Hasta La Vista, Baby

If "Evita" ever gets filmed -- and frankly, the karma isn't very good -- the movie can't possibly be as intricate in plot or as rich in character as the story of how it didn't get made. Earlier this month, Oliver Stone became the latest director in the last 16 years to depart the project of putting the 1978 megamusical on screen. And over the years, the search for the star to play Evita has become more exhaustive than finding Scarlett O'Hara. Dozens of actresses, from the bad to the beautiful, from blondes to brunettes, from sopranos to the tone-deaf, were rumored to be clawing for the part. Stone had finally picked his Evita: Michelle Pfeiffer (anyone who saw her slink across the top of the grand piano in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" knows she can sing, not just howl like a wolf). But now, the search could start all over again.

In the end, what's so tough about making a movie about a real-life bottle blonde who slept her way to marrying an Argentine strongman and became his biggest political asset? Well, maybe an inflation rate to rival a Latin American dictatorship. What was supposed to be a modest-budget movie had ballooned to $60 million when Stone bowed out. One problem: Argentine President Carlos Menem decided last month that Stone couldn't film at such real settings as the presidential palace, or use the army, which would have saved a bundle of pesos. Maybe we just have to say adios to a movie of "Evita." Here's how it all broke down.

"Evita," the London smash hit by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, opens on Broadway, starring Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as Che Guevara. Despite mixed reviews, the show has a huge advance sale. A publicist spreads the rumor that Charo has "the inside track for the [movie] role -- followed by Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret."

Paramount, under studio chairman Barry Diller, acquires the movie rights to "Evita." Robert Stigwood ("Saturday Night Fever"), coproducer of the show, will produce the movie. The stage musical, a hit in London and New York, has spawned almost a dozen companies throughout the world and grossed $83 million at the box office (the figure today is in the hundreds of millions). The budget for the movie is less than $15 million; it's expected to go into production by the end of the year. Rumor has it that Michael ("Heaven's Gate") Cimino may direct; Stigwood denies it. Representatives for Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep say they're noncandidates; Bette Midler's out, too. Patti LuPone reportedly blows her chance by refusing to do a screen test.

Stigwood wants Elaine Paige, star of the London "Evita," for the title role, but then he picks the baroque director Ken Russell ("Crimes of Passion"); Russell insists only Liza Minnelli -- who auditions in a blond wig -- can do the part justice. He gets the boot. "Russell was an insane choice," says Tim Rice later. "He would have wrecked it." Later possibilities are Herbert Ross, Sir Richard Attenborough, Alan J. Pakula, Hector Babenco, Francis Ford Coppola. Franco Zeffirelli's name pops up, directing Diane Keaton as Evita. Another rumor: kind of a "Grease" version of "Evita" with John Travolta as Che, Olivia Newton-John in the title role and Elton John as Juan Peron. How boss! Also in the rumor mill are Pia Zadora as Evita, Elliott Gould as Juan (paired, of course, with Barbra); and as Che, Sylvester Stallone, Barry Gibb and -- our personal favorite -- Meat Loaf.

is a hot prospect; Paramount gets interested again. She goes to meet Stigwood with blond hair swept up, but he cools when she wants the score rewritten for her.

Stigwood has an "informal chat" with Cyndi Lauper. She says afterward she doesn't want to make her movie debut in "Evita" -- not that she was ever officially offered the part.

Oliver Stone gets interested. Weintraub Entertainment Group (WEG) takes over film rights from Paramount. "We wanted it to look sparse and forbidding and told Oliver to do it like he did "Salvador'," says former WEG executive Guy McElwaine. The budget is set at $12 million. Stone sets to work on a screenplay. He takes a trip to Argentina, and the exotic locale makes his vision grow more lavish. He sees it as a big '50s Vincente Minnelli musical with Argentina itself as the backdrop. "I'm kind of writing an epic," McElwaine recalls Stone saying at one point. "The script was fantastic," says McElwaine. "But $12 million would not have covered the "Don't Cry for Me' number." Budget raised to $16 million. Madonna is still in the running until she and Stone meet. The meeting reportedly lasts 15 minutes. "Madonna could not work with Stone and the feeling was mutual," says Stigwood later. Word goes out that the two split over "artistic differences." Meryl Streep becomes the front runner to star. Target release date: Christmas 1989.

About to shoot what's now a $29 million movie, the producers call a halt when unrest breaks out in Argentina. WEG runs into financial problems. Streep asks for more money, then withdraws because of "exhaustion." Or did she and Stone have a falling-out? LuPone never thought Streep could cut it: "I don't think she's a belter, and it's a real belt role." Stone moves on to his Doors film.

Disney and Stigwood have a deal to make "Evita," supposedly starring, again, Madonna and directed by Glenn Gordon Caron; it falls apart when the budget goes from $25.7 million to some $30 million.

In December Disney and Stone are both back, hoping to start production within 18 months on a now $40 million musical. Arnon Milchan and Andy Vajna are coproducers. Gloria Estefan and Mariah Carey get mentioned for Evita; Jeremy Irons has been rumored for Peron. Stone's script, like the show, has no spoken dialogue; it's your basic risky big-budget movie opera.

We're now talking about a $50 million version of "Evita" starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Evita, Antonio Banderas as Che and Raul Julia as Juan Peron. In May Stone has lunch with Argentine President Carlos Menem. The next week, Menem reneges on his offer to let Stone use Argentina's armed forces and the famous presidential-palace balcony for his movie, claiming he didn't know the film was based on that "infamous" musical (pro-Peronista Argentines think it demeans their saintly former First Lady by portraying her as a woman who slept her way to the top). "That opera is total infamy," says Menem. Stone is stunned, "especially in view of the warm cooperation he extended to us at lunch last Tuesday." In July Stone quits. Was it for the costs -- now in the vicinity of $60 million -- or those famous "creative differences"? Pfeiffer, expecting a baby this fall, isn't sure what's next. Stone is vacationing in the Far East, where he's said to be following rumors of a conspiracy in the death of North Korean president Kim Il Sung (we're not kidding). Disney's Hollywood Pictures and producing company Cinergi haven't given up hope the movie will still get made.