“Who would have thunk it,” said Madonna somewhat presciently when discussing her marriage to Guy Ritchie a couple of years ago. “The last thing I thought I would do is marry some laddish shooting pub-going nature lover.” So too did most of her friends. I remember one of her first New York producers telling me that when he knew the Material Girl in her skanky downtown days she was a vegetarian. “Now she is out shooting birds,” he said. “I’ll give it five years before she moves on.” That pronouncement was made in 2002.
While he was a couple of years off target, the announcement that Madonna and her man are divorcing came as no surprise to those in her circle. ‘It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’,’ a well-placed friend told a London tabloid. A drinking friend of Ritchie’s recently remarked to me that the last time they had a beer together he spent an inordinate amount of time flirting, doubtless innocently, with the bar maid. “I think that tells you all you need to know about the state of their marriage,” his friend observed.
In the end was it all just an elaborate game of dress up, a rollicking charade that was great fun while it lasted?
In the beginning though London society swooned over Madonna, the queen of reinvention crowned ‘Her Madgesty’ by the fawning glitterati. For she was not just marrying a man, she was taking on a country and like some character in a Henry James novel willing herself to embrace their curious customs and outdoor pursuits. The British loved the fact that she proved such a jolly good sport. Like the Queen Mother before her, she became an adopted National Treasure, the girl from the Midwest treated and behaving like royalty.
Or at the very least like a member of British aristocracy. Perhaps the rigid and codified British way of living—hunting is done in fine tailoring, a weekend in the country can involve three changes of clothes in a day, none of them into sweatpants—appealed to the control freak in Madonna. It soon became apparent that the wedding in a remote Scottish baronial lodge, with kilts, crinolines and morning shooting parties was not just an indulgence. She went from dominatrix to dowager, swapping her D & Gs for sensible brogues, her sexy leather and lace for tweeds and twin sets. She took to calling herself Mrs. Guy Ritchie, rounded out her vowels and learned how to drink pints of real ale in the local public house—just like one of the lads. ‘Here to see the wife?’ Ritchie said to one startled writer, as if she was some downtrodden house frau not the woman who had empowered a generation of young women to “respect yourself” and think bigger.
The transformation seemed to be complete when she and Guy bought the 1000 acre country estate once owned by celebrated royal photographer Cecil Beaton whose contribution to history was to turn the dowdy House of Windsor into a vision of lush unattainable romance. Who said Madonna invented reinvention? Perhaps appropriately the girl who had once outraged the Vatican was captured for Vogue magazine feeding the chickens in the gardens of her country seat. She looked a tad self conscious in her beige twin set. As well she might. In all her many guises, her impersonation of the Duchess of Devonshire’s maiden aunt was the most difficult act to swallow.
Life imitating artifice. But who could blame her? Just as she had reimagined her life story as a rags to riches drama—actually her well-to-do father worked in the arms business—she had bonded with another master of make believe. They both propagated the myth of hard scrabble beginnings, she with the story that she first arrived in Times Square with $32 dollars to her name, Guy affecting the laddish swagger and fake Michael Caine Mockney accent of an East End gangster that belied his sturdily upper middle class roots as the step son of Sir Michael Leighton who owns a sprawling estate, Loton Park on the Welsh borders.
Blind to the nuances of British class and status, it seems that Madonna simply misread the social signals, falling for a lovably aggressive yet artistic rogue who had in fact gone out of his way to disguise his high born roots. Ironically she was faking her past to conform to the conventional American dream of making it by hard work and talent, Guy was hiding his status to pursue his fascination with low lifes.
Madonna could forgive all that. After all when she first met Guy at the country home of Sting and Trudi Styler in 1999, Guy was the new big thing, riding high with his directorial debut, the gangster movie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He was edgy, creative but most of all successful in a field where she had always failed, making movies. She has said that she knew immediately that he was one of the few men who could "cope" with her.
A notoriously controlling bossy-boots, the one thing Madonna hates more than chaos in her life is failure. Throughout her career she has attached herself to those who are on the way up. From actress and style guru Debi Mazar to producer William Orbit she has the instinct to sniff out the cool and the credible. At last here was a match made in artistic heaven, a talented young film director who could put her back on the movie map after a string of so-so efforts. After directing Brad Pitt in another gangster movie, Snatch, he tried his hand at straight drama, remaking the 1974 Swept Away with his new bride in the lead. Like others before him, he failed to unlock in Madonna any talent for celluloid, critics universally criticizing her performance as wooden and his directorial efforts as laughable. If the tide was out on Madonna’s acting career, Guy’s directorial promise seemed equally washed up. While his friend, producer Matthew Vaughn made the critically acclaimed gangster film Layer Cake, Guy floundered into the shallows with another blank, ‘Revolver.’ This was not going according to script.
This month his latest foray into the underworld, RockNRolla has opened to less than rapturous reviews. Meanwhile Madonna has moved on reasoning that anything her husband can do, she can do better. Her directorial debut Filth and Wisdom, which was premiered on New York’s Lower East Side “where my struggle began,” earned high praise from the critics. “She has real potential as a film maker,” wrote James Christopher in the London Times about this frothy comedy which she also co wrote. “Her film has an artistic ambition that has simply bypassed her husband.”
It was an observation that could serve as a metaphor for their marriage. With her Hard Candy album—her twentieth in 26 years—working the charts and her Sticky and Sweet tour selling out, at fifty Madonna is about to start all over again. She has proved that she can live with fake. But not with failure.
Andrew Morton is the author of Madonna (St Martins Press).