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Madonna and the meaning of her deflower power

Before hitting Toronto on Monday, Madonna was at the Venice International Film Festival promoting her new film W.E. – and left the festival more notorious than ever.

Why? Because she insulted a hydrangea.

During a press conference for her almost-uniformly panned film – a biopic about Wallis Simpson and King Edward III (Edward Windsor, or W.E.) – Madonna was approached by an ardent fan, who offered her a huge, purple hydrangea.

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Dressed, incidentally, in what appeared to be a tight first-communion dress accessorized with a cross pendant so big it seemed practically made to scale, Madonna accepted the man's frantic blandishments and flower.

Then she rolled her eyes, lowered the flower to the ground and archly informed someone to her right that, "I absolutely loathe hydrangeas."

"He obviously doesn't know that," she added, sounding mildly dismayed, and fantastically snotty. If this fan does indeed love her, why doesn't he know what flowers she likes? Why would he insult her by extending a bloom larger than her fair head? Was she supposed to leave the conference, buy an urn and drag it back to the dais?

Madonna's press rep eventually, and grudgingly, it appears, told CNN that the superstar is "entitled to like any flower she wants and she didn't want to hurt the feelings of the hydrangeas of the world ... No disrespect to the hydrangeas lovers of the world but she prefers different types of flowers."

Her concern about hurting a flower's feelings is an exciting new aspect to her complex, collaged persona. But ignored in the flower drama is Madonna's film, which, after hitting the festival circuit, will be in theatres this December.

The caustic reviews suggest a disaster on the order of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette; the spoilers leaked in these same reviews, however, reveal still another facet of Madonna's character.

The truth is "subjective," she told interviewers at the Venice junket. But every artist, she added, creates "autobiographical" or "semi-autobiographical" work. In Toronto at a press conference on Monday, she backpedalled a bit, asking that arbiters review the film, not the director.

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But she has announced, tantalizingly, that she identifies with Simpson, and that she pities her for, in her view, having been thrown to the wolves, and never portrayed as "a human being."

True, Wallis is the hotly recherché, doubly-divorced empire-wrecker in The King's Speech, a ruthlessly stylish and sexual woman – and a Nazi sympathizer.

As with John Galliano, who has now been found guilty of "public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity" and fined because of an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar last February, and who is thanked in Madonna's film, do these qualities make Wallis more or less human?

When Michael Jackson was depicted as a mentally ill pedophile by documentary maker Martin Bashir in 2003, Madonna told the media that God would "have His revenge" on the filmmaker, for exploiting and "humiliating" Jackson for his own gain.

When she defended the friendless Jackson, Madonna opened a part of her heart she usually guards with sarcasm and often monstrous representations of herself. (The doc about her Blond Ambition tour, Madonna: Truth or Dare, is a good example of the singer's willingness to appear loathsome; her need to challenge our heroic sense of celebrities.)

Little is known about Simpson, the flesh-and-blood woman. Is this why Madonna identifies with her? When Edward proposes in the film, Wallis replies: "I will be the most despised woman in the world." Is this how Madonna feels?

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At 53, and between records, Madonna is still managing a career that is predicated on her ability to shock and offend people.

And when she is loved or imitated for this provocative, often disquieting quality, she pushes her suitors away – consider the advances of she-mashers Camille Paglia, Courtney Love and, most recently, Lady Gaga.

Famously motherless, betrayed by her brother Christopher's cruel memoir, Madonna remains pop's orphan – and also its singular success story.

When furthering the myth of self-invention, one cannot allow others to intrude, even if they merely wish to extend love – this time, through a hideous flower.

The abusive fashion-magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, thought to be based on Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, rains wrath on her assistant when she sees a spray of white freesia in her Paris hotel. Joan Crawford called her editor, Michael Korda, in the middle of night from her hotel, while on tour in 1971. "There are white flowers in my room!" she screamed. (Korda's aunt, Merle Oberon, explained that white flowers "are for funerals.")

Advancing beautifully in age and stature, Madonna, in The Strange Case of the Hydrangea, has, as always, restated a conventionally female horror of aging, and decay. It is not funerals that Madonna loathes, it is ugliness.

While promoting W.E., she has surrounded herself with wreaths of white lilies.

When she meets Death, she will surely take it on like any other adversary: with terse coldness and pure class.

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