Evita attempts to revive two things long thought dead: Madonna’s acting career and the movie musical. For Madonna, it’s close but no cigar. The hard-working diva brings star quality but little dramatic focus to the working-class Eva Per=n, a model and actress of limited talent and boundless ambition whose well-orchestrated bed hopping landed her in the presidential palace as the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Per=n (Jonathan Pryce). Eva died of cancer at 33, in 1952, cheered as a saint by the masses and jeered as a whore by the snobs. Let’s just say that Madonna, a singer and actress of limited talent and boundless ambition whose well-orchestrated sexual antics landed her in the palace of pop icons, can relate. The knives are out against Eva in a song ready-made for Madonna haters: “Things have reached a pretty pass/When someone pretty lower class/Graceless and vulgar, uninspired/Can be accepted and admired.”
Madonna is stunningly shot by Darius Khondji on locations in Argentina, Hungary and England, but she strikes more poses than she does sparks. Blame director Alan Parker for favoring spectacle over intimacy. Evita the movie is an aural and visual assault that leaves you glassy-eyed after 15 minutes, with two hours to go. It’s not that audiences have no patience for a rock opera that is sung through with no dialogue. Evita was a hit as a concept album, in 1976, and onstage two years later. The movie is such a chore because watching actors strain to wrap their mouths around prerecorded songs for 134 minutes is irritating and, worse, alienating. It also robs Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music (his most potent) and Tim Rice’s lyrics (his least trite) of the charge of live performance. The perils of prerecording are nothing new. Norman Jewison couldn’t pull it off with the film of Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, in 1973; Ken Russell failed with the Who’s Tommy, in 1975; and Parker himself struck out with Pink Floyd — The Wall, in 1982. Onscreen, with the score slowed down to help match lips to lyrics, Evita is a $60 million karaoke session trying to pass as a movie.
Madonna, to her credit, puts on quite a show. She sings. She tangos. She wears 85 gorgeous Penny Rose costumes. She changes wigs and men. She battles with Che (Antonio Banderas), the rebel narrator who hounds Eva like Hard Copy to expose her sins as a venal, fame-hungry media manipulator. She even belts out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to prove she’s just folks.
What Madonna does not do, what Parker does not trust her to do, is act. She tries on an emotion, then discards it, leaving Eva’s inner life opaque. Missing is the connecting tissue that marks a true characterization, such as the one that another rock diva, Courtney Love, delivers in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Love plays for real; Madonna plays for effect. It’s the difference between acting and showing off.
Madonna’s co-stars are left to fill in the emotional gaps. Banderas, fiercely compelling and in fine voice, exposes the myth of Santa Evita. “How can you claim you’re our savior,” he sings, “when those who oppose you/Are stepped on or cut up or simply disappear?” And the brilliant Pryce, in the film’s best performance, almost humanizes Eva in the scene where he tells his wife she is dying of cancer. Madonna gets the defiant spirit that drives Eva, but she misses the grieving heart.
It’s not for lack of trying. Besides the flashbacks showing Eva as the bastard child who is denied access to her father’s funeral, Madonna is given a sympathy-begging new song, “You Must Love Me.” That’s pushing it. Not until Eva’s deathbed scene, which Parker had the sense to record live, does Madonna break through the technology and the hard-sell posturing to connect directly with Eva and the audience. It’s a daring moment in a movie that should have dared more. Eva’s gaudy funeral ends the film as crowds line up to view the body that was “supposed to have been immortal.” Line up for Evita in the hope of seeing the musical revived for a new generation and you’ll find the same thing: a beautiful, embalmed corpse.