Sunday, February 27, 2011
Me, Madonna, Jellybean Benitez, and Tim Ransom at Limelight in September 1984.
This photo by Patrick McMullan appeared in his 2003 book So 80s
My friend Tim Ransom wrote a few comments to my last blog on Madonna. His words were so impassioned that Kenneth M. Walsh wrote another post about Tim’s comments on his blog, followed by another one by Matthew Rettenmund on his blog.
Anyway sharing correspondence with Tim made me think of the photo above with Tim, the Divine Ms. Madge and me taken by another well-known photographer I introduced to Madonna, Patrick McMullan.
Orion Pictures, the studio behind Desperately Seeking Susan, was setting up a theme party at Limelight for their film, “Amadeus.” The concept was that he was that Mozart was pop star of his day, so they wanted to get as many well known young singers and musicians as they could. I asked Madonna if I could take her to the party, expecting her customary insolence, but she said that would be fine. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, so I added, “why don’t you bring [her boyfriend] Jelly too?”
Tim, who was the stand-in for Aidan Quinn, was on the set every day, and was close enough with Madonna to give her regular foot rubs. She adored him and eventually he was cast in the role of the Bellhop and played a brief scene with her. (Photos can be seen here.) Tim asked if he could come too, so I asked Orion to put him on the guest list.
Madonna lived a few blocks away from me in those days. My place was on Centre Market Place in Little Italy, across the street from the old Police Headquarters, which was deserted then. (Now it is a very upscale condo). She had a Soho loft on Broome Street, on the northwest side of West Broadway, a few flights up. Her buzzer didn’t open the door, so she had to throw the keys down from the window. Oddly, I had actually looked at this very loft when it was up for rent. It was more than I could afford, but not that much more. Her debut album, Madonna, had been out a year, and while it had done very well, I’m pretty sure she hadn’t banked much money yet. She told me she’d already completed the tracks for her follow-up, Like a Virgin, but Warners/Sire had pushed back the release because sales of Madonna continued so steadily. She did her infamous “Like a Virgin” dance rolling around the stage at the MTV Awards during an off day from Desperately Seeking Susan shooting. She told me that Cyndi Lauper wouldn’t even look at her that night, which bothered her (!!!) because she said she wanted to be friends with other women singers.
As Madonna didn’t work every day, I’d go over to her place every now and then so she could do her photo approvals. Madonna’s loft was a long rectangle, around a thousand square feet, with a large mirror on the far end and a Roland keyboard (probably the JX-3P heard on so many of her songs of that period) near the door. I don’t remember there being much else; it looked more like a dance studio or a gallery than a home.
True story: the very last time I went to pick up color slides and contact sheets from Madonna, she didn’t feel like letting me upstairs, so she threw them out the window, and they went flying into traffic, The contact sheets didn’t matter (we could make more), but the original slide were priceless and irreplaceable. If you consider how well known the film became, you can imagine what a big deal it would have been if these images had been lost forever. I practically got killed saving those pictures. When I told this story to Desperately Seeking Susan set photographer Andy Schwartz, he nearly died too.
Despite all her MTV fame, a waitress at the Hard Rock Café on 57th tried to kick us out during an interview she was doing with David Keeps for Star Hits. “We’ve got to clean your table!” Madonna was dressed up in her costume with all the accessories, looking the same as when she was performing. (I was always impressed with her professionalism.) Needless to say, when I told the waitress, she was pretty embarrassed, but please--this was the Hard Rock Café, not Sardi’s! It was lame enough that we were doing the interview in their dumb tourist joint, without this nonsense. Who was the moron who set it up there? (Ummm… that would be me.)
Another indication of Madonna’s heat level at the time: when I went to Tower Records to buy her album, there weren’t any in ”M” bins in the rock and pop section. Eventually a guy directed me to the mezzanine where the “dance” music was.
Also, Orion insisted that Desperately Seeking Susan open in March 1985 even though it was shot in the fall of 1984—a hastily accelerated post-production schedule. Why? Because they feared that Madonna might be a flash in the pan and they wanted to pop the film out before the interest in the material girl dematerialized. This despite Madonna having two best-selling records, mountains of press, parades of teen girls dressed like her, and five videos in power rotation on MTV. (The “Into the Groove” video featuring Desperately Seeking Susan clips became the sixth.) Better rev up to hyper-speed with the opening date! Full-blown obscurity could hit Madonna any second!
I remember having difficulty getting a cab on the night of the Amadeus party. Soho wasn’t the madhouse it is today; it was often deserted at night. I was getting pretty stressed out. I finally got a cab and had to beg the driver to wait at the curb while I waited for Madonna and Jelly to come down.
In the cab up Madonna told me about her future plans. She wanted to do a contemporary adaptation of The Blue Angel. I could see real possibilities in the idea, but I admit I also thought, “Madonna saw The Blue Angel? “
If you’re not a New Yorker, Limelight was a club that was built in the former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, at 6th Avenue and 20th Street (it’s now a mall). The club had just opened a year before, and I had actually set up one of the first parties there, for “The Fourth Man,” a movie I mentioned in my last post.
Patrick McMullan (photo by Steven Ekerovich)
The first person I saw when we came in was Roger Daltrey. Honestly I don’t remember anybody else famous being there, but that was cool, although he was a lot shorter than I imagined. Tim Ransom came over and we started to hang out. I figured I had to do my job so I went looking for journalists. Eventually I saw Patrick McMullan and he shot the photo above, as well as a few singles of Madonna. When his coffee table book So 80s came out in 2003 McMullan told Interview:
I was at this Dallas Boesendahl party for Amadeus at Limelight (September 12 1984), and a publicist named Reid Rosefelt said to me, “You should come meet this girl Madonna.” I said, “Sure, I'm very happy to meet her,” but I didn't know who she was. So I met her and took a few pictures of her. She couldn't have been sweeter. It was just a very simple, unguarded moment.
Perhaps because I introduced Patrick to Madonna, he included a photo of me, along with Tim and Jellybean in his book. Right behind Madonna you can see a violinist dressed up in (17)80s finery for the party. A very sharp-eyed person can see that I’m wearing a button for Stranger Than Paradise, featured in this post.
When we decided to leave, things got a little complicated. For some reason we didn’t go out the front door, and started wandering around the church’s meandering hallways looking for another exit. But we couldn’t find one-- it was like that famous scene in Spinal Tap—we kept circling around. Finally, totally exasperated, I said the one thing I ever said that made Madonna laugh:
“Who do I have to blow to get out of here?”
She liked that.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
“Is he gay?” asked Madonna. “Gay men take good pictures of me.”
When I worked at the PMK PR firm in 1980, every time we signed a new client, Michael Maslansky (the “M” in PMK) used to have them photographed by Herb Ritts. I’m sure this had more than a little to do with Herb being represented by Michael’s wife Marysa, who had a photo agency called Visages, but the photos were always wonderful. I never met Herb until years later when I had my own company and was handling Paul Verhoeven’s “The Fourth Man.” For an Interview photo, Herb tiptoed me and the film’s Dutch femme fatale, Renée Soutendijk, up to the roof above the dilapidated structure that sat on the site of what is now the Chelsea Piers. It was obvious that we were trespassing and that made it fun, but you couldn’t help but wonder, “How much time had he spent prowling around all that broken glass and torn metal, before he found that perfect spot?”
“I have no idea if Herb Ritts is gay, Madonna,” I said. “But I promise you will like his pictures.” As usual, Madonna was busting my balls, but the important thing was that she and Rosanna Arquette were willing to give up an entire Saturday off from shooting “Desperately Seeking Susan” for the special photography shoot. Ann Lander, the Orion exec in charge of photography had assigned Herb to create some portraits that I could circulate to magazines. If all went well, maybe there would be a poster in there too.
But what should the poster be? What would be a solitary image that would capture the story? If you haven’t seen it, the film is about this bored New Jersey housewife named Roberta (played by Arquette) who follows the personal ads, and is obsessed with a free-spirited type named Susan who uses the personals to keep in touch with her boyfriend. Roberta decides to follow Susan around and when Susan sells her jacket at a thrift store, Roberta buys it, setting in motion a mistaken identity plot. Through the jacket (and a case of amnesia), in a lot of ways Roberta gets to become Susan. The jacket is the engine that makes the whole plot go. So I knew I wanted to display the jacket in a significant way in the poster.
Madonna and Rosanna had totally different kinds of bodies, so Production/Costume Designer Santo Loquasto had made two jackets. But nobody was supposed to know that there was more than one—it would defeat the whole purpose. But something told me that having them both of them in the “Susan” outfits was the way to go. It didn’t make literal sense, but I convinced myself it made metaphorical sense: Roberta and Susan were twins, two sides of the same coin, sisters. Both of them stepped into the other one’s lives, and tried them on for size.
Nowadays photo shoots like these are a big deal, with limos for talent, and a gaggle of publicists and studio executives, but the only people from the movie were me and the wardrobe supervisor Melissa Stanton (who brought the jackets, costumes and accessories), Herb’s crew, and Madonna and Rosanna, who cabbed over themselves. [Why am I so sure they didn’t get cars? Because afterwards Madonna complained that she couldn’t take the subway anymore. She had only recently reached the level of fame where people hassled her on the trains, and she was pissed off about this intrusion on her freedom.]
Upon my entry to the studio, I was greeted by the sight of Madonna whipping off her shirt to change into another outfit. Nothing modest about this girl. I thought to myself, “that’s something very few people will ever see.” Little did I know. Melissa was there with the costumes, but Herb didn’t seem interested. All day long he put the two of them through pose after pose, none of which had nothing to do with the movie.
Rosanna and Madonna had a peculiar relationship. On one hand they were friends and even hung out together outside of work, but on another… Madonna had a way of sucking all the air out of the room. It’s my understanding that the movie was greenlit because Rosanna, red-hot after “The Executioner’s Song” and “Baby, It’s You,” had agreed to be in it. Rosanna was unquestionably the lead and worked practically every day, while Madonna’s role was much smaller in terms of actual scenes. But there was no denying that Madonna was Madonna and she was “Susan,” in a movie called “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Once, when somebody on the street asked who was in the film, I heard Rosanna say, “Madonna.”
The truth was, Madonna had the kind of brash confidence that could overwhelm a lot of people, and certainly a more sensitive type like Rosanna. This photo shoot was a perfect example.
At one point, Ritts was shooting some sultry glamour shots of Rosanna posing against a cloth backdrop, when Madonna came over. After gaping at Rosanna for a minute she said, “You look so good I’d like to fuck you myself.” It was funny, but you could almost hear the air—sssssss!—slipping out of Rosanna’s confidence, as her moment was stolen, and it became all about Madonna. And come on! This was Rosanna Arquette, after all—a true fantasy figure for a good portion of the men in America! Moments later, Madonna grabbed the backdrop, commandeered the same pose… and Herb shot an image that became a famous poster.
Eventually it was time for lunch so Melissa and I went out and got some sandwiches. That was catering. “Who wants the tuna?” Madonna played me a track, “Sidewalk Talk,” for a compilation album “Jellybean Rocks the House,” her boyfriend Jellybean Benitez was producing. She seemed pleased that I liked it, which made me feel good. She often made fun of me on the set, but the truth was I spent a lot of time with her alone, going over pictures in her trailer and in her loft (she lived a few blocks from me) and we got along very well. Her instincts for publicity were amazing even then and I have always considered her one of my mentors. (I’ve learned a thing or two from other publicists, but the best training comes from natural born salesmen like her.) My favorite story about her was about how she got her manager. She asked who handled Michael Jackson and when she found out it was Freddy DeMann, she called him. Who would have the chutzpah to do that? Freddy signed her.
Legendary style-setter Andre Leon Talley turned up unannounced and wanted Herb to shoot a photo of Madonna for Vanity Fair. Before I could say anything, Talley put a pair of multi-colored men’s boxer shorts on top of Madonna’s head and started twisting them around.
This put me in a tough spot because neither Freddy DeMann or Madonna’s publicist Liz Rosenberg had approved this. Madonna said I should call Freddy at home and if he said it was okay, she’d do it. As bratty as she could be, in the important ways she was pretty easy to deal with in those days. I’d say, “look, you have to do this now so that you won’t have to do it later,” and she got it.
It was starting to get pretty late and I decided it was time to put my foot down--I told Herb it was time to shoot the “Desperately Seeking Susan” costumes. After a very long day shooting pictures completely unrelated to the movie, I think he spent an hour or two doing it. But those few frames turned out to be gold.
As we were getting ready to go, I really did see something that I think very few people have ever seen, at least for a long time. Madonna called Jellybean and they were in the middle of some kind of argument. For a few moments I saw her impregnable shell break away: she appeared to be a normal young woman unsatisfied or hurt by whatever her boyfriend up to. As I had learned that day, showing her breasts wasn’t a big issue to Madonna, but showing vulnerability definitely was: as soon as she spied me looking, she tucked that honest emotion back into whatever place she kept them in, and was “Madonna” again.
Herb Ritts’ Rolling Stone Cover of Madonna and Rosanna
The only picture of them on this page not shot on that first day.
Early the next week, Herb turned up at Madonna’s trailer with several hundred dollars worth of extraordinary photos. Platinum Prints. Museum quality stuff. I’d never seen anything like it. I surmised that he was hoping to photograph Ms. Ciccone again. I think it’s an understatement to say that’s exactly what happened. He became one of Lady Madonna’s top court photographers, shooting many of her most memorable images, until his untimely death in 2002.
Sometime after the film wrapped, I happened to be at the New York Orion office for a publicity meeting when the ad agency was making a presentation. The focus was on the New Jersey housewife part of the movie. Rosanna’s face was on a toaster and Madonna’s face was on a piece of toast. Something I can’t remember with a microwave oven. Each one was more terrible than the one before. As it happened, I had brought a set of the slides from the Ritts photo session to the meeting. I pulled them out and said, “have you guys seen these?” They hadn’t. Ann Lander had gone on vacation and locked the photos up in her safe. Seriously. There was a hush in the room.
This wasn’t the end of the story, however. Some people at Orion thought that the image would make people think it was a lesbian movie. Thankfully the film’s producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, were able to make their case and the result is the poster as you can see it above.
Pretty much every “Desperately Seeking Susan” slide Herb took during that hour got used thousands of times. One of them even became a Playboy Cover.
Years later I visited the London Film Museum… and there it was! My poster! I was truly proud. I felt that in this tiny way, I had been part of the history of film. After all, that image would not exist if I hadn’t thought it up! Okay, okay, Herb, Rosanna, Madonna, Santo, Melissa, Susan Seidelman, screenwriter Leora Barish, and even Ann Lander had something to do with it too.
As Rosanna Arquette is still someone I have kept in touch with and I believe reads my blog now and then, I apologize for once again making this story ALL ABOUT MADONNA. She has always had a way of making everything about her.
Years later I ran into Madonna at Lee’s Art Shop on 57th Street. I introduced myself and said that I worked on “Desperately Seeking Susan.” “A lot of people worked on ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’” she said, as she walked past me.
MORE ON MADONNA this coming Sunday
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Last Thursday night there was a special screening at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” This film has always been dear to my heart, because it was the first film I ever did publicity on from before it started shooting all the way through release. Being on the set every day and going to dailies, was exciting, fun, and ultimately, life-changing. I liked the experience so much that shortly afterwards, I closed my first PR company, Reid Rosefelt Publicity, and became a unit publicist, working on movie sets around the world for the next seven years. But like any first love, “Desperately Seeking Susan” was always special. I’ll write about working on the film someday, but this post is about another film.
During the Q&A that followed the screening, screenwriter Leora Barish spoke about how she was inspired to write it by seeing Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” This was news to me, because before that night I had never spoken or laid eyes on Leora Barish. At that point, after ten years of doing publicity, I had never interviewed a writer who wasn’t also the director. And as she never visited the set while I was there, I was focused on all the wonderful things that were happening in front of me. So many people got their film careers launched on “Desperately Seeking Susan”: in addition to Seidelman, who fought to bring in Madonna and gave the film an incredible sense of style and dynamism, there were producers Midge Sanford, Sarah Pillsbury and Michael Peyser, cinematographer Ed Lachman, casting directors Billy Hopkins and Risa Bramon (and Todd Thaler), composer Thomas Newman, and not incidentally, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Laurie Metcalf, and John Turturro. The film was also driven by the veteran talents of Rosanna Arquette and production designer/costume designer Santo Loquasto, and Bramon and Hopkins found many talented actors like Mark Blum (who would later appear in one of my short films), Anna Levine Thomson, Robert Joy, Will Patton, and Peter Maloney, and gave cameos to an unbelievable list of downtown types, cult actors and up-and-comers, including: John Lurie, Richard Edson, Steven Wright, Richard Hell, Shirley Stoler, Ann Magnuson, Anne Carlisle, Rockets Redglare, Annie Golden, Airto Lindsay, Carol Leifer, Michael Badalucco, Giancarlo Esposito, and Adele Bertei and Tom DiCillo. And what I didn’t know then is that the New York City of 1984 was going to disappear and this film would both helped invent the fantasy of that moment plus serve as a time capsule.
Anyway, soon after Barish mentioned “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” I was struck by something. It was very possible that Leora Barish wouldn’t have seen “Celine and Julie” if it weren’t for me. And therefore… no me, maybe no “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and maybe no movie, no launching point for a lot of these careers. Of course, many, if not all, of these people were on their way with or without the film, but still… the fact was that I played a crucial role in bringing “Celine and Julie Go Boating” to the US, where it inspired her script.
Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1974, while I was still a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so of course I didn’t see it. But when I got to New York a few years later, I got a job at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films. In those days there weren’t many distributors that brought out foreign films, and even fewer handled the kind of films with extremely limited commercial potential that New Yorker did. This gave Talbot enormous power, because if he didn’t like something, it probably wouldn’t get seen in this country. But his taste was exquisite, and he was an engine behind the US careers of such talents as Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard,Herzog, Alain Tanner, Claude Lanzman, and… Jacques Rivette. But “Celine and Julie” played the New York Film Festival and Dan didn’t buy it.
New Yorker Films was a very small company and I wore a lot of hats there: I was the publicist for all the smaller films; I designed and laid out the catalogs and all the mailing pieces; I sent materials to the theatres; and I watched movies that Dan was considering acquiring. Dan was a father figure to me. Not only was he teaching me the film business, he was giving me a crash course in world cinema. For the first years I kept my mouth shut and watched, but after a while I started to speak up about marketing issues and what films he should buy. As in, speak up very loudly. As in shouting matches. As I said, he was a father figure, and this kind of thing commonly goes on in families. Some people there thought I was way off base, but Dan never fired me, and crazy as I was, we are friends to this day. During all my tenure at New Yorker films I never got angrier with Dan than about “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” I flat out demanded he buy it. He refused again and again. Finally I screeched, “If you don’t buy this film, then you should shut this company down today.” He knew I wouldn’t stop, so he gave in. Still, he released the movie in New York with no time for advance screenings and it was pulled from the theatre before the rave review in the Village Voice appeared. That was a crushing disappointment, but the important thing for me was that “Celine and Julie Go Boating” was now in the catalog, where it would get a limited 35mm theatrical release and could be rented in 16mm for countless non-theatrical showings in years to come.
So it’s possible that Leora Barish caught the film at a film festival in 1974, but it’s more likely she did at one of the hundreds of US showings that came between the time New Yorker Films bought the film in 1978 and when she wrote “Desperately Seeking Susan” in the early 1980s
Of course a film as great as “Celine and Julie” would have come out one way or another in the US. A company like Rialto would have bought it at some point and it would have made its way to video. But at that point in time there was only one door, which was shut tight until I kicked it open.
I often wonder why I write this blog, but this week I believe that I’m telling an instructive story, regardless of when or how Leora Barish saw “Celine and Julie.” If you work in the film business and you are facing a situation where you can fight for what you think is right—or choose not to fight—let me guarantee that you will end up more successful and wealthy if you don’t fight. If you are seen as uncompromising, you will be judged “difficult” and a pain in the ass, and you will pay a heavy price. On the other hand, you will never find out what the impact might have been if you did stand up.