Tim Rice has got to be the worst lyricist in the world. Who can forget the Octopussy debacle? When he wrote the theme song to that James Bond film he had a tradition of clever, fluffy songs made even lighter with double entendre to guide him. But what did he do when it came to be his turn to write an amusing, risque musical Bond introduction? He wrote, in part, the following:
We're an all time high
We'll take on the world that waits
So hold on tight
Let the flight begin....
We're an all time high? This is when he had "Nobody Does It Better" as a model? In Evita, the stage musical for which Rice wrote the lyrics a decade before he did the Bond film, Rice had to create a song for Augustin Migaldi, the man who "discovers" Eva Duarte de Peron, a song that would indicate the character's inherent sleaziness. Migaldi sings,
On this night of a thousand stars,
Let me take you to heaven's door,
Where the music of love's guitars
Will sing forever more!
Clearly, the songwriter unwittingly mocks himself with the similarity between Migaldi's pick up lines and the lines that Rice evidently meant to express elevated human feeling.
What unintentional self-mockery doesn't do to Rice's lyrics, time and fashion do. Even if you could avoid the pious self-righteousness of Jesus Christ Superstar, just three lines of that rock opera's lyrics betray its origins in the sixties. Didn't Rice know that slang is a finite quantity? While listening to the disciples or the High Priests converse in Jesus Christ Superstar is embarrassing, Evita is probably the worst example of Rice's indulgence in slang lyrics. He should have realized that such words have a shelf-life.
For all his money and his knighthood, Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn't fare much better than his partner when it comes to Evita. The songs, with the one, famous exception of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," are wholly unmemorable.
Alan Parker, who directs the film version of Evita, is lucky that his medium is primarily one of images, for relieving Evita of the burden of having to convey all through words and music gives it a life and a legitimacy that the stage version has never been able to bestow. But while the film revives the musical Evita, it also betrays its (massive) vulnerabilities. Parker and his screen-writing partner Oliver Stone (of all people) have remained faithful to the stage-play's original book, though wisely they have in most cases updated Rice's out-of-date lyrics. The result is a conservative rendition of the musical, one that buys into its assertions, and challenges nothing.
Evita masquerades as something incisive and even cynical. When Che, a character modeled on Che Guevara, played on the screen by Antonio Banderas, narrates for us the story of Eva Peron's rise to prominence, he promises to show us how Eva Peron "did nothing for years." Throughout the film, he "exposes" Eva's ambitions, and some of her shady ways of achieving them. But really what does he tell us? Nothing we didn't already know. Madonna plays Eva Peron with exceptional sympathy, and it is this vision of the title character that prevails in the film. The cynicism dissolves by the end of the film, and Che, who spends the majority of the movie angry at Eva, kisses her coffin. Wait a minute. Che Guevara kissing Eva Peron's coffin? It is Eva's story after all! When I saw Evita as part of a full house on the first day of its release, people around me were actually crying as Madonna sang Eva Peron's last words, and it wasn't just a few isolated cases. The whole theatre was sniffling.
Up until its early release in Los Angeles and New York, Hollywood people were wondering whether the American movie-going public would go to see a relatively long film version of a twenty year-old musical with no spoken dialogue. Oprah Winfrey wondered aloud about it on national television and Madonna was dispatched to her show in part to suppress moviegoers' apprehensions. Evita does eschew many of the conventions of traditional movie musicals, which are shot much as if they were still on stage, whose songs emphasize moments in the action of the play and contain dialogue to alert the audience as to the progress of the narrative. Instead, Evita is more like a long music video. Madonna was not being gratuitous when, along with her now legendary eight-page letter begging him to cast her as Eva, she sent Parker a copy of her "Take A Bow" video, in which she plays a wronged bullfighter's mistress circa 1950. And Parker wasn't stupid to choose Madonna over other actresses rumored to be considered for the part. Madonna is the uncrowned queen of the music video. Americans can turn on VH1 every day and see her in a mini-Evita. For the film, she is an entry-point, a bridge from musical television to musical film.
Though Evita utilizes conventions of the music video like exceptionally short scenes, near-continuous use of montage, shifts in time and place that nevertheless do not upset the flow of the narrative, and shots coordinated in a rhythm in step with the rhythm of the music, Evita and music video differ markedly. While music videos can be about anything at all, and often have little to do with a song's subject matter, to work as a film, the images in Evita have to comply with the score. And they do. Parker's images are beautiful and the cinematography is first rate, but there's nothing revolutionary in the way Parker narrates. The montage he constructs to illustrate Juan Peron's rise within Argentina's military hierarchy is funny, but has been done before, much like the audition sequence in one of Parker's earlier films, The Commitments. Parker doesn't shock us with new ways of telling story on film, though a re-introduction of musicals and movies after years of estrangement would have been a good place for such innovation. Maybe if the movie had allowed music video to influence it more in terms of content, letting the images work against the grain of the songs, Evita could have done something extraordinary. This is not Martin Scorcese photographing Robert DeNiro from above in Taxi Driver. Evita is gorgeous, but it isn't progress.
Madonna admits an affinity for Eva Peron. She actively sought the role for years before the film ever went into production, and in the film she plays Peron with a conviction that this will be the part for which she will be remembered as an actress. The sympathy she brings to the role softens the musical's portrait of Peron as a well dressed prostitute, taking Argentina for everything it's got. In an interview in Vogue's October issue, Madonna admits to being "enraged" by the play's characterization of Peron, and defends her character, the real woman, and herself by asserting that there are aspects of all three of them deeper than the "one-dimensional" and "power hungry" personas attached to them in the collective consciousness.
Madonna's insistence on a more compassionate reading of Eva Peron exposes Evita's faulty gender politics. In the original stage version, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber go out of their way to censure Peron for her ambition and even her sexuality. The movie retains the same censorious feeling, hinting that Juan Peron, played by Jonathan Pryce, wanted to look elsewhere for "job satisfaction" as a dictator, but that it was Eva who, out of a sense of her own political ambition, convinced him to go on to campaign for the presidency of Argentina. Army officers wonder behind Juan's back if a woman isn't actually running the country. The film keeps alive the myth that Eva, not yet married to Juan Peron, organized the workers to demonstrate when Juan was imprisoned by the Argentine oligarchy, when in reality, Eva Duarte had no labor contacts or even a telephone. In the sequence portraying Eva's trip to the Vatican, she laments that the crowds protesting her visit called her a whore. "It is an easy mistake," her escort replies. "People still call me Admiral' though I gave up the sea long ago."
These are low blows, and though they are designed to discredit Eva Peron, they discredit her by way of the combination of her gender and her ambition rather than because of her ethics. There are a few lines of song devoted to the way she funnelled money from the foundation she set up to help the poor into her own bank account, but according to Evita, Eva Peron sinned because she had power and ambition, not because she misused it.
Madonna herself has noted that in 1950 in Latin America there were probably few career options for women. From this standpoint Eva Peron's life choices appear obvious: to accomplish what she did, working in tandem with her husband was the most expedient way to do it. When the movie documents Juan Peron's first presidential campaign, Eva stands next to him, applauding as he casts a vote for himself, though as a woman, she lacked the right to do the same. Eva Peron used her prominence, and her husband's presidency, to win the vote for women in Argentina, but Madonna, in part blessed with having a birthdate in the latter part of the century, has made a point of building a career free of a male mentor or partner. In the Vogue interview, she asserts both her independence and her distance from women who rely on men to fulfill all of their needs, stating flatly, "I'm not Melanie Griffith," referring to Banderas's wife, who reportedly followed him constantly throughout the filming of the movie.
Though back in the early eighties when she appeared on "American Bandstand," Madonna told Dick Clark that she wanted to rule the world, Madonna resembles Eva Peron more in the way that she is perceived than in the way that she has orchestrated her career. When in Evita, she sings "Screw the middle classes!" we hear Madonna's own frustration with the American middle class. Madonna has sustained her career in part by shocking the middle classes with her own sexuality and her ambivalence toward her Catholicism. Had her shock-value stemmed from undirected rebellious energy, she would have disappeared quickly like any flavor-of-the-month pop star. Instead she shocks by attacking bourgeois piety and values. The most recent example of this comes from her private life, in which she has made a point of not marrying her new baby's father. Madonna recognizes the sexism inherent in criticism from people like Jonathan Alter, a writer for Newsweek, who has suggested that Madonna should not only get married but "become a spokesperson for marriage." Such assertions are "pathetic and sexist and disgusting," Madonna replies in Vogue, "and if people don't change the way they view this thing .... nothing's ever going to change." It is possible that in Eva Peron Madonna recognizes a similarly misunderstood soul. From an outside perspective, it seems easier to call them both power obsessed prostitutes than recognize Peron's accomplishments or Madonna's potentially revolutionary messages.
In Evita Madonna shoulders none of the burden of providing the movie's sex appeal, a task almost all of her previous films have required her to do. Instead, the film relies on Antonio Banderas's good looks and Jonathan Pryce's attentive glances at Madonna for the majority of its electricity. In Evita, Madonna looks "like a 50's mom," as Amy Spindler notes in the New York Times, and her wardrobe does indicate a certain conservatism previously not associated with the actress. Evita implies Eva Peron's sexuality through a song and a sequence of scenes which show Eva using men as if they were rungs in the ladder to success. The film is suspicious of Eva's sexuality, and as a reaction portrays it as acidic. Madonna's 85 costume changes make her Eva look impenetrable. In the same October issue of Vogue Madonna discusses costume designer Penny Rose's search for a way to recreate Eva Peron's clothes. The designers at Christian Dior wanted to update the Peron look, but Rose wanted to stay within the period, wanted to make Peron's clothes so structured they were like "armor."
Though the film is in many ways "about" fashion, it overemphasizes it, and in doing so subverts its power. Penny Rose's clothes look fabulous, but Alan Parker turns them into candy with the fawning way he photographs them. Evita indicates that Parker thinks that fashion photography is all about adoration, rather than the creation of an aesthetic. The film glimpses none of the intricacies suggested by Eva's line "I come from the people / They need to adore me / So Christian Dior me." Instead, Eva sings it as she drools over herself in furs and silks, and as we see shots of shoes, shoes and more shoes taking up space in her closets. These images force the line to come across as a way to discredit Peron further, to make her interest in her image a fault. It suggests that fashion itself is frivolous, and art without meaning or power. But Peron was a First Lady, and for First Ladies, politicians by default no matter how uninvolved in their husbands' jobs, fashion has always been a matter of political power. The public most often prefers to see First Ladies rather than hear them. What else can we make of J. Edgar Hoover's admission that he never married because there are women like Eleanor Roosevelt? Hillary' Rodham Clinton's hairstyles garner her nothing but ridicule, which adds to the hostility aimed at her because of her role in her husband's presidency. Barbara Bush, who once joked that the only time she ever wore makeup was to her husband's inaugural ball, was famous and even adored for her indifference to fashion. But Barbara Bush also always gave us the impression that politics is a man's domain, and that she was most useful when she praised broccoli growers, or talked about her dog to the press. She represented the suburban housewife as First Lady. First Ladies' wardrobes have even come to represent their husbands' political excesses, or have even contributed to the nostalgia of their presidency, like Imelda Marcos's shoes, or Jackie Kennedy's pill box hats, respectively.
Evita, unfortunately, is not what it could be. Frustrated by a too faithful adherence to the original songs, and a conservative cinematic aesthetic, what could be stinging or explosive becomes a story about a political figure that shies away from politics. However, though it does not achieve the force of something like the opera Nixon in China, it isn't The Sound of Music, either. Evita is refreshing because its subject isn't a nanny and her precocious charges, and because it assumes that a political subject can occupy a space within the genre of movie musicals and not be relegated to the "art house" or to the pallid kinds of films that win Academy Awards.