Madonna found a kindred spirit of sorts when she started researching the life of Wallis Simpson -- long before she dreamed of directing and co-writing a "Julie & Julia"-style take on the Duchess of Windsor in "W.E." Feeling very much the foreigner when she first moved to England, Madonna started reading up on the history of the monarchy, and was especially intrigued by the story of Edward VIII abdicating his throne for an American divorcee. Madonna became even more interested when she discovered her London home was literally right around the corner from where Wallis lived with Ernest Simpson. The singer/actress said she was a "strange stalker," loitering around the building and imagining scenarios much like those dreamt up by the modern-day character Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) in "W.E.," who obsesses about her namesake (Andrea Riseborough) as if she were a soul mate -- an extension of Madonna's own feelings. "I felt like I could have written some of her letters," Madonna confessed to reporters when she met press along with Andrea Riseborough at the Waldorf Astoria -- where the Duke and Duchess once lived in New York. "I thought, 'Can't a girl just get a break?'"
There were so many reasons Wallis Simpson was considered an inappropriate choice for the Prince of Wales, either as a mistress at first or later on, as a wife -- beginning with the fact that when they started seeing each other in the early 1930s, she was Mrs. Wallis Simpson, on her second marriage, previously divorced. (He'd had relationships with other married women before, but she was the most serious). Unlike his previous flings, this American didn't treat him like a prince. "She was still courteous and polite, but she did it with a wink and a smile, with irreverence," Madonna said. "She was very witty, and always had a one-liner." (One of her famous retorts was, "You cannot be too rich or too thin.")
Treating a royal as an equal just was not done in his world, and Wallis is oft described as even being so bold as to criticize him publicly, which did not endear her to British historians. This, however, only made him love her more -- and made Madonna want to explore the relationship on film. "I don't know why everyone's bamboozled into thinking conventional relationships exist," she said. "Do you know of any? So really, what I'm interested in here was what we're all interested in."
One area that was conventional for the pair? The way to his heart was through his stomach. Because Edward VIII had been raised with servants and staff, and his mother had treated him coldly (a royal tradition for the eldest son, Madonna said, to teach him to prioritize country and duty over love and affection), Edward also was attracted to how Wallis would "whip things up" in the kitchen. "She was raised by a woman who cooked for a living, so she would make the cocktails, make food, and he couldn't get his head around that," Madonna said. "There was something maternal and nurturing and feminine about it, and he liked that."
Bring up Wallis Simpson in England, Madonna said, and "inevitably, an argument would occur: whether she was a witch or not, a woman or not, an ambitious person or a clever, witty human being. So I was intrigued by that polarization."
At various points in the film, characters mention the accusation that Wallis and Edward were Nazi sympathizers -- one of the other reasons their relationship was scandalized. When Wally Winthrop's doctor husband brings it up, she snaps, "I thought doctors were into empirical evidence." And when reporters bring it up, Madonna's answer is, "I could find no empirical evidence."
However, it's a matter of historical record that Edward repeatedly expressed pro-German sentiments. An Austrian ambassador reported that Edward said to him in 1933, "I hope and believe we will never fight another war, but if we do, we must be on the winning side, and that will be Germany." The Prince of Wales advised the British Legion in 1935 to "stretch forth the hand of friendship to Germany." Once Edward became king in 1936, the German ambassador reported to Adolf Hitler that "King Edward... feels warm sympathy for Germany." And then there's the infamous photo of the pair meeting Adolf Hitler in 1937, a trip during which Edward gave Nazi salutes and spent time as an honored guest with not only with Hitler, but also Josef Goebbels, Hermann Goering, and Rudolf Hess.
"So many people dined with Hitler," Riseborough told The Playlist. "It was just one picture that ran in the press, and it got sensationalized. At some stage, people thought she was villainous, but once you look into it for five or ten minutes, you get the point. There's a huge amount of propaganda where Wallis is concerned."
But was it just propaganda? Leaked dispatches from the Reich's Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop -- who was later hanged for war crimes -- identified Mrs. Simpson as someone working for "Germanophile forces." The FBI believed she was carrying on a sexual affair with Ribbentrop in 1936, at the same time as Edward's brief reign as King, and advised President Roosevelt of this, according to declassified files. The British Foreign Office believed she was involved in a Nazi plot to put Edward back on the throne after a German invasion. This, more than her status as a divorcee, seems to be a factor in the couple's forced exile to Nassau in the Bahamas.
"W.E." waves all of this away by calling it mere "rumors." Madonna keeps saying, "Truth is subjective," but a number of reviews have pointed out that this particular truth might be less subjective than Madonna thinks. However, she chooses to remain unaware of that. "A lot of people have seen the film, but I have not read anything written about it," she admitted.
When Madonna first started writing the script, one of her working titles was "The Punk Rock King." Earlier drafts focused more on him and his irreverent behavior, "how he broke all the rules," Madonna said. "He pushed away from convention. He didn't dress the way he was supposed to. He didn't date who he was supposed to date. He wanted to make change in the world around him. He wanted to bring new energy in the royal world."
In one scene, Wallis and Edward get hopped up on champagne and Benzedrine, and then Wallis tucks in her chiffon gown and dirty dances to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" while a Charlie Chaplin movie flickers behind her, in a sort of Sofia Coppola/"Marie Antoinette" anachronistic music move. "He did drink Benzedrine cocktails," Madonna allowed. "He did dance at parties. I thought the song was perfect."
"It's about hedonistic abandon," Riseborough said. "He's being his usual cad self and spiking everybody's drinks, so there's an element of punk to him. And she was having extraordinary fun. It was liberating."
One other dance number might raise eyebrows. On his deathbed, Edward pleads, "Dance for me, Wallis," and a bent-over 70-something Simpson obliges, as Chubby Checker starts to play.
"We experimented with all sorts of different things," Riseborough said. "Standing up more straight would have made it seem like just a very old face on a very young body, so I tried to remain old all day. It was just easier than slipping in and out of it. But you know, when you play older, people help you. They want to help you upstairs."
Riseborough said she thought playing the elderly Simpson was "truly, truly, terribly sad," because after Edward died, she had "few callers." "Wallis spent twelve years alone, and she thought people had forgotten about her," she said.
Madonna focuses much of her attention on the film's gloss of luxury, so costumes were key. In particular, the jewelry -- since Edward showered Wallis with crosses and broaches, in part to compensate for not being able to give her the royal jewels. Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels recreated some of these pieces for use in the film, including the wedding bracelet, the engagement ring, the flamingo brooch, the panther brooch, and the pearl pendant. On top of that, both jewelers allowed the use of a few heritage pieces, so that some of the actual collection worn by the Duchess could be worn by Riseborough.
"It was really special when I wore the pieces that really belonged to her," the actress said. "I felt like she was with us on set those days. She was with us, and six bodyguards [protecting the priceless jewels] were with me, so it was very difficult to go to the bathroom! No moments alone."
Wallis' most famous jewelry were the crosses -- the nine Latin crosses that commemorated intimate moments spent together, including the death of their dog. For each event, the Duke would give the Duchess a cross to add to her bracelet, and Cartier made a replica for use in the film.
"We were shooting one scene in the sea," Riseborough recalled, "and the prince gives Wallis an emerald cross, the X-Ray cross, that she received for having an X-Ray. What a thing to receive a cross for! But he drops the cross, and she picks it up, so we're shooting take after take, drop/pick up, drop/pick up, and on the tenth or eleventh take, the clasp detached and the bracelet dropped,, and we both went to pick it up, and nothing happened. We started feeling our hands around in the sand -- nothing. We looked in a desperate panic, but it just never came back to us."
While promoting "W.E.," Madonna likes to wear another replica that Cartier made of the cross bracelet -- at least for now. "The replicas are copies of works of art, and they don't want them recreated by anyone else in any way, shape, or form," Madonna said. "So they're going to destroy the other replicas."
Riseborough predicts that someday, someone will find the lost replica, and mistake it for the original. "It's got the same engraving, and it'll be weatherworn from being in the sea," she said. "So someone's going to think they've found the real cross that Edward gave Wallis, and that's kind of romantic."
"W.E." opens on Friday, February 3rd in limited release.