The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

Immaterial girl
Review by Barbara Ellen

by Andrew Morton, OíMara Books, London. Pages 256.

A man I know, not even a journalist, recently had a nightmare about Madonna. He would be interviewing her, think that he had finished, and put away his dictaphone, only for another "Madonna" to pop up and the whole process start up again. By his account, however many times he had thought he had "done" her, Madonna just kept coming back, like some many-headed MTV hydra.

Reading Andrew Mortonís new biography on La Ciccone, I could not help but speculate how much better it might have been if the author had had the same nightmare as my friend. At least then Morton might have been able to give some original insight into "The Little Woman Who Could (And Did)", instead of this astonishingly bland literary ticker-tape parade of yellowing National Enquirer clippings, interspersed with grumpy asides from side-lined "friends" and colleagues, not to mention ex-lovers scurrying over with their poisoned Valentines. "If she were a painting, she would be an abstract by Picasso. She has so many faces," drones ex-beau Vanilla Ice"She was so tight she squeaked," complains another lover, Jim Albright (who started out as Madonnaís bodyguard).

Like so many of Mortonís informants, these two end up saying far more about themselves, their ulterior motives and bitter disappointments, than they do about Madonna. Which could explain why the book fails. With Mortonís best known work, his Diana book, one at least came away the impression that Di herself was lurking and whispering in the shadows óCherchez La Femme with bulimia and tiaras. With Mortonís Madonna book, a tome which manages to be more thorough but less entertaining than a second-on-the-bill Vanity Fair interview, it is more a case of Cherchez La Point.


We begin with Morton taking a ride from JFK airport into Manhattan, just as his subject did so many years ago. "The striking skyline glitters, alight with promises, dripping with possibilities," Morton growls dreamily, like a pulp fiction writer with a heavy deadline. New York sorted, it is time to hear all about ... Morton!: "A biographer is a personality detective," he muses. "A literary gumshoe searching for clues, testing alibis, and gathering evidence that will help illuminate a character who has made an impression on our world."

Finally, we arrive at Madonna, but far from the subject being "illuminated", it is as if lights that have always been on are being clicked off one by one.

It is not that it is not all here ó it, droningly, exhaustingly, is. Thee Catholic childhood, the mother who died young from breast cancer, the dance training, the switch to music, the struggle, the success, the sex book, the sex talk, the backlash, the tears. The men, the women, the marriages, the abortions. The ambition, the audacity, the bad decisions, the worst movies. The children, the comeback, the abduction by aliens. I made that last one up, because I thought you might be getting bored.

That is the point really. With Madonna, Morton achieves the implausible. He takes an interesting woman and an astonishing life and manages to make both seem incredibly boring.

Once you get used to Mortonís pace (dull plod, with occasional snooze), it becomes quite amusing joining him on the journey, a bit like watching someone dragging a dead body around, trying to find some place to hide it. Even luminaries such as Madonna, Sean Penn and Warren Beatty are reduced to flailing around like disenfranchised phantoms in the shallows of Mortonís blandly automatic insights. Elsewhere, in this "unauthorised" expose, the "revelations" wash over the reader like a vast dirty condom-strewn tide, all the more ugly for their banality. Madonna has had lots of sex. She has had abortions. She has been known to be insecure, pestering her menfolk with telephone calls. Morton might as well have told us that "Madonna has been known to menstruate", so routine, so feminine, so human, are all of these experiences.

Meanwhile, Madonna herself is smothered in gamey autograph-hunting flattery ("An artistic alchemist who was able to blend creativity and controversy in equal measure, and so create commercial gold") which does little more than reveal that Morton would rather deal in abstract tosh-prose than get up close to his subject. Similarly, Mortonís take on her music hints that he might be the only human being alive never to have heard any of it. Rather painfully, he doggedly describes her songs like someone listening through a cup pressed up against an outside wall.

Ultimately, all you learn from this book is that Madonna has a lot of "friends" with big nasty mouths. Only once did I catch my breath and really feel what was being written, and that was when Morton describes Madonna looking into her motherís open casket. To the five-year-old Madonna, her motherís mouth "looked funny", and she only realised later that that was because it had been sewn up. We could have done with more of this, more Madonna the real, hurting person, less Madonna the strutting famous monster thing.

For, whatever she is or is not, for all the monsterfication of her that has gone on over the years if nothing else, Madonna remains one of the sanest mega-celebrities the world has ever seen, and a biographer has a duty to "illuminate" that. With Mortonís Madonna, the problem is not that he has never met his subject, but that he clearly has no special feel for her legend or her life. Maybe Morton did not need to have the same nightmare as my friend, but it might have helped if he had dreamt of her at all.