night.”)
There was a fair amount in common, although Smith says she’s no “sociologist.”
Smith booked a one way ticket New York in the late sixties, having taken $32 from a purse she found in a bus station in South Orange, New Jersey. She scrounged around the lower east side (and the outer-buroughs), looking for food and shelter, and did time at the Hotel Chelsea. Her best friend (and for some time, lover) was Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist and photographer with whom she discovered the world before he died from AIDS.
Madonna booked a one way ticket to New York in the in the late seventies, arriving with $35. She scrounged around the lower east side looking for food and shelter, and eventually did time at the Hotel Chelsea. Her best friend during the early years was an artist and designer named Martin Burgoyne, who was gay, discovered the world with her, and then died from AIDS.
There were other similarities: both were iconoclastic artists with a penchant for pushing people’s buttons.
Smith did songs like “Rock N Roll Nigger” and had album covers featuring her hairy armpits.
Record stores refused to stock them.
Madonna did music videos featuring overt-sexual imagery.
MTV refused to play them.
And both women are a strange brew of high and low culture, with a taste that ran from Jean-Luc Godard, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera to the sidewalks.
If there’s an essential philosophical difference between Smith and Madonna it’s that Smith really opted out of commercial culture, while Madonna took what she learned on the margins and made it mainstream.
When Madonna got up to give her speech about W.E. at a screening in December, she got positively verklempt upon noting Smith’s presence in the audience. She said it was “humbling” to be in front of Smith, an artist she’d “looked up to,” for many years, a “revolutionary in her work, “a renaissance woman.”
Later, when the movie ended, it was Smith who practically led the standing ovation.
“I loved the film,” Smith says. “I was completely engaged from the first minute. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully cast. I enjoyed the story. The performances are all excellent but Andrea Riseborough’s performance is brilliant.”
The following month, when it made its official debut at The Ziegfeld, Smith was back to see it a second time. “I was invited to see it again and I saw it again. I like to see movies multiple times. I thought Madonna did an excellent job. To me it stands on its own. I don’t look it as a Madonna movie. It’s W.E. and I liked it very much.”