When the vibrant, charismatic Eva Perón died of cancer in 1954, her loyal descamisados were hysterical with grief. Before her body was placed on view for the two million mourners lined up in the cold Buenos Aires winter rain, a man worked swiftly behind the scenes. He was Dr. Pedro Ara Sarria, a world-famous embalmer who eventually would preserve Eva's body forever so it could be put on display, like Lenin's. A huge mausoleum was planned, but Juan Perón only managed to stay in office a year or two before he was overthrown and exiled.
So what happened to the exotically embalmed remains of the first lady? For many years, no one knew.
Translating the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita to film has been just as bizarre and mysterious an odyssey. The story Tim Rice created in 1973, which eventually became a international musical phenomenon is finally making it to the big screen. 18 years after the show opened in London, director Alan Parker is cutting the ribbon to open Hollywood Pictures' great big musical movie, Evita, starring pop superstar Madonna in the title role, the theatre's Jonathan Pryce as Juan Perón, and action/adventure film heart throb Antonio Banderas as Eva's antagonist, Che.
The word on the movie is good. Those who've seen the nine-minute teaser love it. Word from the recording studio last year was positive. Buena Vista's carefully controlled publicity has whipped up just the right level of excitement. Tickets for the New York and L.A. openings on Christmas Day went on sale in September. The audience will decide whether it's the first successful musical film in decades or another flawed movie.
Eva Perón was, of course, a film actress herself. It is one of her lesser efforts, which is shown on the screen at the beginning of the staged Evita. A Los Angeles Spanish-language television station recently unearthed a good print of La Prodiga, Eva's last film (and showiest role) and televised it with great fanfare. Though Eva is hopelessly miscast as a middle-aged woman, she is vibrant and fascinating on the screen.
Eva Perón never really made it in films and until recently, it looked like Evita wouldn't either. Actresses and producers have thought the story the stuff of drama since she died. There have been a number of Argentine films about her announced in various show business publications, but it's impossible to confirm that any of these were actually made. There is also reportedly a porn film about Eva that's been around for a number of years.
In the '60s, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee fictionalized and dramatized Eva's story as Diamond Orchid, but a weak leading lady torpedoed the production. A Frenchman tried an avant garde version in Paris with the worst critical result imaginable: the audience burned down the theatre after the first performance. And there were many other hopeful announcements over the years.
One of the scariest ideas came from a press release to The Hollywood Reporter on August 9, 1974, which read: "Zsa Zsa Gabor has been signed by producer Michael Cohen to star in 'Evita,' a biographical feature based on the life and career of the late Eva Perón. Filming is scheduled for England and Spain next January. Final draft screenplay is now being completed by Roger Cordet." Would she have attempted a Spanish accent?
But surely Evita would be filmed...who dreamed that in the intervening years, there would be six major studios considering three dozen actresses and more than 13 different directors?
Soon after the show opened, producer Robert Stigwood and his partner, David Land (who launched Tim and Andrew's careers) were deluged for requests for house seats from film studios, including major and minor moguls from Warner Bros., M-G-M, and Paramount. No one dreamed for a second that the film would be in limbo for nearly two decades. Back then, the only question in the public's mind was (sing to the tune of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina") Who Will They Cast as Evita?
The Epic Search for Scarlett O'Hara...er, Eva Perón
The summer of 1979, the pre-Broadway tryout of Evita had scarcely gone into previews in Los Angeles before actresses--singer and non-singer alike--clamored for tickets to see what was the meatiest female starring role in ages.
The film casting rumors about Barbra Streisand began during the Broadway tryout in L.A. when she showed up for a performance of Evita, but she left at intermission because she was so bothered by fans, she was afraid the commotion would ruin the performance. This rumor was further fueled in the fall of 1978 when New York columnist Marilyn Beck wrote that Streisand wanted $3 million plus a percentage to do the part. She supposedly wanted ex-husband Elliott Gould to play Che. In 1989, the Washington Post reported producer Robert Stigwood wanted one of his BeeGees--Barry Gibb--for Che. Another report suggested Stigwood preferred Meat Loaf. Rice and Lloyd Webber were solidly behind Elaine Paige, their stage Eva.
Patti LuPone then opened the Broadway production and wowed audiences. With companies of the show popping up faster than any musical ever, the heavy competition for the film role and media scrutiny inspired the press to speculate wildly about casting.
After Dark magazine imagined likely, unlikely and ridiculous candidates and in 1979 forecasted the changes each star would demand: Ann-Margaret would add chorus boys and motorcycles; Cher would add spangles and roller skates to the white balcony dress and ask that the three most difficult songs be cut; Jim Bailey would "present Evita as a fascist queen at war with the two other personalities inside her"; Miss Piggy would demand line changes; Barbra Streisand would "rewrite the script, take out all the drama, add a few acid-rock songs and manage to make Eva into a 'cute' character." The magazine also mentioned Liza Minnelli, Greta Garbo [as Perón!], Lucille Ball, Donna Summer and Dolly Parton.
Drama-Logue brought up nearly every possible name, including (with tongue firmly in cheek) some which were really not too far out, considering Hollywood's habit of using non-singing film stars to replace musical stage stars: "Suzanne Somers with Marni Nixon doing the singing" and "Marni Nixon with Patti LuPone doing the singing."
Still, for many years, the Streisand rumor was the only one generally believed. Stigwood told the Post that Streisand's then-lover and Svengali Jon Peters approached him at a party and told him he would guarantee Streisand if he could produce Evita. Stigwood reminded Peters that he was a film producer and would be producing the movie.
And that was that, but the rumors didn't stop. After Patti LuPone left the Broadway Evita company in 1981, there were reports that the box office had fallen off and Streisand would go into the show for a few months. Many newspapers speculated that Streisand already owned the film rights to Evita. In fact, the creators and producers knew she was not even under consideration. Tim Rice remembers that early in the summer of 1979, Streisand approached Stigwood and offered to buy the film rights for $2 million, he said "no," end of story.
There were far bigger hurdles than who would play the lead. The first challenge for David Land, who was by then virtually running RSO (Robert Stigwood Organisation) in London since Stigwood was either busy with films or recording projects or off on his estate in the Bahamas, and Bill Oakes, who held down the RSO office at Paramount Studios, was to find a director. There were few (if any) people with musical film experience available, so the original candidate was Michael Cimino, who was then in post-production on the soon-to-be-infamous Heaven's Gate. Names subsequently tossed into the ring included Herbert Ross (who had just directed a successful film about the ballet, The Turning Point), Michael Apted (admired for his musical film Coal Miner's Daughter) and John Frankenheimer (director of epics such as Grand Prix, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday).
A 1981 NBC TV-movie titled Evita Perón confused the public and press further. Many in the media thought this was the Rice/Lloyd Webber Evita, but it wasn't. This non-musical 4-hour miniseries starred Faye Dunaway and James Farentino.
Concurrently, Stigwood was looking for a studio for the film, and had been in negotiations for some time with EMI in London. He did sell EMI the film rights, for $7.5 million, but that studio was in the middle of a bitter takeover by another company and Evita was dropped by the new owners, Thorn, who formed Thorn-EMI (which sunk without a trace after the financial disaster of the film, Raise the Titanic).
The RSO offices were at Paramount, where Stigwood had produced Grease and Saturday Night Fever. So it was logical when Paramount Pictures announced the film in May 1981 with a full-page ad in Variety. Production was supposed to start before the end of the year, and the budget was to be under $20 million. Stigwood said in a press statement that a director would be chosen before any stars or writers, because for him, the casting was not the central issue--vision was. Since his vision for the staged Evita had been so perfect (the show is seldom done any other way), Hal Prince was a logical choice, but he had sworn never to direct another film musical after taking a critical drubbing for A Little Night Music.
In August 1981, Stigwood hired avant garde director Ken Russell (Women in Love, The Boy Friend, Lisztomania, Tommy)in August to direct the movie and promised that all stage Evas would be tested for the film. Tim Rice said the actress who had the inside track (after Elaine Paige) was Derin Altay, the original alternate in the L. A. national company. But she and all the other stage Evas failed to bowl Russell over.
The studio, however, wanted a film star with proven boxoffice power, not a stage star known only in New York or London, but it was a tough role to fill, given the extremely heavy vocal demands. Rice told The New York Times he thought it was ridiculous that Elaine wasn't given the role. "The Hollywood boys wanted an international film star, which I thought was generally narrow thinking, since so many films are hits without names."
Then, in November, Russell started shooting screen tests at Elstree Studios (the film was scheduled to begin shooting in the spring of 1982) and he said he'd found himself a star. David Land confirmed that Karla DeVito was "strongly favored for the part." Karla who? She was 28, had just released her first album of rock songs and was married to actor Robbie Benson, who had just finished a run in the popular Broadway revival of The Pirates of Penzance.
There was deafening silence for a couple of months, then in April 1982, Russell scheduled more screen tests. When Karla DeVito was nixed by everyone, he flew Liza Minnelli to London for a lavish screen test. The beginning of the end was triggered by Russell's letter to a friend of Rice's, supposedly signed by his mistress (signed with a number instead of a name) which was bizarre in the extreme. That set in motion a series of telegrams between Rice, Land, Stigwood and Lloyd Webber. Then Russell wrote and distributed his rather surreal screenplay, written without Tim or Andrew's knowledge or approval.
This script does generally follow the outlines of the staged version, but Russell made Che a newspaper reporter and the script contains a strange hospital montage for Eva and Che, with them passing each other on gurneys in white corridors as she's being treated for cancer and he's injured by rioters.
Russell also changed the backgrounds of most of the scenes in his screenplay. The "Waltz for Eva and Che" is performed on the barren pampas with Eva and Che surrounded by giant symbols of ruined civilizations and religions--a fallen Swastika, a headless Buddha, a battered eagle from Imperial Rome, a rotting cross, a splintered Pharaoh, and a rusty hammer and sickle . . . then the symbols of crumbling hopes and dreams vanish, to be replaced by more familiar concerns--polluting smoke, smashed cars, barbed wire and bleached bones.
Rice suspected that Russell felt he was shoving his own mistress at the time, Elaine Page, down Russell's throat and that this prompted his more eccentric actions. The fact that the whole production team now agreed on Paige didn't faze Russell.
Russell's position fell apart fast. In July 1981, Liza was out and Elaine was in. Then Liza was in and Elaine was out. In fact, it was Russell who was finally out. Stigwood announced in Variety that Russell had been fired, and "Elaine Paige, David Essex and Rob Dunton [presumably a typo for Broadway's Perón, Bob Gunton] had been signed for the film, which would start shooting in the spring."
Back to Square Uno
In October 1982, Stigwood was again talking to Herbert Ross and Paramount sent a location scout to Mexico. Ross bowed out and the Streisand rumors resurfaced when Elliott Gould announced he and his ex-wife Barbra Streisand would star in the film.
Stigwood next asked Sir Richard Attenborough (the director of the unsuccessful film musical of A Chorus Line) if he was interested in directing, but he was unable to come up with a compelling concept. Paramount put the property into "turnaround" (a common Hollywood euphemism for "For Sale--Cheap). Any studio could buy Evita for Paramount's costs to date (somewhere around $8 million). A copy of the Russell script was circulating for a time with a 20th Century Fox cover on it, which means that studio was considering it.
Franco Zeffirelli's name came up because of his lyrical filming of Shakespearean classics (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew) and Los Angeles magazine reported that he wanted Diane Keaton as his Eva. Stigwood had been unable to get financing without big film stars, so gossip columnist Liz Smith reported that Stigwood's stars in Grease, Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, were now under consideration. Meryl Streep was first mentioned in April 1983, and the Los Angeles Times claimed that Stigwood offered the part of Che to Sylvester Stallone.
The grapevine was quiet from 1983 until 1986, when Hank Grant's column in The Hollywood Reporter breathlessly alleged that Stigwood had offered Madonna the part, subject to Rice and Lloyd Webber's approval, thanks to her success on the pop charts and with critics and audiences in Desperately Seeking Susan. Soon thereafter, Mandy Patinkin, now a film star (Ragtime, Daniel, Yentl) as well as the original Broadway Che, begged for the role in a long Reporter interview.
Madonna campaigned briefly for director Francis Ford Coppola (Finian's Rainbow), and there was talk of Alan J. Pakula (Sophie's Choice) directing. However, Madonna asked that the score be rewritten for her and refused to screen test and that was that . . . for a while. Argentine director Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) sniffed around the property, then bowed out due to prior commitments.
Maybe Eva Perón Killed JFK....
Suddenly, high-powered music business mogul Jerry Weintraub formed a film production company and bought the film rights. Oliver Stone was hired to direct and write the screenplay, and he was sent to Argentina to scout locations. According to Stigwood, Stone was the first director of all those consulted who actually had a vision of how to make Evita into a film. And the dramatic political changes in Argentina meant that--for the first time since Eva Perón died--the movie could be made there. The sympathetic government offered cooperation and 100,000 extras. This was important, since Stone envisioned a film along the lines of the grand old musicals: Technicolor, Cinemascope, and a cast of thousands.
Stigwood was enthusiastic when Peter Brown of The Washington Post interviewed him. He reportedly said a deal with Stone was set, "save for a very few fine points. We'll have it in theatres by Christmas of 1990." The article also revealed that Bette Midler had been approached about playing Eva way back in 1979.
Madonna, who was still avidly campaigning for the lead role, met with Stone, but they didn't hit it off. Meryl Streep swiftly emerged as the front-runner, even locking herself in a recording studio to turn out a demo to reassure everyone she could really sing. The results were "mind boggling," raved Stigwood. "She has a marvelous voice." This was no surprise to theatregoers, who knew Streep could sing, thanks to Alice in Wonderland. The only negative was her age; after all, Eva Perón was only 33 when she died. Patti LuPone's agent made one last desperate appeal to Stone for his client, but Stone reportedly said she was "too old." Ironically, she's exactly the same age as Streep (both were born in 1949).
The budget was prepared for the Oliver Stone/Meryl Streep film and an early 1989 start was announced. Streep was to begin pre-recording the songs in November, and Stigwood again announced the picture would be in theatres by Christmas 1990. Then the economy of Argentina fell apart, the Peronist government was in trouble, and there were riots. Location scouts were sent to Brazil, Chile, and Spain as alternatives to Argentina, but when the budget was worked out, it came to a frightening $35 million. The Weintraub people, who had been thinking more along the lines of $16 million when they bought the rights, were stunned. It was a moot point anyway. The hitless Weintraub Entertainment Group had no production money left.
Carolco Pictures (producer of many Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone megahits) stepped in and tried to salvage the Stone-Streep picture. Everything was ready to go until a report came out from the Screen Actors Guild that showed female actors were being paid significantly less than male actors, particularly among the top stars. To make the point dramatically, Meryl Streep raised her salary demands (rumored to double from $2 million to $4 million) for all films, so she would be equal with the male stars at her level. This effectively priced her out of Evita, but all parties concerned agreed to take cuts to ensure Meryl got what she wanted. Suddenly, she dropped out of the film, claiming exhaustion. Ten days later, according to The New York Times, she wanted back in, but by that time, Oliver Stone had laid off his key production people and begun work on The Doors.
Disney's Hollywood Pictures became interested in the film after Madonna's exemplary performance of two Stephen Sondheim songs in its film, Dick Tracy. Hollywood Pictures acquired the rights, and Madonna even invited Rice and Lloyd Webber to her current concert tour to assure their approval. Glenn Gordon Caron (Remington Steele, Moonlighting) had been signed on as a director, but when the budget was done, the studio reacted with the same shock as Weintraub and gave the rights back to Stigwood . . . with a deadline. If he couldn't get the project launched, the rights reverted to Disney.
In November 1990, Madonna took her concert tour to Buenos Aires and finished with "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." The tumultuous reception encouraged her to pursue her dream of playing Eva. Oliver Stone was back at the helm by then, and a large infusion of cash came from two new entities, Andy Vajna's Cinergi Productions and Arnon Milchan's New Regency, which pumped the budget up to $40 million.
All the usual suspects were again hauled out, plus some new ones, Sarah Brightman, Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan, fresh to the scene since the 1980s. In fact, the casting dilemma had gone on so long, nearly everyone who'd ever sung a note on stage or on film, was in the running.
By May 1991, Michelle Pfeiffer's name floated to the top of the short list after her vocal performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys, along with Antonio Banderas as Che and Julio Iglesias or Raul Julia for Perón. But Pfeiffer was booked for other projects first, as well as being pregnant.
The political mood had changed yet again in Argentina and Stone made a number of trips to Buenos Aires and even got permission from president Carlos Menem to film in the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada in addition to the use of 100,000 members of the military for the crowd scenes. But Menem changed his mind within a week, calling Evita "total infamy." The budget by now had risen to $60 million and Stone abandoned the film for good in July 1991. The project lay dormant for several years.
...And the Winners of the Evita Derby: Alan Parker and Madonna
In September 1994, British director Alan Parker became interested in taking the helm of the movie. Parker was an excellent choice, having made critically-acclaimed films (Midnight Express, Birdy, Mississippi Burning), offbeat or risky films (Pink Floyd--The Wall, Shoot the Moon, Angel Heart) and not one musical film but three (Fame, Bugsy Malone, The Commitments). He had also done shorts, documentaries, commercials, TV, and had written children's books and a memoir.
Parker feels this is a completely different type of musical, though. "Fame was a conventional stop/start musical, Bugsy was an out-and-out pastiche of a Hollywood musical," he says. The Pink Floyd film had no singing, and the music was very different in The Commitments, which was about a rock band. "Evita is different--the only thing that is musical about it is that people sing instead of speaking." He says he's filming it as a "straightforward, gritty, dramatic, political story."
Madonna didn't lose a minute. She sent long letters to both Parker and Lloyd Webber outlining her desire to play the part and how she interpreted the real woman. And she got the part.
Madonna spent months in vocal training (the score has felled many an actress, even those with "leather lungs") and the company spent three months recording the score in London during the fall of 1995. How does Parker feel about her singing? "She's done extraordinarily well considering that much of this music is actually in an area of her voice where she's never been before. I think people are going to be surprised how brilliantly she sings it."
There is a new song, "You Must Love Me," and there are rumors that a song from the concept album, "The Lady's Got Potential" has been resurrected. Madonna has appropriated "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," which she apparently sings during a montage about her first year in Buenos Aires. It is briefly reprised when Eva tosses the mistress out of Perón's bedroom.
In the spring of 1996, Parker, the cast and crew headed for protest-ridden Argentina, where power, permissions, and moods can change overnight. There were anti-Madonna and anti-Parker billboards everywhere and it looked like a rough time was in store. But the Los Angeles Times reported that Madonna arranged a secret offshore meeting with Argentine president Carlos Menem and told him she revered Eva Perón and would make sure the movie was fair. Suddenly the company got everything it wanted, including permission to shoot a critical scene from the balcony of the Casa Rosada.
The Hungarian location work was difficult, but seemed to go smoothly. The first scene filmed there was Eva's funeral. Eva died in Argentina's wintertime, and the millions lined up to view her body stood for days in the pouring rain. Since the event is heavily documented, Parker was determined to duplicate it as nearly as possible and a dreary, gothic street of Budapest was just the ticket.
Eva Perón still holds a fascination for Madonna. In an interview with the film's publicist, she said, "She was incredibly courageous to have done the things she'd done, to come from where she came from to go to Buenos Aires without formal training, without knowing anyone, without relatives," she says. She also calls shooting the balcony scene at the Casa Rosada with thousands of extras below her a "surreal moment."
The film saga is ended at last, and so is Eva Perón's. After her husband's fall from power, her body was secretly spirited out of the country and buried in a secret grave in Milan for some 17 years until a slightly more forgiving regime released its location and it was exhumed and taken to Perón and his third wife, Isabel, in Madrid. There were even rumors that the couple occasionally propped the body up at the dinner table with them. The only damage to the body during all this traveling was a broken little finger on her hand.
It was shipped back to Buenos Aires some time after Perón returned to power in the early '70s. When he died and Isabel failed to succeed as president, Eva's corpse was quietly placed in her own family's vault at Recoleta Cemetery, where she rests--though perhaps not in peace--today.
But the final phase of the film's saga won't be written until Christmas Day 1996. Only the audience and box office totals will determine if the film Evita is a hit. Not much is at stake for Rice and Lloyd Webber. The show has already made them wealthy, and they've both been knighted. Disney, Cinergi and Hollywood Pictures will care a lot, but will go on despite the outcome.
What's really at stake here are movie musicals of stage hits. If Evita's a hit, will there be more? Will a new generation of Broadway shows form a new legion of live action movie musicals? Can this movie bridge the theatre and contemporary pop musical gap?
Disney has carefully orchestrated Evita's pre-release publicity and at press time, it all looks great. Madonna has worked miracles in her career before, This may be another one.
Sylvia Stoddard writes for and about the enetertainment industry. She has worked on the TV series Magnim, p.i. and Simon & Simon, has published many articles on theatre and films and is the author of a new series of books on classic TV shows for St. Martin's Press, including the recently published companion guides to Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch Perry Mason and L.A. in the Fifties is in preparation as are books on That Girl, I Dream of Jeannie and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.