Alan Parker, who I spent some time with in making Criterion’s special laserdisc (!) edition of Evita, died earlier this week. So before continuing the UP saga (and we will, indeed), I want to give him—and Eva Perón herself—a little shout-out.
Of course, she’s a fascinating character. Let’s start with her, loop back to Mr. Parker and his movie, and then get on the ground in Buenos Aires.
Evita via the Musical
Like the vast majority of people outside of Latin America, I know about Eva Perón because of the musical Evita.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice based Evita on this book:
Like the book, the original musical is thoroughly one-sided, dish-digging, mud-slinging, and great fun. The role of Evita made Patti Lupone a bona fide star, and she buzz-sawed her way through it. On the Broadway original cast album (as opposed to the West End in London, where it premiered following its release as a concept album), you hear a woman continually high on life: the thrill of leaving her small town in the dust, the joy of conquest of ever more powerful men, the rage at the establishment, and in the end, an exhausted fury that her life is being cut short.
Tim Rice’s lyrics can be nimble and clever, and often the rhythms and rhymes are more intricate than you expect in a musical. Here’s Eva, when she arrives in Buenos Aires and machine gun patters her way through the crowd:
“You’re a tramp, you’re a treat
You will shine to the death, you are shoddy
But you’re flesh, you are meat
You shall have every breath in my body
Put me down for a lifetime of success
Give me credit, I’ll find ways of paying.”
His cleverness can get the best of him, as when he has Eva say in “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” that she’s “dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you.” Which, well, ugh. But overall, Rice has an astringent quality that balances Lloyd Webber’s gooier tendencies.
When I interviewed Parker, he said that the music had “some extremely dodgy bits.” He also resurrected a couple of numbers cut from the Broadway version, include “The Lady’s Got Potential,” a crash course on Perón’s climb to power, as well as a haunting Requiem for Evita. We’ll get back to those in a minute.
On Broadway, the musical was performed on a minimal set, with lots of rolling pieces, banners, and imagination. It is no doubt hard to imagine a pre-CGI and pre-Disney Broadway. But believe me, grasshoppers, when I tell you that interpretations weren’t always either completely literal or too expensive for their own good. Back in the 70s and early 80s, directors were making stage magic through imagination and craft. Some still do it, and more power to them.
My first husband, Karl, saw Evita on Broadway—it was long gone by the time I moved to New York in 1984. He said it was the first musical where he’d seen someone who looked like him in a major role. (Karl was half Portuguese, and easily passed for a native of South America or the Middle East. When we traveled, long before 911, we always budgeted extra time; even then, people who looked “like terrorists” were regularly stopped at airports.)
He was referring to Ché, played by Mandy Patinkin. Everyone always thinks Ché is Mr. Guevara. But in Argentina, people still say “Ché” like Americans call guys “dude” or “bro.” Ernesto Guevara earned the nickname because he, like Ms. Perón, was from Argentina. So the Ché in Evita is basically just some guy who can sing like crazy, and who acts as the Greek chorus, questioning what’s going on, interacting with whoever’s onstage, etc.
Evita, Alan Parker, and Madonna
There had been plans to make Evita into a movie for a long time. Oliver Stone had been set to direct it; it would have been interesting to see what The Least Misunderstood Man in Hollywood would have done with the story. Meryl Streep was bandied about forever as the lead, though it’s hard to imagine her having the pipes to carry it off. Eva is a super demanding, rangy mezzo role. Streep’s voice is ok, nothing more. You need a singer.
Then Parker decided to make it. A lot of the following is on the record, and some from what I recall interviewing him over 4 hours for the commentary track for the movie. I’m not putting any statements from him in quotes, as they’re approximations from a long day over 20 years ago. But I spent hours and hours with the tapes and transcripts, and am representing as accurately as is in my power. (I still have my laserdiscs, by the way, and the player is somewhere, but it would be pretty difficult to hook it up and play it and….well, then what would I do? And really, I have no desire to revisit it beyond watching the movie the other night with Steve in Mr. Parker’s honor.)
Antonio Banderas had had a lock on the role of Ché for a while. He doesn’t have Mandy Patinkin’s soaring tenor, but for a movie version, he has something better: a strong, interesting voice shimmering with rock star charisma.
Then Madonna wrote Parker a letter, promising she’d do whatever was required; she felt she was born to play the role. The singer’s diva reputation preceded her, but Parker also felt it would be worth it to have Madonna attached to the movie. As he told me and probably a lot of other people, It’s quite amazing to get a letter like that.
So M—as Parker and Jimmy Nail, who plays Magaldi with fine comic angst, referred to her—was on.
Evita the Movie: the Beginning
Evita clocks in at about 2 and 1/2 hours. Parker cut very little, other than the aforementioned “extremely dodgy bits,” as well as the strange little coda, just a couple of lines spoken by Ché, that ends the movie (we’ll get to that). The movie kicks off with a reproduction of an Eva Duarte film—she was an actress prior to meeting Perón—just as the stage musical does. Shortly, an announcer says that Eva Perón, “spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality.” There is a lot of truly terrible overacting by the Argentine extras, but Antonio Banderas emerges from the audience and classes things up as he strolls around Buenos Aires.
This is followed by a massive set piece funeral that’s a pretty impressive crowd scene, likely filmed in Budapest. Budapest looks a lot like Buenos Aires, with big wide streets and similar architecture, and ended up standing in for BA for many scenes, although the real Casa Rosada in BA was used for Eva’s big speeches, thanks to Madonna hardballing the president of Argentina at the time. Here’s the Casa Rosada on a perfect summer day, January, 2019. It’s the Pink House, the Argentine version of the White House. This was literally one block from our school, the Academy of Buenos Aires.
From the movie’s opening funeral, we cut to young Eva and her family being barred from her father’s much smaller funeral; her mom was Duarte’s mistress and his “legit” family kept the bastards out. It’s an interesting departure from the play, and could potentially lend a nice texture to Eva’s drive to punish the middle classes.
And then we go back in time, just as in the play, to young Eva Duarte, enthralled by the aforementioned Augustín Magaldi, a lower-tier tango singer lounge-lizarding-ing his way through the provinces. M looks cute in her polka dot dress and dark wig—her hairdresser, the only other production person I spoke with, told me he’d actually matched it to M’s natural brunette. Yes, 15’s a long way in her rearview mirror, but you pretty much make the leap at this point and say, Ok, I’ll buy it. I mean, when you have a movie where people are going to sing every line of dialog, Madonna being 15 for a few minutes is not requiring that much more of a leap.
It’s a little shaky getting there, as the music is not the musical’s best. That said, M worked very, very hard to get her voice in the best shape it had ever been in, and she sings great. True, nearly all of her numbers got dropped about a third on the musical scale—she’s more alto than mezzo. But that’s quibbling.
And soon we’re in Buenos Aires, in a pretty delightful number that has M/Eva dancing in bars while Magaldi/Jimmy Nail gets increasingly exasperated.
One Big Change
Then there’s another big change: Magaldi takes Eva home, but she’s left on the doorstep by his glowering wife. Eva then wanders around BA, singing, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
Originally the song was sung by Perón’s teenage mistress—Perón regularly had girls in their teens around him in real life because he was super creepy—as Eva kicks her to the curb. In the show, it frankly seemed like a bauble, an extremely pretty song Lloyd Webber wrote that he and Rice just didn’t want to get rid of. Giving the song to young Eva is in some ways quite brilliant. It humanizes her. The real Eva had a miserable time in her early days in BA, living on the kindness of strangers and a lot of mate, a strong bitter tea that Argentines are addicted to, and that works as an appetite suppressant. The much-storied sleeping around that she did was driven by survival; she was, as the movie accurately states, 15 when she arrived on the very mean streets of Argentina’s capitol. A child, which is not hugely believable watching Madonna sleepwalk through the song.
The photos below, gathered into a triptych at Perón! Perón! restaurant in Buenos Aires, show Eva at various stages of her not-particularly illustrious film career. (She had a lot more success in radio, which she’d use to full advantage once she met Perón.) Argentines will almost invariably bring up that she was self-conscious of her flat chest and general scrawniness.
Those photos don’t show a tender violet but a bold, determined young woman making the most of genuine but unremarkable prettiness.
So wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of moping and making sad faces, Madonna could have suffused the song with a little adolescent rage and fuck-you-I’m-going-to-make-this-work?
Eva the Fierce
What made Lupone’s Broadway Evita so compelling was her ferocity. It’s what made the real Eva Perón so compelling, quite frankly. Her speeches and written polemics are downright bloodthirsty. This is a woman who said, “Answer violence with violence. If one of us falls today, five of them must fall tomorrow,” and that’s a relatively mild excerpt. That’s a philosophy formed in a crucible of fury, not one that emerges like a flower planted in the Loam of Sadness.
And it’s directly after this song that the movie acknowledges, for once, Eva’s ambition, and when it enters about a 15-minute stretch of brilliance. Watching it again with Steve for the first time in two decades, I could only shake my head at what could have been. In “Good Night and Thank You,” Eva steps on the heads of various, increasingly powerful lovers like a staircase—thoroughly relishing the fact that she’s in stilettos and they’re not wearing hats.
And this, of course, is the Madonna we all know and love, the pistol, the babe with the hard glint in her eye, the one who clawed her way to fame in a way that honors that steely beauty above. It’s not that she’s playing herself; I have no idea what Madonna’s like. (I didn’t interview her, primarily because my contact with Parker, who eventually married him, pointed out multiple obstacles in the path until finally just giving a hard no.)
The ruthless-and-loving-it power diva is the role that Madonna honed to perfection as her public persona. She and Banderas rip roar through the number, which incorporates what Parker called a “daft jingle” for Zaz soap, cut from the original, and performed with a sassy swagger.
Following this, Perón is introduced in another number originally cut from the show, “The Lady’s Got Potential.” In this one, Jonathan Pryce’s sly, calculating Perón slithers his way to the top in a deft bit mirroring the trajectory we just witnessed of his destined wife. Banderas sings, repeatedly saying, “They’re having a ball.” No kidding.
Eva meets Perón, kicks out his adolescent mistress, who bleats a few lines of “Another Suitcase,” and the song frankly makes a lot more sense, despite what musical purists say. Particularly as Madonna raises an eyebrow just a fraction, then barely gestures toward the open door with a tilt of her chin.
So What Happens Now?
The rest of the movie chugs along. There are other strong sequences, particularly when Banderas has a free hand. The “Rainbow Tour” in particular, features Procul Harum’s Gary Brooker in gorgeous voice, and nicely skewers the way modern politics relies on telegenics. Pryce is in top form here; there is no question who’s using who, as he practically licks his chops at the political capitol that his marriage affords him.
But the problem is that, throughout the movie, Madonna continually reverts to the sad faces. She wants Perón to succeed because she loves him. She wants to help the poor because she was one of them. Madonna appears to want us to accept Eva’s greatness and sainthood. She doesn’t seem to get that it’s much more fun to watch people tap into their dark sides, or to trust that the light will emerge of its own strength.
Other than that one glorious number, we never see Eva’s strategic bite, which is much of what made her great. There’s no question that it’s a tragedy when someone young and beautiful dies an agonizing death; Eva died from a brutal case of cervical cancer. But her deathbed scene, in which Madonna seems slightly in awe of the fountains of tears that stream over her artificially pallored face, leaves me with a feeling of slight, irritated boredom. One has only to listen to Lupone’s version, her voice, high and thin like an icepick, to know that Eva Perón held on to life with shredded fingers as she was dragged, utterly against her will, into immortality. It’s a chilling sing-out, not a weepy one.
Yet when the light in the window of the Casa Rosada goes out and Parker cuts to the crowds, he orchestrates a ballet of mourning. The faces, instead of mugging with porteño melodrama, are somber. The tango to the spectrally beautiful Requiem embodies that dance’s tragic majesty, its use as an expression of bone-deep sorrow. It’s quite a feat; tango can come off desperately corny. Parker nails quiet lamentation, if only for a few moments before the full bombast of the funeral cortege returns.
And at the end of the movie, as Madonna lies in a glass casket like Snow White, Banderas’s gaze pierces Pryce’s dutiful, dull bereavement. Pryce, barely perceptibly, flinches, then hardens his face. It’s pretty darn near perfect.
Those last couple of lines, the ones Parker wisely cut, tell the true story that Eva’s body disappeared for a couple of decades.
(They don’t include the fact that the body eventually turned up in a Roman cemetery, missing a finger, but otherwise well-preserved. There’s a whole slightly gruesome mythology around Eva’s being injected with embalming fluid even prior to her death as Perón fully intended to display the body, and a novel about the disappearance, Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martinez, that explores in depth Argentina’s strange relationship with Eva living and dead.)
Parker told me that he just wanted the movie to end with that sense of foreboding, of accusation. In light of what would happen in Argentine politics—hell, in the world—it fits.
Evita on the Ground
Eva Perón remains as polarizing now as in her lifetime, something much easier to grasp given our current president. The Argentines have had plenty of experience with titles like this, which we saw back in 2018. Translations, as you can see, are often unnecessary.
On our first visit that year, we made the obligatory trip to El Retiro, the huge cemetery where Eva, after her post-death jaunt across the Atlantic, rests today.
The Duarte family crypt is located in one of the narrower alleys, and it’s not easy to get a good picture, which is why I got these two following shots from a stock service that I accidentally paid for. (You know how that goes.) On our visit, as I believe on anyone’s, there are flowers woven into the wrought iron design on the door.
Another stock photo, different day, and a better look at the stone plaques all around the doors.
Both times we stayed in BA—the first through a home swap and second as part of the program at the Academy of Buenos Aires—our hosts loved Eva. In both cases, their families had known the aunts, Eva’s sisters, who for years would meet with people to talk about her.
Our tour guide to the cemetery said that he did not like the fact that Madonna was chosen to play Eva. “She was a modest woman,” he said. “This Madonna, she’s just all wrong.”
Eva’s on the money.
She and Juan have inspired their own souvenir cult, though it appears in the dual shot, they replaced her with Madonna’s image, which is a bit weird. You can see the difference in the blue poster to the right; the yellow is, I think, someone else entirely doing an Eva pose. The face shape is quite different.
She’s on the radio tower. First, my shot from atop the Palacio Barolo, which does not have very clean windows…..
….and here, a stock photo that gives you a better picture. Our tour guide here said, “People always ask me, why is Madonna on that tower?” For my money, it’s kind of ugly and looks like neither one, though it’s closer to Madonna, which, as above, I think gets done on purpose. The resemblance is not that strong. To be fair, it may look quite different from the ground, which is the way most folks will see it.
Most intriguing is her enduring presence. I snapped this picture of a mural when we were walking in Villa Crespo, a respectable but poorer and much less trendy neighbor to Palermo, the West Village/Soho part of BA. (Like, circa 1980. West Village/Soho hasn’t been any sort of recognizable for decades.)
It’s based on this shot, taken when Eva was dying and following her final speech on the Casa Rosada. The movie duplicates it, yet lacks the power of the still. Eva had to be placed in a camouflaged steel cage under her coat; her cancer had weakened her so much that she couldn’t otherwise stay upright. Always thin, she was skeletal toward the end of her life, less than 80 pounds. (There was some kind of stand or maybe monitor next to the picture the day we were there, and you have to kind of rush through and get what pic you can, so I apologize that it’s such a crappy shot.)
When I showed our teachers at the Academy the graffiti shot, one of them said he was starting to feel that the inscription—that the happiest days were, are, and will be Peronist ones—was more and more true. The country was not happy with Macrí at the time, a conservative who had been touted as bringing some much-needed equilibrium and fiscal sense to Argentina. When we first visited, in early 2018, he’d just been elected; there were 24 Argentine pesos to the US dollar, which was considered insane. In 2019, when I saw the mural, the rate was closer to 50 pesos. As I write, in the midst of COVID-19, it’s 72.
My teacher Rosario, only 20 in 2019, was even more adamant. She loved Eva, her mother and grandmother loved Eva—women in particular love her. In fact, the only person I met who hated her was a young man around 20 whose relatives were wealthier. Once again, someone in his family had known Eva, and man, had she been a bitch! He recounted some slight that seemed like the kind of thing you could only feel was a slight if you were in a place of extreme privilege.
I mean, I’m sure Eva was a bitch some time. But who isn’t? But truthfully, she did do a lot for the poor. The Evita museum in BA doesn’t allow photos, and it’s naturally somewhat hagiographic. But it’s hard to refute that she helped a lot of people.
Perón really was pretty awful, and it’s hard to find redeeming qualities. Eva’s legacy is much more complex.
I cannot imagine a Trump! Trump! restaurant thriving in the US, though…well, there are a lot of things I never imagined. Let us all welcome each other to 2020.
In any event, Perón! Perón! does indeed thrive in Palermo, a veritable shrine to its namesakes. It is not the tourist trap you would think; after all, it’s been 20+ years since the movie, and gringos appear to have very short memories. You see families and hear the slushy murmur of porteño Spanish, the unmistakable accent of Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata.
Of course, Eva’s the magic. Juan had little charisma, and once Eva died, he didn’t last long; he was ousted, then returned to the presidency with his second wife, Isabel, who assumed the office after his death. But there is no cult of Isabel Perón.
Eva managed to hide Juan’s fascist tendencies and penchant for attacking the press—the destruction of La Prensa, the Buenos Aires newspaper that routinely attacked both Peróns, is dramatized to good effect in the movie.
Still, one visit to Perón! Perón! and you feel this heady longing for the Good Old Days. Photos of the couple dot the walls, often with piquant graffiti; the scribble in white notes a “psychodrama” on June 14, 1948, which happens to be Donald Trump’s birthday and….I have no idea what that’s about, but those can be some interesting dots to connect….
But really, it’s all about Evita.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* for 5-August, 2020
From the people of Argentina and all over South America, that politics matter, that you need to know your history. But also, that extremism leads to tremendous unrest and unhappiness, which of course we learn every damn day here in the US as well. And all over the world, for that matter.
And that it’s not such a bad thing to have a hero, however flawed she may be.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.