Norman Mailer's article in Esquire on Madonna is an exercise in overexposure

MAGAZINES

July 24, 1994|By Mark Feeney | Mark Feeney,Boston Globe

After Madonna paid her now-celebrated visit to David Letterman last spring, Norman Mailer bumped into Liz Smith at a party. Ever the gentleman, he rose to the defense of Dave's guest, whose appearance was otherwise being universally trashed. Mailer's remark ran in Smith's gossip column. Someone at Esquire saw it . . . and, well, it had to happen sooner or later: '60s sex meets '80s sex in a '90s magazine. "Mailer on Madonna," there they are, two alliterative names joined by the skimpiest of prepositions sitting bold as brass on the cover, right above Madonna in leather underwear (ho-hum) looking like Sharon Stone's steelier sister.

It's sort of perfect. Mailer's most notorious work is his book about Marilyn Monroe. Madonna wishes she were Marilyn -- Mailer wishes he were still Mailer.

And, you know, maybe 5 percent of what turns out to be a very long (very padded) piece recalls what a delirious run Mailer had during the '60s as the novelist with the journalistic mostest: the reckless ambition, the furious intelligence, the third-person irony ("Madonna, on the face of it, had to have an ego even larger than his own"). But it is one thing to exercise such ambition, intelligence and irony on the astronauts, the March on the Pentagon or even himself . . . but on someone as passe and -- if you'll forgive the expression -- overexposed as Madonna? It's a little bit sad, like Joe Louis working as a greeter at Caesars Palace.

The nadir comes when Mailer rhapsodizes about the "poetry" of music videos. "While watching 'Like a Virgin,' I was thinking that the more you look at it, the richer it's going to get. Poetry is also montage. One evocative phrase is set next to another. . . . Same with good music videos." "That's interesting," Madonna replies. "Never thought of that." Oh well, it could be worse: What if Mailer had bumped into Smith at a Kurt Cobain memorial service?

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The great thing about being famous in a youth-obsessed culture that if you live long enough, and keep at least a few of your marbles, eventually you get treated like a god.

Mailer, for example, has about another five years to go and then he'll be able to do no wrong. Someone who already qualifies is Barry Goldwater. For years, the only magazine printed on coated paper not to regard him as anything other than a bombs-away blunderbuss was National Review. Now that he's 85, it's a different story: The former senator has become an elder statesman. Men's Journal (August) even goes so far as to hail him as "Sage of the Southwest" and sent off champion bien-pensant bloviator Roger Rosenblatt to gain wisdom at his cowboy-boot-shod feet.

Goldwater, Rosenblatt confides, "has that seriousness Nietzsche noted 'of a child at play.' " For the next 2,000 words or so, we get Goldwater rambling on in a salty, moderately coherent way about God, presidents he has known and what freedom means to him. As such things go, it's pretty good, actually -- sort of like a visit with Edmond O'Brien's character from "The Wild Bunch" after he's had a shave and sobered up a bit. Goldwater comes across as the straightest of straight shooters, someone who'd make a great great-uncle. But has he changed any from when he was being portrayed as a champion Yahoo? Doubt it. Guess he just must be aging well.

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Always judge a magazine by its antipodes. Take Wired. On the one hand, Conde Nast owns a chunk of it -- on the other, there are at least two layouts in the August issue with typefaces whose legibility is beyond the capacity of anyone who doesn't grow their own mushrooms. An even better example: That same issue contains, separated by a mere 14 pages, interviews with Funkadelic pharaoh George Clinton and Yale info guru Edward Tufte, who may well be the squarest individual I've ever met.

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It's come to this: Robert Shapiro, O.J. Simpson's lawyer, gets an Ave-don portrait in the New Yorker (July 25). Some things about suits they don't teach in law school.

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Credit Elle with the summer's most upfront fashion spread. The August issue celebrates the 35th birthday of everyone's favorite play doll, Barbie, by surrounding Claudia Schiffer with props that make it look as though she's in a dollhouse and having Gianni Versace dress her up in Barbie-style fashions. For once, there's no bones about a fashion magazine presenting a model as a play doll.

Overall, it's all a bit unnerving, like a 1-900 version of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!" There's a photo of Schiffer inserting a giant three-prong plug into a wall socket -- she's the Vamp with Amp -- that's enough to make you wonder what Ken's been up to lately.

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