A View of Madonna as Evita

January 1, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: “Eva, Eva,” chanted the crowd. Eva Peron was for a time in the 40’s and 50’s the first lady of Argentina, the most famous woman of her time. Forty years later “Evita” is a movie starring Madonna, the first lady of American rock. The American rock star and the Argentine populist heroine, both lives are linked by odd similarities. Eva Peron was born Marie Eva Duarte, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and a rancher in rural Argentina. At 15, Eva Duarte traveled alone to Buenos Aires, there to begin an undistinguished career as an actress and singer. When she met Juan Peron in a night club, he was twice her age, an army colonel with an admiration for Franco and Hitler. Madonna is a celebrity, famous not so much for her singing voice or her acting talent as for her ability to keep modeling and remodeling herself. She has become a female icon for a fierce determination to keep changing.

Look at the crowds that come to see her perform. Crowds at rock concerts now are the most extraordinary crowds in the world. Politicians all over must look at such audiences with envy. What politician in the world today can command this sort of audience? Eva Peron knew such crowds. Fifty years ago, Argentina was hers. Argentine has always struck me as a country in search of a nation. In the 19th century European settlers wiped out nearly all trace of the Indian from the land. Even Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer of this century, blind Borges used to laugh at what he supposed was the Indians’ backwardness. Such a sad land. For most of the century Argentina has flirted with strong men at the left and the right. Lacing a democratic tradition, Argentina was readily romanced by a strong man’s promise of order, “orden,” that most luxuriant of words in the political lexicon of Latin American Spanish.

Whereas, rock music is America’s hymn to disorder, rock is democracy on speed, do your own thing. To that extent rock music is anti-political and necessarily skeptical of the established order. When Elvis Presley visited Richard Nixon’s White House, the two men seemed from different planets. Rock music is less about saying something than about unsaying it. Country music, by contrast, even thuggish rap music communicates with narrative. The most interesting idea I’ve ever heard Madonna express was a necessity of striking a pose. Eva Peron became a genuine populist heroine. She was of the poor, and they, she grandly insisted, were of her. She had no ideas. She had only a set of sentimental speeches everyone had heard several times. While Juan Peron arrested journalists and political rivals, Eva became a political heroine whose fame derived from dying her hair blond and wearing Christian Dior. With a beautician’s help and a hairdresser’s skill, Evita was a golden fairy godmother to a yearning Argentina.

NEWSREEL SPOKESMAN: In Buenos Aires, as in every town and village throughout Argentina, there is mourning for the First Lady of the land, Eva Peron.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: She died young, at 33, from uterine cancer. In death, Eva Peron became a saintly relic.

EVA PERON: I am only a simple woman.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In the 1970’s, Eva was resurrected as “Evita,” a pop opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber, which is where we find her now, “Evita,” the movie, played by Madonna, the rock singer whose most astonishing achievement is reinventing herself. In early December, Bloomingdale’s opened Evita boutiques in all of its department stores. Here, you could buy Evita lipstick, dresses, jewelry, all to create “the look.”

SONG: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Perhaps because of the restrictions women have lived with for centuries it would necessarily occur to a woman to realize the importance of costume and image. And yet, there is something very terrible and very modern about the bottle-blond fame of Eva Peron and Madonna. It is possible now in our celebrity-obsessed world to become very influential by merely striking a pose.

SONG: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I’m Richard Rodriguez.