It was tough partly because of the odd sort of film being made. All the music had been recorded in a London studio the previous fall, so the actors’ performances were largely locked in. Watched over closely by director Alan Parker – a rumpled, penguin-shaped Brit who paced the set with head down, like an Oxford mathematician pondering a calculus problem – the actors had to focus mainly on lip-synching accurately and hitting their marks at the right time. It was tedious work that allowed for little spontaneity, but Madonna, the music-video veteran, handled it skillfully. Shooting part of her waltz with Antonio Banderas (as the narrator Che), for example, she whirled and gesticulated around a restaurant table for more than a dozen takes, conferring quietly with Parker in between them, with scarcely a flub or a misstep.
From all accounts, Madonna was punctual, serious and well prepared on the set. “She’s a tough worker,” says co-star Banderas. Producer Andrew Vajna (Nixon, Die Hard with a Vengeance), while admitting that he and Madonna “had some words” when she complained about hotel accommodations in Buenos Aires and London, praises her as “one of the most professional actresses I’ve ever worked with. She devoted passion and time beyond the call of duty.”
“She’s demanding of the people around her,” says Parker (director of Fame and Mississippi Burning), who got the film made after at least three other directors had tried and failed. “But she’s not a cliche diva stamping her foot. She’s very intelligent. You’ve got to make sure you have the right answer when she has a question. She’s a control freak, but so am I. When there was a problem, I would just say, ‘Let her and me solve it.’ ” Madonna responds in kind: “Alan was very supportive during the shooting. He let me sort of follow my own instincts in a lot of cases. We had both been prepared to expect the worst from each other. And then we got together, and it was probably the smoothest working experience I’ve ever had in terms of a collaboration.”
The other person Madonna managed to win over was Andrew Lloyd Webber. (He and Rice had sold the rights to Evita but retained approval of the casting.) In 1993, when Madonna was involved in an earlier effort to make the film, Lloyd Webber was quoted as saying she was too old to play Evita. “What I said was that by the time anybody gets around to making the movie, she’ll be too old,” he now explains. Vocally, he admits, Madonna did not come to the role with the powerhouse pipes of such stage Evitas as Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone. But she worked with a vocal coach in New York City, and Lloyd Webber helped by lowering the score a few keys. “She doesn’t claim to have the biggest voice,” he says, “but theater isn’t the same as cinema. If you had done the score exactly as it was in the theater, it might have gotten very wearing.”
He maintained his confidence even after a disastrous initial recording session, when Madonna was forced to launch into the show’s biggest number, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, backed by an oversize, 84-piece orchestra whose members had never before played together. Lloyd Webber was upset with the musicians, Parker had first-day jitters and Madonna went home in tears. “I was so nervous,” she says, “because I knew that Andrew had had reservations about me, and here I’m singing the hardest song in the piece. And all of a sudden there with everybody for the first time, it was really tense.” Lloyd Webber and Parker met with her later, decided to bring in a new conductor and musicians, and started the recording sessions over from scratch.
The whole ordeal of making the film seems to have produced – dare we say it? – yet another Madonna, softer, more chastened. Or maybe just more calculated. The former shock mistress brought tears to Oprah Winfrey’s studio audience when she described feeling her baby kicking on Mother’s Day. Department stores may be pushing the dolled-up “Evita look,” but Madonna has switched to pastel colors, soft makeup and a demure, Catholic-schoolgirl hairstyle. (She donned the Evita look for the film’s Hollywood premiere, but otherwise, she says, “it’s something for special occasions. You’re not going to see me with my hair up in a chignon, wearing padded shoulders and a nipped-in-at-the-waist suit every day, that’s for sure.”) Accepting a Billboard magazine music award on Dec. 4, she thanked her fans, “who have stuck by me through all the years, through thick and thin, when even I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing.”
Strange, and all those years we thought Madonna knew exactly what she was doing. She still defends even her worst career missteps, like her 1992 book, Sex, a collection of kinky erotic photos, which finally pushed her provocative public image one notch too far. “If you read the text, it was completely tongue in cheek,” she says. “It was a joke. Unfortunately, my sense of humor is not something that a mainstream audience picks up. For me all it did was expose our society’s hang-ups about our sexuality. Yes, I took a beating, and yes, a lot of the things that were said were hurtful and unfair. And yes it made my life really difficult for a while. But there are no mistakes. It was a great learning experience.”
She is still learning. A couple of years later she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, unleashed a flurry of four-letter words and spent the next few months trying to repair the damage. Meanwhile, her bumpy movie career – which has wavered between big roles in bad films (Shanghai Surprise) and smaller parts in an occasional decent one (A League of Their Own) – got even bumpier. In 1993 she starred in Body of Evidence, a steamy courtroom drama that bombed with critics and audiences. She complains that the script was changed so that her character, a sex-obsessed vixen on trial for murder, was killed in the end. In all the movies of the ’40s the bad girl has to die,” she says. “What I loved about the role was that she didn’t die. And in the end, they killed me. So I felt that I was sabotaged to a certain extent. For some reason, when that movie came out I was held responsible for it entirely. It was my fault. Which was absurd. Because we all make bad movies. I mean, Diabolique came out and Sharon Stone was not held responsible for the fact that it was a crap movie, you know what I mean?”
Her next film, Dangerous Game – a grim, low-budget curiosity about a seedy film director whose movie about an abusive relationship is seeping into real life – got even less attention. This time, says Madonna, she was “sabotaged” by the director, Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant), who re-edited the ending and took out most of the humor. “The movie had such a different texture and meaning and outcome for me. When I went to see a screening of it, I cried. Because I really think I did a good job as an actress. I don’t think it should be called Dangerous Game. It should be called The Bad Director.”
Still, she admits she has “made a lot of really stupid decisions” in her movie career, and she clearly hopes Evita will put all that behind her. Two future movie projects have already caught her eye: a biography of Tina Modotti, the photographer and political revolutionary, and a movie version of the musical Chicago (in the role Bebe Neuwirth currently plays in the hit Broadway revival). “While I’m still very interested in making music and writing music, I want to concentrate on film more. I’m very interested in directing. I know that sounds very trite and boring, but I’m going to. I just have to do it when the time is right.”
But first the Evita frenzy will have to be justified by a measure of success at the box office. And that is far from certain. Madonna’s presence onscreen has yet to be a big draw, and the massive publicity campaign cannot obscure the fact that Evita is a two-hour opera. “I don’t know if it’s going to be commercial,” she says. “But I am 100 percent sure that I did the best job I could.” That may not be enough to finally make Madonna a major movie star. But it has accomplished at least one thing: we’re staring at her again.