Archives 1997 | R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 01/02/1997, B: Michael Freedberg,
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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 01/02/1997, B: Michael Freedberg,

Goon squad

Evita bludgeons, but seduces

by Peter Keough

EVITA. Directed by Alan Parker. Written by Alan Parker and Oliver Stone, based on the musical play with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. With Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, Jimmy Nail, Victoria Sus, Julian Littman, Olga Merediz, and Laura Pallas. A Hollywood Pictures release.

Alan Parker's Evita exhilarates, enraptures, and exhausts. After two-and-a-half hours you feel as beaten down by musical and cinematic excess as the film's poor proles are by the batons of their oppressors. Somehow Parker has managed an unsettling and intriguing fusion of dark hipness and tony schmaltz -- a kind of meeting of his own The Wall with Showboat, or perhaps The Pirates of Penzance. It's an almost opaque onslaught of relentless music and dark, daunting imagery that is made endurable, even moving, by the incandescent performances of the leads.


E V I T A: The music | The interviews - Banderas and Madonna


Yes, Madonna can act -- at least when she's singing, which in Evita she's doing all the time. As Eva Duarte Perón, the illegitimate daughter of a peasant woman from the Pampas who became one of the most powerful women in the world through a combination of innocence, seductiveness, ruthlessness, genius, and charisma, Madonna reprises most of the personae of her 15-year career in a format similar to the medium most kind to her talents: MTV. Parker serves his first lady well. He cuts and patches her performances together in brisk montages, shot with dramatic camerawork in semi-surreal settings.

It's not insignificant that Madonna's biggest scenes are addressed to large audiences: the show-stopping "Don't Cry for Me" number, for example, is stunningly delivered before thousands of adorers from the balcony of the Casa Rosanda, the Argentine presidential palace from which Eva Perón announced her own retirement from political life. What's surprising is that her best scenes are intimate duets like "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a poignant, winsome exploration of pathos, defilement, and resolution sung by a young, struggling Eva forced into prostitution with a series of drab johns. And "You Must Love Me," her climactic duet with her husband, Argentine president Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce), is an aching farewell that dispels the illusion of a romance-of-convenience to reveal the inescapable love and tragedy beneath.

Pryce is astonishing in this number, as he is throughout. No vocalist, he holds his own with Madonna thanks to nuance, timing, and a great actor's meticulous technique. Even more impressive is Antonio Banderas as Ché, the tale's cynical, impassioned narrator and commentator. Emerging as a face from the crowd in the opening spectacle of Evita's funeral, he relates with rueful disdain and reluctant affection her humble origins and meteoric ascent. When the story focuses on her rise from bruised innocence to the top of Buenos Aires society through Machiavellian sexual maneuverings, Evita takes on the corrupt pizzazz of Bob Fosse's Cabaret, with Banderas an earthier, sexually unambiguous Joel Grey.

When Eva finally meets and seduces Perón, however, the film becomes entangled in the complexities and brute realities of its politics. Whereas in Cabaret the rise of Nazism lurked in the background, chilling the foreground gaiety but never joining in with it, the bloody street battles and savage oppression of the Perón years are all part of the show here. When ranks of showering soldiers start singing about military coups, it's hard not to think of "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks's The Producers.

It undercuts the subject's gravity, needless to say, and the boisterous montage that Parker makes of Argentine history leaves it impossible to understand what Juan and Evita stood for or who they were, other than a glorified whore-with-a-heart-of-gold who died young and her enigmatic, sinister sugar daddy. The secret to old musicals was that the singing and dancing emerged from a stylized realism in order to transport us to another, magical realm. In Evita, we're in that magical realm from beginning to end; there are no moments of silence or clarity to allow reflection. The nightmare of history is not confronted, and so the dream of artistic transcendence is never realized.

There are moments when it is approached, however. In "Waltz for Eva and Ché," Banderas and Madonna dance a dark, hallucinatory pas de deux that touches on the failed grandeur of their mutual ideals and passions. It is a splendid, still moment in Parker's furious whirligig of a musical, and one wishes there were more. Despite her plea not to be cried for, this Evita could use a few more tears.

Banderas and Madonna kiss up

LOS ANGELES -- The last time Antonio Banderas and Madonna shared the screen was five years ago in her documentary Truth or Dare. She was on the rocks with her then-beau Warren Beatty, and in one notorious scene, she hit on Banderas. He declined her favors and remained true to his wife.

An awkward introduction. Much has changed in the interim. Madonna, of course, has become the most famous mother since her namesake. And Banderas has reaped his own share of tabloid headlines by dumping his wife for Melanie Griffith. Now they've collaborated to bring to the screen the long-awaited film version of Evita, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's vastly successful musical about the legendary Eva Perón. Were there some rough moments getting together after their uncomfortable first meeting?

"It's left in the past," says Banderas. "We just laughed about it. It was not a problem. I feel proud that I worked with Madonna at this time of her life. I thought that Evita was for her a kind of therapy. Because there are certain points in both lives that are similar. The fact that both have come from the bottom to the top, have had to battle love and hate, incredible poverty, and then even more incredible popularity -- I think she had to bring truth on the table to play this character, and she did. That's what I discovered in this Madonna. In her other film performances there is a little bit of distance. Here she goes inside, disturbing herself, to pull out something awesome."

"It was great working with him," says Madonna of her screen reunion with Banderas. "That was the first time I met him, and over the years we became friends. By the time that we actually worked together, we'd been friends; it's just that the world didn't know about it. "

Madonna agrees with Banderas that she and Evita share certain similarities. "I think that we're both courageous," she says. "We're both fighters and determined and hard-working. I think we're both terribly misunderstood, envied. I think that because I lost my mother at a young age and that Eva grew up without a father there's a certain kind of sadness that I can relate to that she had, growing up without a parent." Yet the star sees differences as well: "I think I probably had more of a formal education than she did. And let's face it, things are a lot easier for women where I come from at the time that I grew up than they were for her. She had many more odds against her. And I think, for the most part, the changes she brought about in Argentina were in the name of her husband, and the imperialist regime, whereas I don't stand for any particular government or political party."

The politics were a bigger issue for Banderas, who grew up under the dictatorship of Franco in Spain. He plays Ché, the story's sardonic, proletarian narrator. Identified in the stage version of Evita as the revolutionary Ché Guevara, the character is a more generic everyman in the film.

"We didn't use the icon of Ché Guevara because that would have made the film a confrontation between two political ideologies, which it is not," he says. "But inside me I was portraying Ché Guevara before he knew he was going to be Ché Guevara. This guy has political principles completely against those of Evita. Yet he's attracted to her.

"I remember watching Evita in 1975 in Spain, still under the dictatorship of Franco, and it was so fresh and so new. It inspired me to want to go into acting. I started doing theater when I was 14 years old, and Franco was still in power. We hated and feared him. But the day he died, I cried, and I didn't know why. That's pretty much the paradox I approached with my character."

-- PK

Evita, the CD

Madonna marches on Washington?

by Michael Freedberg

If your taste in music runs to things Byzantine you'll probably find Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Soundtrack (Warner Bros.) temporarily fulfilling. The music, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, puffs a hundred voices up, glistens with melodic mosaic, worships the power of its icon, Eva Perón. Appropriately so: she was the Theodora of our time, a low-rent thespian who caught the eye of Juan Perón, fascist dictator of Argentina, married him, and became his vice-president -- just like the original Theodora caught the eye of Justinian, married him, and, when he became emperor at Constantinople, ruled jointly with him.

Unhappily for those who love icons, Evita fell far short. She knew nothing about power and had no program; the street-level feminism her rapid rise gave birth to was never her idea. The real Theodora toughened Justinian's rule, chose and deposed ministers of state, and patronized the high arts. She was a superb judge of character; the ministers she chose were men of talent and courage. Evita, in contrast, was a true naif. For all her "hunger and ambition," as the song "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" puts it, once she had all the adoration there was to be had, she felt undeserving. The lines in the musical's hit song, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," in which she is made to say, "All you see is a girl you once knew although she's dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you," sum up her situation precisely.

It's hard to imagine sentiments more unlike the hard-edged realism of Theodora than Eva Perón's. If she was anything, she was fragility and hope, the innocence that our hypocritical civilization pretends to seek. Her glamour was innocent, her rise was a Peter Pan's flight, her early death a touching martyrdom. She had feelings. Her fans loved her because she had them. At least that was the myth. The reality was corruption and robbery on a grand scale.

Too bad, then, that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita is played by Madonna. Not that she can't execute the role, because she can and does. In "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" she sings a softly lush soprano that captures Evita's quiet vulnerability. Her full-lipped, precise notes stride across the song's grandiose orchestrations. Webber's songs allow Madonna all the room she needs to be many things; she succeeds at them all. "On the Balcony of the Casa Rosada" and "Partido Feminista" require that she master Evita's speechmaking style; from "Buenos Aires" to "Goodnight and Thank You," she defends her dignity, fights the difficult music, argues her case as if she and it were dancing the tango (and Madonna has always known how to dance).

But chiefly Madonna inhabits Evita's "need to be dazzling," as "High Flying, Adored" states it. She invests Evita's brief fling with renown with an enthusiastic, very Madonna-like hurry that the real Evita probably didn't share but which makes sense here because Madonna's career parallels much of Evita's and in some respects trumps it. It's Madonna's sense of rhythm we want to hear, her blowzy soprano, her costumery and raunch. Eva Perón rose and fell and was gone, but Madonna's career has thrived for 14 years and seems likely to go on and on, riding her flawless ear for rebellious melody even as her contemptible personal life shamelessly feeds the tabloid appetite. Eva Perón had a heart. A Theodora figure cannot have heart. The Theodoras of this world have work to do, deadlines to meet, glass ceilings to crash. Madonna has always done her work. And she definitely crashes glass ceilings. She's a profit center. She does what she wants to do. She's boobs and smarts and headline news and a fan club, and she's hard cold cash. And if, unlike Justinian's Theodora, she hasn't yet shown the slightest interest in political power, Madonna playing the role of Evita evokes plenty of political symbolism for a society in love with icons and anxious to adore them. As Madonna pushes, glides, and muses her way upward through Webber's Evita score, the setting may be Buenos Aires but the listener whispers "Washington." As she soars through speeches to the Partido Feminista women who worship her, the dialect may be Perónista, but the listener thinks, "It's Hillary!"

That's the icon that really matters here. And the profit center. Theodora would approve.