Mad for Madonna
You’ve heard the music, seen the clothes, read the hype. But can this movie revive madonna’s career?
It’s a brisk afternoon in late April, and the Evita crew has set up shop outside a small white church in a suburb of Budapest. They are filming the wedding of Eva and Juan Peron, and 100 or so onlookers from the neighborhood are watching Jonathan Pryce and Madonna, as the Argentine general and his bride, emerge from the front door, wave and get showered with rice – then repeat the sequence half a dozen times. One person in the crowd is not watching the actors: a tall, well-muscled man, standing with his arms folded, named Bob Izzard. Each time the cameras roll, he looks in the opposite direction at the crowd. He is Madonna’s bodyguard. “I’m looking for M.D.s,” Izzard explains. That’s security-guard lingo for “mad dashers” – people who dart out of the crowd without warning and try to touch the star. In Buenos Aires, where the Evita crew spent its first five weeks of filming, M.D.s and other unruly fans were a big problem, and Izzard had to get the help of a six-man security detail. Budapest is more laid back – but so are the police. When the cameras roll, they too stare at Madonna.
Who can blame them? Over her nearly 15-year career as pop-music chameleon, sometime movie star and cultural provocateur, few have been able to avert their eyes from Madonna for too long. Her new film, Evita, which opens Christmas Day in New York City and Los Angeles and in January around the country, has been trumpeted with a publicity campaign so lavish and long winded that many people probably think the movie has already opened and they’ve already seen it. Evita is, to be sure, in many ways a landmark: the most ambitious musical Hollywood has turned out in years; the culmination of an almost 20-year effort to bring the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice pop opera to the screen; the catalyst for a storm of political protest in the country where the real story took place; the inspiration for a line of makeup and a boutique at Bloomingdale’s. It’s an event.
And, more precisely, it’s a Madonna event, a crucial milestone in a career that has been “reinvented” so often that the very term has grown trite and useless. For this film – as she has not tired of telling us – Madonna went on an artistic and spiritual quest. She campaigned intensely for the role, taking just a measly – by movie-star standards – $1 million fee and even forgoing a percentage of the profits. She personally lobbied the President of Argentina for the right to film at the Casa Rosada, the Perons’ official residence. She felt an almost mystical identification with Evita, another ambitious woman who was both revered and reviled during her lifetime and wore neat clothes.
“Perhaps it’s made me a stronger person, more resilient,” Madonna says, when asked what she has learned from her long communion with the character. “It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only person the press picks on or tries to turn into a monster or dehumanize in some way. In the end, I feel like I have a lot of compassion for Eva, including any bad decisions she may have made. Because I feel like I understand where she came from. And I love her.”
She didn’t love the filming. In her diary of the experience, published in Vanity Fair, she whined at unseemly length about everything from bad dreams to uncomfortable hotel rooms. (“As I descend further into this labyrinth called moviemaking, I am stunned by the number of possibilities for feeling lonely and alienated…”) In Buenos Aires she was shaken by the protests against the film as well as the hordes of fans who rarely left her alone. Then, on a stopover in New York before moving on to Budapest, she learned she was pregnant. Some rejiggering of the schedule and tinkering with her costumes allowed the filming to barrel ahead to the finish. But it was a close call: a few weeks earlier, and the $60 million project would have been seriously jeopardized. (The filmmakers had no insurance against the star’s pregnancy; such a policy, they say, would have been prohibitively expensive.)
In frigid Budapest, the pregnant star was stressed out and unhappy. When not on the set, she spent most of her time in her room on the top floor of the Kempinski Hotel, coming and going through a private entrance (“She is here for 30 days, and I have not seen her once,” said a forlorn desk clerk). “It was a difficult time for everyone,” Madonna recalled three months later, polite and composed if still a bit distant, in the lounge of a recording studio in the San Fernando Valley. “We went from 100-degree weather in Argentina, the Latin culture, very embracing, warm, passionate, to a country where people are just learning to be expressive without being afraid. Everybody has a sad expression on their face. And it’s difficult to work in an environment where there is no joy. It was the toughest experience of my life.”