Madonna's Double Feature

David Gritten, who lives in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

It has been, as Madonna soberly reflects, an extraordinary year. "A year like no other," she says. "And I've already had a few 'like no others' in my time."

But that was before "Evita." And nothing in her previous life--not even 13 years of astonishingly enduring pop superstardom--had prepared her for it.

In the course of 1996, playing the title role in a $59-million film musical about the life of Argentina's legendary former first lady, Eva Peron, Madonna has learned a few new tricks. As she tells it, she dramatically expanded the range of her singing voice, with the help of a vocal coach. She acquired many of the diplomatic and statesmanlike skills that are sometimes crucial when you are the star of a prestigious, big-budget movie being shot abroad.

And in recording Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's songs from their 1976 musical for the all-important soundtrack of "Evita," she learned to relinquish control in the studio--a milieu in which she called the shots for a decade.

Oh, and in case we forgot, this was also the year of Madonna with child. She becomes a mother for the first time at age 38 next month, when her daughter, Lola, is born.

"It felt like something substantial and serious was going on," she said of the grueling and controversial 84-day shoot in Buenos Aires, Budapest and London earlier this year. "My gut instincts are we've made something beautiful and original. I've got my fingers crossed."

So far, indications are excellent. In Budapest, while "Evita's" director Alan Parker was two-thirds of the way through shooting, he assembled a 10-minute show reel for distributors, containing highlights of the film. So positive was the reaction in Hungary to this epic, emotional assemblage from the crew (many of whom were moved to tears by it) and from other people who saw it (including this reporter) that it was decided to screen it for journalists at the Cannes Film Festival, including critics.

The verdict was positive, which means "Evita" opens Christmas Day surrounded by enormous anticipation. It is thought the film (which is through-sung and has virtually no spoken dialogue) might even revive the movie musical genre.

There is also a widespread feeling that Madonna's career could take a decisive turn as a result of "Evita." It would be hard to argue with her track record as a successful recording artist, or her influence as a charismatic pop icon; but even her most ardent supporters would admit her film career has been disappointing.

Advance word on "Evita," coupled with evidence from the show reel that Madonna looks the part and can also belt out tricky show-stoppers like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" with confidence, suggests she could become a key figure in film musicals, comparable to someone like Barbra Streisand a generation ago.

"Doing the film already has been [a transition] for me," she mused. "But I feel funny making those pronouncements, because those are the kind made by people who put labels on everything. And that makes me sound immodest."

What she will say is that "Evita" was more to her than just making a film: "It was a real education, something on a different plane," she said. "I've never been so drained by anything. From the beginning I walked into another world--and kissed the world as I knew it goodbye."

She ruminated on this in a huge high-ceilinged room of her Los Angeles home, Castillo del Lago, at the end of a track off Mulholland Drive. The house, built for Bugsy Siegel, is decorated oddly on its outer walls in ochre and brick-red horizontal stripes, and overlooks a tranquil lake that gives it its name.

Entering, you walk down a tiled corridor to a small, narrow elevator which would look appropriate in a Victorian London hotel. Ascending, you emerge into a sparsely furnished space with Mexican art on its walls (Madonna is a fan of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera). In the room's center are two high-backed chairs in red plush velvet with gold leaf embellishments, positioned at 90 degrees to each other. On these chairs we sat and talked alone for two hours, like monarchs on thrones.

Yet Madonna looked anything but regal. She had recently stepped from the shower and her bleached blonde hair was still damp; a center parting nonchalantly displayed an inch of brunet roots. A diaphanous black dress over a scarcely less revealing body stocking accentuated her pregnant state. Relaxed and thoughtful, she spoke of "Evita" as a process that still involves her long after the film wrapped. Earlier that day, she had been in a studio, recording a different mix for one of its songs.

Director Parker has already disclosed that in 1994, when it finally became clear he would direct the film (which had been talked about since 1976), he received an eight-page letter from Madonna explaining why she wanted to play Eva Peron. Madonna agreed she felt the role was ideal for her, and now feels vindicated. Yet she embarked upon "Evita" with enormous trepidation.

"When I was chosen to make the movie I knew I wasn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's first choice," she recalled. "I don't think he was particularly thrilled with my singing abilities. I knew I was going in with odds against me. That's an awkward position to be in. You feel everyone's waiting for you to stumble."

As an actress, too, she felt under pressure: "I consider it an act of God that I got the part. There were lots of other actresses who are considered big box office and much more respected for their acting than me. That was another hurdle to overcome." She went on the offensive, studying with a vocal coach for six months before she was required to record the "Evita" songs: "It used parts of my voice I'd never used before and required a range in the upper register I wasn't used to. My vocal coach [Joan Layder], God bless her, gave me confidence. From the beginning she said to me: You're going to do this, and do it fine. But I was scared [expletive]."

Unusually, the soundtrack was recorded in London before a single foot of film was shot. Yet even before shooting started--in mid-January in Buenos Aires--more problems arose.

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On arrival in Argentina, she said, she made a point of meeting people who had known Eva Peron and her husband, Juan. Forty years later, their name exerts a powerful grip throughout the country; they founded a populist political movement, Peronism, which still defines the outlook of the current government under President Menem. Yet as many Argentines today revile the Perons as those who revere their memory.

Eva Peron, known as Evita, was an amazing story: an attractive young girl from a small town, she moved to Buenos Aires, where she entranced and later wed a rising young politician, Juan Peron--then became South America's most powerful woman when he rose to the presidency. She clinched her husband's reelection by mobilizing Argentina's female vote, effectively becoming his vice-president. But she died of cancer in 1952 at age 33, sending the country into mourning.

"But the more I learned of Peronism and Eva's life, the more I realized how unfair Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical was," Madonna said. "So here I was, working in a movie I didn't agree with." Her voice becomes cold when she refers to Lloyd Webber; she joins a line of theatrical leading ladies who have clashed with him, notably Faye Dunaway, Patti LuPone and Glenn Close.

"Lloyd Webber's point of view was that of the [Argentine] aristocracy at the time Eva was married to the president," she continued. "They were against her [and viewed her] as an opportunistic whore.

"I thought it was a male chauvinist point of view--that any woman who's powerful is a whore or slept her way to the top. There's that implication right through the [musical] and it's ludicrous. You can't sleep your way to the top. Well, in Hollywood, maybe, but she influenced an entire nation."

Madonna thinks she convinced Parker with her findings, and that he modified the film's tone: "Alan read a lot about Peronism. He's intelligent, politically astute, and he understood the musical was one-sided against her. He wanted to be fair too."

But many others needed convincing that "Evita" would not desecrate Peron's memory. The production arrived in Buenos Aires to find an orchestrated political campaign opposing it. Graffiti spraying on walls across the city proclaimed: "Chau [goodbye] Madonna" and "Fuera [go away] Parker." It didn't help that Parker's cast and crew were mostly British; the war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands remained a bitter memory.

The result of the opposition was that government buildings in Buenos Aires, to which the production was originally promised access, were now barred to them.

President Menem, said Madonna, "was setting the tone for everything. He made statements that [the film] was an outrage. Since the regime in Argentina is Peronist, to condone a movie that would be negative [about Eva] was something he couldn't do. So I thought it was important to appeal to Menem personally and say it was important for me, too, that she not be depicted that way."

Through contacts, she met a close friend of Menem, who arranged a meeting between her and the president--but only under conditions of extraordinary secrecy. Madonna was smuggled from her residence in Buenos Aires, huddled on the floor of a small private car--her own car having left with police on motorcycles and her personal security guard escorting it, to confuse the paparazzi.

She and Menem's confidant were driven to the airport and flown by helicopter to an offshore island with a huge estate, where Menem was on hand to greet her.

"The whole experience was completely surreal," she said. "He doesn't speak English very well, so there was an interpreter there. I played him the [soundtrack] music and immediately launched into this spiel about how passionate I was to make this movie, how fair I wanted to be, and how respectful I would be to [Eva's] memory. I'm sure he thought I was possessed."

Later, she said, they ate caviar and drank champagne, surrounded by Menem's cluster of aides-de-camp. "He said, 'You remind me of her in many ways. And I can only tell you, anything can happen.' " According to her, they conversed about mysticism and reincarnation: "Then it was time for dinner, and we sat talking about music and politics. I was drained by the end of the evening. There was a thing he and I were doing: trying to impress each other, you know? And I guess we were both impressed."

Her remarkable secret diplomatic mission ended after some five hours, when Menem promised her that he would consider the matter, kissed her on both cheeks, wished her luck, then watched her board the helicopter and return to the city.

The story sounds implausible, like a piece of South American magical realism, but within two weeks the Ministry of Culture was in touch with the film's production company, and a second meeting, formal and public, was set up, attended by Menem, Madonna, Parker, and the film's other stars: Jonathan Pryce, as Juan Peron, and Antonio Banderas, as Che.

Menem bestowed his blessing on "Evita," and all government buildings out of bounds were suddenly available--including a key location, the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence with a balcony from which Eva addressed adoring multitudes.

The story indicates Madonna must have used subtle diplomatic skills in turning Menem to her viewpoint--which may be a token of new seriousness and maturity. It is hard to imagine the woman who calculatedly courted outrage over her 1992 book, "Sex," the bad-mouthing brat seen in the documentary "Truth or Dare" or the subversive pop icon who offended church groups with allegedly blasphemous imagery in her videos, cutting much ice with a shrewd statesman like Menem.

"The process has been a lesson in submission for me," she admitted. "But not in a weak sense. You can get your way in lots of ways. You can steamroller, terrorize or intimidate people, or do it in subtler and more clever ways. So maybe I'm more grown up, because I'm learning that.

"Making the record of 'Evita,' for instance--I'm used to writing my own songs and I go into a studio, choose the musicians and say what sounds good or doesn't. To work on 46 songs with everyone involved and not have a say was a big adjustment. It was difficult to go in, spill my guts, then say, 'Do what you will with it.' "

Still, she did it--and Parker, not normally a man given to blustery hype, is convinced "Evita," distributed in the U.S. by Disney, will be a personal triumph for Madonna the singer as well as Madonna the actress.

"I never doubted she could do it, but even I'm surprised at how well she's pulled it off," he said. "As a creative collaboration, it's been extraordinarily satisfying.

"Some people prejudged her. With someone like her, an obvious contemporary icon, her celebrity could get in the way of giving her a chance to do what she does. I told everyone that tons of stuff would be written about this when we were beginning, and we should ignore it--because all that mattered was the work. As it happened, the tide [of opinion] turned faster than anyone could have imagined."

One perceived strike against Madonna was her appearance in so many mundane films--"Shanghai Surprise," "Who's That Girl" and "Body of Evidence" among them. "I absolutely agree," she shrugged. She described her experiences on film sets as "soul destroying, with the exception of the movie I did with Abel Ferrara ["Dangerous Game"]. That destroyed my soul in a different way because it was such a violent emotional experience. But at least I felt I was going somewhere, exploring new territory. I feel everything else I've done has been rather trivial."

"Evita" alone may not break that pattern. Since she started on the film, said Madonna, "I've read at least 50 scripts and they've all been a huge waste of my time. There aren't many good movies made, very few substantial scripts and even less is there something strong and important for a woman to do. I can't see myself playing the sort of roles a lot of successful actresses play."

She does not conceal her distaste for Los Angeles; it's no accident her hilltop Hollywood home, by its very location, is far removed from it while remaining inside city limits. (Recently Madonna sold the home and bought one in Los Feliz.)

"It's not my favorite town, but it does afford me a certain privacy," she said. "I prefer the energy of New York. I wouldn't want to raise my daughter in L.A., but it's a good place for me right now, because I'm left alone. I don't feel like being chased by paparazzi, and every time I walk out of my house in New York, they're there."

Nor does she like Hollywood culture: "I love reading, and one thing that bothers me about people in this town is that they only read books to make them into movies." At a recent dinner party, she was discussing with a friend one of her favorite novels, E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News," when a man leaned over to say his company had bought film rights to the book: "I said it would probably be a horrible film because it would never be made the way it should be made. And I turned away."

Still, she has a production company, currently developing one low-budget project she prefers not to discuss: "It's not as if we're churning things out."

And her role as a record company boss has been successful: Maverick Records, widely dismissed in the music business initially as a vanity label, has yielded two major artists in Alanis Morissette and Me'Shell Ndegeocello.

"Yeah, but it's a huge pain in the ass too," she said, "because it's running a business, with all the insanity and entrapments that come with hiring executives. And when they don't do their jobs you have to replace them. I don't like the business side.

"But I do like getting to hear Me'Shell's record after waiting months and months, and being blown away by it, and I do like going to see Alanis onstage. That's the exciting part, to know I had something to do with nurturing them."

Nothing is planned beyond the opening of "Evita," though next year she will return to recording: "I look forward to writing my music again. Working [on the soundtrack] in the studio, I long for that sort of freedom, to be making my own art."

Parenthood also looms. "That's all I can think about right now. I've wanted a child for a long time. This was something I'd wanted, but I wasn't trying to do it. It just happened. And now I'd like more. She's not even born and already I'd like more."

Will she raise her daughter as a single mother? "No," said Madonna, "she has a father [fitness trainer Carlos Leon]."

Do they plan to wed? "Is that the only option, marrying? Does that erase single motherhood? If you live with someone, are you a single mother?"

She grinned good-humoredly.

"I'm just asking these questions. You're asking me to define my relationship." Sure, if she wants to. "No. I don't."

Next year, then, she should be basking: certainly in the glow of motherhood, maybe in a sense of achievement that "Evita" is finally complete. Even a little down time, perhaps? "Sure," she said sardonically, "after all I went through this year, that would be fine."

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