As the old saying goes, "You're not really famous until you have to contest a biopic about you." So is the case for Empress of Pop Madonna, who, in 2017, shared her distaste for screenwriter Elyse Hollander's not-yet-produced movie about the Material Girl and her rise to fame.
Following the news that Universal was developing the project, titled Blond Ambition, Madonna (whose turns 60 this month) wrote on Instagram:
"Nobody knows what I know and what I have seen. Only I can tell my story. Anyone else who tries is a charlatan and a fool. Looking for instant gratification without doing the work. This is a disease in our society."
IMDb Pro lists the film as still in the "script" phase of development.
So how did Blond Ambition come to be, if Madonna herself had little interest in seeing it on the big screen? It's simple, really: Blond Ambition is, apparently, a great script, one selected by industry leaders as the best of the year.
In 2016, Hollander — whose previous credits include the assistant to the director on 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman, as well as a number of shorts — earned the top spot on The Blacklist, an industry-wide list of the most-liked unproduced screenplays.
According to Blacklist founder and film executive Franklin Leonard, who spoke with Refinery29 about the list, "the annual [Blacklist] is simply a survey of Hollywood gatekeepers most liked unproduced screenplays from that year." Typically, the list consists of a mix of scripts from established writers (Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was once on the list) and newcomers who wrote something particularly buzzy.
According to the logline for the script, which was shared on Deadline, the script tells the story of Madonna's now well-known journey through New York City in the '80s, as she "struggles to get her first album released while navigating fame, romance, and a music industry that views women as disposable."
"It’s hard for me to say why it, in particular, ended up top of the list," said Leonard when asked about Blond Ambition. "But it does continue a trend of biopics finding their way onto it: Hillary Clinton, Fred Rogers, Michael Jackson, Jim Henson, etcetera. I suspect it has something to do with getting well-written insight into the humanity of people most of us experience only as icons."
Soon after the 2016 Blacklist's release, Universal swooped in and scored the rights to Hollander's screenplay. Producers Michael De Luca and the since-disgraced Brett Ratner reportedly signed on to the project, per The Hollywood Reporter. Still, as far as the public is aware, Blond Ambition (which takes its title from her legendary 1990 world tour) has not received a greenlight to enter production, nor has anyone been cast as Madonna herself.
Madonna's disapproval seems like the biggest indication why. Madge, in a since-deleted Instagram, claimed that the script was inaccurate. She wrote:
"I was born in Bay City, not Detroit. And I did not drop out of high school. In fact, I went to University of Michigan."
Yet it seemed that Hollander did do her research, at least about those specific details: Madonna herself states them in a clip from American Bandstand. In an interview with Dick Clark, the pop star says that she was born in Detroit and is a "famed high school dropout."
Though Madonna did note that particular moment in the script, The Hollywood Reporter states that there were actually a few other moments that she might have an issue with. The script implies that Madonna stole a pivotal fashion look from a woman she met in the downtown club scene named Bianca Stonewell. Near the end of the script, Madonna tells her then-boyfriend and producer, Jellybean Benitez, that she aborted her pregnancy so she would not have to choose between "family and career."
Biopics don't inherently need the approval of their subject — Mark Zuckerberg wasn't thrilled about his callous depiction in The Social Network, and the movie went on to win three Oscars. The problem with Blond Ambition, specifically, is that without Madonna's approval of the script, it's unlikely that the film would be able to use any of her original music. And really, what's a movie about the making of Madonna's first, eponymous album (released in 1983) if your film can't feature renditions of classics like "Lucky Star," "Borderline" and "Holiday?"
Refinery29 has reached out to representatives for Madonna. Representatives for Hollander declined to comment for the story.
Given Madonna's pushback, it's possible that the movie won't ever see the light of day, at least in its current state as a telling of the "Lucky Star" singer's life.
There is, however, some good news to all of this drama. We need more women's stories onscreen, and more women to tell them. Hollander, by way of this Madonna-centric script, proved she's a voice capable of doing so. Perhaps her next project, be it a biopic or completely original piece, will make it to the big screen — no snarky Instagram response necessary.