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Madonna's Double Feature

The pop star will never be the same after her two pending projects: 'Evita' and her baby.

September 29, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, who lives in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

It has been, as Madonna soberly reflects, an extraordinary year. "A year like no other," she says. "And I've already had a few 'like no others' in my time."

But that was before "Evita." And nothing in her previous life--not even 13 years of astonishingly enduring pop superstardom--had prepared her for it.

In the course of 1996, playing the title role in a $59-million film musical about the life of Argentina's legendary former first lady, Eva Peron, Madonna has learned a few new tricks. As she tells it, she dramatically expanded the range of her singing voice, with the help of a vocal coach. She acquired many of the diplomatic and statesmanlike skills that are sometimes crucial when you are the star of a prestigious, big-budget movie being shot abroad.

And in recording Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's songs from their 1976 musical for the all-important soundtrack of "Evita," she learned to relinquish control in the studio--a milieu in which she called the shots for a decade.

Oh, and in case we forgot, this was also the year of Madonna with child. She becomes a mother for the first time at age 38 next month, when her daughter, Lola, is born.

"It felt like something substantial and serious was going on," she said of the grueling and controversial 84-day shoot in Buenos Aires, Budapest and London earlier this year. "My gut instincts are we've made something beautiful and original. I've got my fingers crossed."

So far, indications are excellent. In Budapest, while "Evita's" director Alan Parker was two-thirds of the way through shooting, he assembled a 10-minute show reel for distributors, containing highlights of the film. So positive was the reaction in Hungary to this epic, emotional assemblage from the crew (many of whom were moved to tears by it) and from other people who saw it (including this reporter) that it was decided to screen it for journalists at the Cannes Film Festival, including critics.

The verdict was positive, which means "Evita" opens Christmas Day surrounded by enormous anticipation. It is thought the film (which is through-sung and has virtually no spoken dialogue) might even revive the movie musical genre.

There is also a widespread feeling that Madonna's career could take a decisive turn as a result of "Evita." It would be hard to argue with her track record as a successful recording artist, or her influence as a charismatic pop icon; but even her most ardent supporters would admit her film career has been disappointing.

Advance word on "Evita," coupled with evidence from the show reel that Madonna looks the part and can also belt out tricky show-stoppers like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" with confidence, suggests she could become a key figure in film musicals, comparable to someone like Barbra Streisand a generation ago.

"Doing the film already has been [a transition] for me," she mused. "But I feel funny making those pronouncements, because those are the kind made by people who put labels on everything. And that makes me sound immodest."

What she will say is that "Evita" was more to her than just making a film: "It was a real education, something on a different plane," she said. "I've never been so drained by anything. From the beginning I walked into another world--and kissed the world as I knew it goodbye."

She ruminated on this in a huge high-ceilinged room of her Los Angeles home, Castillo del Lago, at the end of a track off Mulholland Drive. The house, built for Bugsy Siegel, is decorated oddly on its outer walls in ochre and brick-red horizontal stripes, and overlooks a tranquil lake that gives it its name.

Entering, you walk down a tiled corridor to a small, narrow elevator which would look appropriate in a Victorian London hotel. Ascending, you emerge into a sparsely furnished space with Mexican art on its walls (Madonna is a fan of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera). In the room's center are two high-backed chairs in red plush velvet with gold leaf embellishments, positioned at 90 degrees to each other. On these chairs we sat and talked alone for two hours, like monarchs on thrones.

Yet Madonna looked anything but regal. She had recently stepped from the shower and her bleached blonde hair was still damp; a center parting nonchalantly displayed an inch of brunet roots. A diaphanous black dress over a scarcely less revealing body stocking accentuated her pregnant state. Relaxed and thoughtful, she spoke of "Evita" as a process that still involves her long after the film wrapped. Earlier that day, she had been in a studio, recording a different mix for one of its songs.

Director Parker has already disclosed that in 1994, when it finally became clear he would direct the film (which had been talked about since 1976), he received an eight-page letter from Madonna explaining why she wanted to play Eva Peron. Madonna agreed she felt the role was ideal for her, and now feels vindicated. Yet she embarked upon "Evita" with enormous trepidation.

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