Published January 1, 1997
I can’t say much about Evita by Alan Parker, based on the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, because I just don’t like the music very much. I admit that Mr Lloyd Webber has written some swell tunes in Cats and Phantom of the Opera, but most of his music seems to me vapid and uninteresting. Pastiche Latin from the era of the samba and the rhumba and the like in this case, but tidied up and unconvincing. And the showpiece number, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” has always seemed to me to particularly silly, probably because of its words more than its music.
But there is one interesting thing about Evita from the critic’s point of view. That is that it is what we might call a postmodern opera. In traditional grand opera, there is some central act of heroism or sacrifice which is so exaggerated and theatrical that, unless the music is first rate, it will look fake. If you acted an opera as a play, without the music, it would look absurdly fake. That is what we call melodrama. But Evita is an opera which glories in the fake. It is about a fake, Eva Peron (Madonna), who is married to a fake, Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce), who has based his political career on the fakery of Peronism and who manages to make his wife a kind of symbol of all this fakery which the people of Argentina are supposed to love. Likewise, it is the fakery of the movie, more or less frankly acknowledged, which we are supposed to love about it.
And, just as the Argentines appear to have loved Evita, so audiences appear to have loved the pop opera based on her life (though my guess is that the movie will bomb). But so caught up are we in the story of her “touch of star quality” as the song puts it, that we might not notice that the grand sacrifice itself, the essential bit of grand opera, has been left out. True, Evita contracts cancer and dies, but, sad as it no doubt is, this is not a voluntary act, nor can it be considered a sacrifice or an act of heroism. But what we do get is all the spectacle of the opera without any of the substance, and this makes it a perfect means for the representation of South American politics of the period, which were also heavy on the gestural and light on any meaningful content. Here, the scenes of riot and revolution have exactly the right sort of aimlessness about them. We know that there are workers who feel oppressed from time to time, but in practice they only seem to want to fight with cops and soldiers or else have their beloved Evita throw banknotes to them in one of her many attempts to elevate gestural politics in the direction of grand opera. Any real grievances or solutions are irrelevant in such a context.
This is not accidental. The movie seems remarkably open-eyed about what it is doing. When Peron is elected president and Evita and he appear to wave to the adoring crowds, and she to sing for the first time “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” an upper-class, establishment type remarks sardonically that, “Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants.”
Whereupon some one from Eva’s peasant entourage (is it her mother?) remarks tartly, “We shall see, little man!”
And she’s right! So far as this film is concerned, at least, entertaining the peasants is all that it is about. Only we’re the peasants too.This is part of a general celebration of mere celebrity which frankly recognizes itself as such. Her response to the initial outpouring of enthusiasm from the peasantry is to go shopping, and she shops heroically. “They adore me/So Christian Dior me,” she sings. Later, when she is dying, Peron himself says to her: “You are losing strength, not style. That goes on flourishing forever.” Likewise, the epitaph pronounced on her by the Everyman figure, Che (Antonio Banderas)—who is supposed to be, I think, the voice of reality breaking in on the continual circus from time to time, but who in fact becomes part of it—is that she was “the best show in town.”
At her death, the heroic gesture is particularly ridiculous. She sings of her content to die: “What use would 50, 60, 70 [more years] be?/ I saw the lights and I was on my way.” In other words, on my way to being a star. Almost as big a star, in fact, as Madonna herself, which no doubt accounts for the feeling with which this rather limited actress imbues the part. But though it is clear-sighted enough in other ways, the film never seems to recognize anything of the ironic or humorous potential in its regarding becoming a star as a heroic achievement, worthy of operatic treatment.
The subtextual discursus on class strikes me as being much more English than Argentine. “Screw the middle classes,” sings Evita in one of her most ridiculous lines. “I will never accept them.” But why? “My father’s family was middle class,” she explains, recalling an event that we have already been shown in flashback, “and they shut me out of his funeral.” This was because she was one of his bastard children. Later she is instrumental in the dispossession of the British owners of much of Argentinian industry and even the upper class Argentinians who spurn her come across with upper class British accents. Their portrayal is reminiscent of “The Ascot Gavotte” in My Fair Lady, only without the ironic humor. “The actress hasn’t learned the lines you would like to hear” she sings of herself—but she has learned others. But then Che steps in to tell her that “fine as those sentiments sound/Little has changed for the peasants on the ground.
Another favorite bad line is “In June of ‘43 there was a military coup/Behind it was a group called the GRU.”