The pop diva says she was "destined' to play Eva Peron. When you consider how it almost didn't happen, you wonder if she's got something there. Here's the whole strange saga.
BY NANCY GRIFFIN
"I was destined to play Evita," Madonna said.
In the most keenly anticipated movie of the Christmas season, the maligned and adored Madonna Louise Ciccone stars as one of the most maligned and adored figures of the century. Bottle-blond and driven by ambition, Evita Peron rose from poverty in the pampas to win the hearts of the workers and transform the political culture in Argentina. Viewed as a saint by ordinary people and a slut by the ruling class, she elevated herself to an iconic celebrity that still has almost religious status in her homeland.
The movie "Evita," built around the songs of the 1976 concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is a double-edged Cinderella tale that tracks her journey from illegitimate birth to the pinnacle of power as the most precious political asset of Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). The character of Che (Antonio Banderas) narrates with a Brechtian cynicism that deflates Evita's deft mythmaking.
"Eva Peron is actually Madonna, but in 1948 instead of 1996," says director Alan Parker. For the actress, the director and Hollywood, there is much riding on this $60 million epic. For Madonna, 38, it's the fulfillment of a dream, her best shot yet at the movie-stardom that has so far eluded her. Parker's hope is that he has pulled off the audacious "sung through" format, which includes virtually no spoken dialogue. And for Hollywood the future of filmed musicals, long an endangered species, hangs in the balance.
Parker maintains that once people have seen Madonna as Evita, "no one will think anyone else could have done it." Yet for the film's tortured 16-year history, "no one could agree on who should play her." In 1979, "Saturday Night Fever" impresario Robert Stigwood, who produced "Evita" on Broadway, began efforts to mount a film version. The first director he spoke to was Parker, the British filmmaker who was just then finishing "Fame." Parker didn't want to make two musicals in a row and declined while he and Stigwood were playing tennis. Stigwood reacted by bashing Parker with his racquet. "True story," swears Parker.
It was the first of many bruisings to come in the "Evita" saga. Directors Ken Russell, Herb Ross, Hector Babenco, Francis Ford Coppola, Franco Zeffirelli, Michael Cimino, Richard Attenborough, Glenn Gordon Caron and Oliver Stone all came and went from 1979 to '95. Meanwhile, the rights bounced from Paramount to the Weintraub Entertainment Group to Disney to Cinergi Pictures.
In the late '80s, Madonna requested an audience with Stigwood. She swept into his office wearing an elaborate gown and a '40s upswept hairdo to show that she understood the soul of the South American strongman's wife. Stigwood was dazzled. "She was perfect" to play Evita, he says. In 1987 Oliver Stone came aboard. He wrote a widely admired script--also sung through, with the lyrics essentially forming the screenplay--that he planned to film, bursting with tango dancing, on location in Argentina. He and Madonna spent a jolly evening with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the composer's lavish Trump Tower apartment in New York. "He played "Aspects of Love' for us on the piano after dinner," recalls Stone. Then, according to Stone, Madonna told Webber that she intended to rewrite some of the "Evita" score. "At the time she hadn't done many movies, and she was insisting on script approval," says Stone. I said, "Madonna, you can't have script approval.' And she wanted to rewrite Andrew Lloyd Webber! Here she was making these demands, and I said, "Look, there's no point in our meeting anymore; it's not going to work'."
Stone nearly succeeded in getting "Evita" airborne with Meryl Streep in '89, but Streep backed out, claiming "exhaustion." Stigwood made a new deal at Disney, where Madonna became attached to a version to be directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, the creator of "Moonlighting." But when the budget soared to $30 million, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg balked. Stone recommitted to the musical in '94 with Michelle Pfeiffer. This time he planned a big, glossy musical that would cost $60 million. Andy Vajna, head of Cinergi, came in with financing; Disney would distribute domestically.
Stone traveled to Argentina in '94 to scout locations and meet with Argentine President Carlos Menem to request the government's cooperation in filming. But Menem was under pressure from his own Peronist party not to allow these Hollywood interlopers to besmirch the memory of the sainted Evita--and he was facing an election. Menem ultimately denied Stone access.
So then Stone was gone, and Vajna summoned . . . Alan Parker, bringing the project full circle. He, too, envisioned a sung-through format, "a new film genre--not opera, not an old MGM musical with people speaking, then bursting into song." But Parker refused to use Stone's script. "I wanted to start from scratch," he says. "It's a pride thing, really." Parker is livid that the Writers' Guild has decreed that he share the screenplay credit with Stone.
Madonna wasted no time firing off a beseeching, four-page, handwritten letter to Parker that he describes as "extraordinarily passionate and sincere." Only she could fully understand Eva Peron's pain, she said. Madonna then proceeded to summon all the forces of the universe to align themselves with her will, lighting candles, praying and consulting psychics.
That formidable will was prepared, at last, to relinquish control. The director of "Mississippi Burning" is a tough-minded auteur with a fearsome temper. He insisted that if Madonna was to be his Evita, she must understand who was in charge. "The film is not a glorified Madonna video," says Parker. "I controlled it and she didn't."
And so, having found his Evita, Parker returned to Argentina to court President Menem in June 1995. Menem said that he would not stop Parker from filming in Argentina, but he could not possibly grant him the coveted Casa Rosada, where Peron and Eva lived, to use as a location. Menem and his advisers knew that no matter whom they finally allowed into Argentina to make "Evita," the filmmakers would be met with the full force of citizens' feelings for Eva Peron. "In Argentina there are two kinds of people," says Parker, "those who think she's a saint and those who think she's a whore. There's no in-between."
The peculiar complexities of Argentine politics have allowed both right- and left-wing elements to claim Evita as their own. From the time Juan Peron was elected president in 1945 to Eva's death from cancer in 1952, the Perons advanced the cause of the labor unions and gave women the right to vote, but also--as keen admirers of Mussolini and Franco--cracked down on many freedoms with their tanks and goose-stepping soldiers. With her chignon, her couture wardrobe and her charitable foundations, Eva became the public face of Peron, a shining mother symbol for her country.
A key component of the musical "Evita," which has always rankled the Peronists, is its portrayal of her as a vulgar radio actress who slept with many men to advance her career. Her pre-Peron sexual escapades are well documented, and Parker was not about to whitewash his Evita--even as Madonna, no stranger to sexual scandal herself, wanted to portray Eva with more dimensions than a caricature of a woman who "slept her way to the top."
As the "Evita" company began assembling in Buenos Aires last January, it seemed that they had made a dreadful mistake. "Everybody wanted to kill us," says Parker. Driving in from the airport, he was greeted by graffiti on billboards and bridges saying FUERA [GO HOME] MADONNA. From the moment the star arrived, she was mobbed by fans and paparazzi, who made her a virtual prisoner in the Park Hyatt Hotel. The pro-Peronist press began a relentless campaign against the movie. A former secretary of Eva Peron's was publicly quoted as saying, "We want Madonna dead or alive. If she does not leave I will kill her."
On the first day of filming, hostile crowds burned the English and American flags. Extra police protection was added. At a hastily arranged press conference attended by 370 journalists, a subdued Madonna promised to "portray Evita as a courageous and respectable woman."
Then the notoriously star-struck President Menem invited Madonna--the actress he had previously pronounced "unsuitable"--to his estate for a tEte-A-tEte. In her diaries published in Vanity Fair, she described how the president's eyes roamed over her body and kept settling at her bra strap. ("Madonna always thinks everyone is looking at her bra strap," says Parker.) After playing her recording of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" for Menem, she zeroed in for the kill: could she please sing the song on the Casa Rosada balcony, where Eva Peron addressed the throngs? He did not answer.
As filming progressed, the furor subsided: Argentina finally got bored with the movie. There were not even any star high jinks to report. The tabloids were hoping for an affair between Madonna and Banderas, but his pregnant wife-to-be, Melanie Griffith, was keeping close tabs on him. Meanwhile, Madonna enjoyed the occasional visit from her boyfriend, Carlos Leon.
The production was massive: during the 84-day shoot a total of 40,000 extras were dressed in period garb. Evita's funeral alone required a parade of 4,000 supplicants at the coffin. Madonna's wardrobe included a Fendi mink coat, Bulgari jewels and 30 pairs of custom-designed Ferragamo shoes. "I had more suits than songs," says Jonathan Pryce. "But not as many as Madonna."
Madonna plunged into her work with a seriousness of purpose that won over the most skeptical observers. She had displayed that dedication while recording the soundtrack, orchestrated by Lloyd Webber, earlier in London. "Madonna sings it better, far better, than Patti LuPone or Elaine Paige [the original stage Evitas]," insists Parker. Even her old adversary Sir Andrew was impressed with the results as he personally played piano for her rehearsals of "You Must Love Me," a ballad he and Tim Rice wrote for the movie.
During filming, the actors lip-synced to playbacks of the prerecorded songs. Parker's plan was to create as realistic a visual style as possible within the artifice of the genre. "Once you overcome the fact that people are singing, it's infinitely more convincing if it's shot in a naturalistic way." On the set, Madonna bitched and moaned like a true diva--about the heat, the flies, the waiting--but she was the most hardworking diva anyone ever saw. She would appear only fully dressed and made up as Evita. She did everything asked of her and never had a contretemps with Parker. "She was a pain in the a--," he says fondly, "but brilliantly prepared. Which is why you can't criticize her."
Eva Peron once railed against "envious and mediocre people who never understood me and will never understand me." Madonna, too, says she is tired of people's misperceptions of her. In the ivory-tower jail of her hotel, her kinship with Evita grew as she watched newsreel footage of the Perons. "I gave her the documentaries," says Parker, "and what is really to her credit and not mine is how she captured every mannerism."
Just days before they were scheduled to leave Buenos Aires, Menem granted "Evita" the Casa Rosada balcony. Madonna was overjoyed--"I didn't come all the way to Buenos Aires to sing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina' on a sound stage"--but Parker's panicked first thought was "Do I have enough light? I have 2,000 people in that shot." A replica of the palace was already under construction in London. But cinematographer Darius Khondji threw up spotlights to simulate the gritty, dramatic lighting he had seen in the black-and-white newsreels. For two nights running, a spectral, Hollywood Evita stood where Eva Peron had stood, and the filmmakers could see, in the emotion on the faces of the extras who tipped their faces upward, the living spirit of Evita--and why they had come to Argentina.
Next stop, Hungary, then they'd be burning down the homestretch at London's Shepperton Studios. Just before she was to arrive in Budapest, Madonna called Parker from New York with startling news. "I'm pregnant," she announced. Parker frantically began rearranging the schedule to move up scenes where Madonna danced, or where there was a danger that her pregnancy would show. He eliminated a shot where the ill Evita is carried down some church steps by her brother, fearing the actor might slip.
Costume designer Penny Rose began sewing fabric inserts into the back of the star's costumes. A waltz sequence between Evita and Che, to be pieced together with footage from three separate locations, was a bit of a worry: Madonna had already been shot wearing a clinging bias-cut gown in Buenos Aires, so she would have to wear the same dress in Budapest and London. The waltz scene documents for the ages three different stages of Madonna's swelling figure, visible to the discerning eye.
So share my glory
So share my coffin . . .
Evita's early death secured her niche in history as a martyr, and emotions ran high on the set when the final scenes between Eva and Juan were filmed. "Singing can get to your emotions quicker than saying lines," says Pryce. In a hospital room, Juan tells Eva that she's dying with the song "Your Little Body's Slowly Breaking Down." When filming began, the two actors were soon in tears. "Both of us ended up in a bit of a state," says Pryce, "which really worked for the scene." Parker decided to record the song live rather than use the prerecording because "what we were doing with our emotions didn't match what was coming out of our mouths," says Pryce.
Evita's deathbed "Lament"--the last song in the film, also recorded live--was the moment when Madonna surpassed her director's expectations. Her raw emotion destroyed even the most macho crew members present. More than anything, this "Evita" is a bold creative collusion between Madonna and Alan Parker. They both know that its fate now depends on whether the pathos that bathed the room that day will be reflected on the screen. "We could both of us, her and me, fall flat on our faces," says Parker, "or we could have done something really special. The audience will tell us."
ALAN PARKER'S LAVISH production of Evita begins stunningly, in a Buenos Aires movie house, where a black-and-white melodrama is interrupted by the announcement of the death of Eva Peron. The moviegoers break into sobs. Leaping through time, Parker takes us to the little child Eva, an illegitimate country girl barred from her father's funeral by his middle-class wife--a trauma that plants the seeds of her ferocious class resentment. Now we're at her state funeral. Thousands of mourners throng the streets while the film's cynical Everyman narrator (Antonio Banderas) undercuts the pomp and circumstance: "As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears/We're all gonna see she did nothing for years."
It's a riveting windup that raises hopes that Parker may pull off the daunting task of turning Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's virtually dialogueless musical into a ravishing screen opera. The Penny Rose costumes are to die for. Darius Khondji's burnished images are suitable for framing. Brian Morris's production designs superbly evoke the Argentina of the '30s and '40s and early '50s, during which time the ruthlessly ambitious Evita (Madonna) rises from small-time actress to the heights of political power on the arm of Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). It's gorgeous. It's epic. It's spectacular. But two hours later, it also proves to be emotionally impenetrable.
What all of Parker's dazzling technique can't overcome is the problem that was built into the show onstage: It never had a coherent point of view about its heroine, and it still doesn't. If she was as cynical an opportunist as the narrator keeps telling us, why is the music urging us to weep for her as a tragic figure? Parker may think he's giving us a "balanced" view of Eva Peron--who is still as revered by her partisans in Argentina as she is reviled by her enemies--but having it both ways isn't balance; it's confusion. He's tinkered with the material, but what was really needed was a major overhaul.
It's not Madonna's fault that "Evita" feels remote. She gives a fierce, committed performance that captures Evita's steely will, if not the charisma that entranced a nation. Strong as she is, she's still more a performer than an actress. You get a sense of what's missing when she's alongside the effortless Pryce, who takes an underwritten part and gets it to breathe. You sense his power even in repose. Madonna and Banderas are better singers, but since they rarely have anyone to play off of except the audience, they sometimes seem to be selling their parts. The actors aren't helped by the prerecorded songs; there's a subtle dissociation between the images and the sound that keeps the drama encased in an aural bubble.
What a tantalizing, frustrating movie this is: you yearn to be drawn inside its seductive surface, and never get there. Instead of deepening with Evita's amazing metamorphosis, the movie remains opaque. Instead of insight, you get spectacle. At the end, I knew I was supposed to be moved, but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be moved by. Maybe all the people who loved the show will love the movie, too--it's certainly impressive. But I still haven't a clue what it thinks it's saying.