Playing a legend like Eva Peron, who is still remembered as both saint and despot, would be a defining moment for any actress, the kind of epic role that has all but disappeared from movies today. Madonna wanted the part badly as soon as she heard that Parker had signed to make the movie, she sat down and wrote him, by hand, an eight-page letter. Though she had has some conversations with Michelle Pfeiffer, Parker says that he didn’t have a doubt: “Madonna promised me from the very beginning she would give her all, and she has kept her promise. She’s given herself to the film and to me.”
Finally making the transition from pop star to movie star with this, her fourteenth major movie, is particularly crucial for Madonna. She doesn’t want to end up a female version of Mick Jagger, a geriatric rocker trying to pretend that the walls of nature don’t apply. She has, after all, remained a powerful presence for a remarkably long time, always resurfacing in a new guise just when everyone is really to write her off. (“People have accused me of getting pregnant for the publicity because I’ve run out of things to do,” she says unhappily.) Yet through it all, she has always said she wants to be an actress.
But however savvy she is about marketing herself. She has been a bumpkin, for example, when it comes to packing movie roles. Her film output in the ten years following Desperately Seeking Susan was undistinguished.
Remember Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise? Or the awful Body of Evidence?
What, exactly, makes a movie star (as opposed to a video star) is elusive. It isn’t about putting on a show but about a willingness to be the repository for the audience’s collective yearnings. Madonna’s gift has been something else – to provoke, to exhibit herself, to entertain but never to disappear, even when she’s playing somebody else. But when director Parker showed the crew a ten-minute promotional reel for Evita, even the most hardened gaffer confessed to tear a two. This was a new Madonna, powerful yet unguarded.
“On video she is like a product to sell,” said Evita cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Madonna’s “Fever” video three years ago. “We glamorized her to the maximum. We never do that to her here. She gives so much to the camera, you don’t have to give her look. Her look comes from within.”
Still Evita is hardly a safe bet. Many a talented director has stumbled trying to make a movie musical in recent years, from Spike Lee (School Daze) to James Brooks (I’ll Do Anything). And Evita is even riskier. Except for few lines, the entire film is sung, putting it somewhere closer to opera than musical. It could be the pop-culture phenomenon of the year or merely strange, a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the nineties.
Madonna thinks of herself as an avant-garde performance artist, and in some ways she is. She doesn’t seem aware, however, that her enormous success comes not so much from her East Village sensibility as from her Las Vegas packaging of it. She is a bundle of contradictions: ironic yet sentimental, astute yet strangely obtuse about her own inconsistencies. She needs to think of herself as a rebel, but she can also sound like a stern guardian of propriety, particularly when she talks about money and children.
Certainly her mother’s death when she was five years old forged her personality, giving her an early sense that the world was out of her control. She has been formed, on one hand, by middle-class respect for Catholicism and capitalism and, on the other, by early knowledge that the system won’t protect her from sorrow. The internal push-pull between admiring “good values” and rebelling against them has been a powerful force, and so has fear.
“Until I passed the age that my mother was when she dies (31), I kept thinking, Here comes my death sentence,” she said. “Then once I passed I breathed a sign of relief.”
For years, she says, she didn’t worry about it, until she became pregnant and began dreaming again of death. Madonna described these dreams with great poignancy, quickly metamorphosing into the sad little motherless girl from Bay City, Michigan:
“One was a dream I’m sure most women have when they’re pregnant. I went to the doctor and she said, ‘Oh, fetal heartbeat is really weak. I want to do an ultrasound,’ and when she did, she said, ‘The baby’s dead. You have pushed yourself too hard, and the baby’s dead.’ And I watched the baby detach itself from the placenta and sort of float around in my stomach, and I was just sobbing hysterically, thinking, I killed my baby. My God, I’ve killed my baby.
“Then I had a dream I was sitting at my mother’s deathbed and she had an oxygen tent around her and I sad, ‘You have to tell me what my fate is going to be. Tell me. Is the same thing going to happen to me? Am I going to have a child, have children, then get breast cancer and die? You have to tell me if that’s going to happen to me.’ She died and didn’t give me the answer.”
Madonna seemed very fragile just then, her eyes damp with sadness, very human.
Then, on to a more practical discussion of the mechanics of pregnancy and childbirth. Astonishingly, this world-class control freak was almost twelve weeks pregnant before she realized what was making her so tired all the time. “It’s not unusual when I’m working very hard or under a lot of pressure to miss my period,” she said. “So I assumed that’s what was going on.”
Her first response was guilt – about the movie, not the baby. “Oh, God, I’m going to screw the movie up,” she remembers thinking.
Like any other pregnant woman, she immersed herself in the terrifying literature of childbirth – and became preoccupied with pain. “I’m obsessed with having an epithomy, getting cut,” she said. One day, during one of many phone conversations, her sister said to her, “You’re a hard-ass. This is going to be a piece of cake for you. After all you’ve been through and all you do physically. you’ll be fine.”
Madonna wasn’t reassured. “My sister had natural childbirth, no drugs, and she doesn’t pretend it was a fucking day at the beach,” she said. “I’m not interested in being Wonder Woman in the delivery room. Give me drugs. Sometimes I get really wimpy and think I’m going to have a C-section. I don’t want to go through all this.”
In addition to fear (“The scariest moment of my life was going in for amniocentesis”), there was also the problem of sleep. “Since I was a child I’ve only been able to sleep on my stomach. I can’t go there anymore, and it’s keeping me awake at night,” she sighed.
Oh, pregnancy, the great leveler. Yet it’s a mistake to try to identify too closely with Madonna as she expresses these prosaic fears, because she belongs to another galaxy, the highly specific realm of celebrity, where something as personal as pregnancy becomes a commodity to fuel gossip and sell newspapers. Most of us don’t feel compelled to plan a press strategy to announce our pregnancies. Madonna did (she gave the scoop to friendly gossip Liz Smith). But you get the sense that even Madonna and her handlers couldn’t have anticipated the scopre of the news barrage. In addition to inspiring countless political cartoons (Madonna’s cone-shaped nursing bra was a popular gag image) and talk-show punch lines, the pregnancy pushed the Unabomber off the front page of many of the nation’s newspapers. Even Newsweek weighed in, with columnist Jonathan Alter solemnly urging Madonna to take this opportunity to promote family values by marrying her child’s father.
Madonna refused to discuss her relationship with Carlos Leon, the handsome 29-year-old personal trainer who is her baby’s father, except in the abstract, as a political matter. “It is perfectly socially acceptable for a man to find a beautiful girl who hasn’t accomplished the things that he’s accomplished, and make a life with her. Why does the man always have to be the one who makes more money?” she asked. “It’s pathetic and sexist and disgusting, and if people don’t change the way they view things – the man and woman’s place in society – nothing’s ever going to change.”