My first several posts have all been on ancient or medieval history, so I figured I ought to do something a bit more recent.
In 1996, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s opera Evita came to the big screen, directed by Alan Parker and starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce. I enjoyed it when it came out, and still enjoy it today. I think casting the controversial celebrity Madonna as the controversial celebrity Evita was an inspired choice, despite her limitations as an actress. And of course the music and lyrics are excellent. So those are my biases right up front—I like this film.
Does It Get the History Right?
I’m not a scholar of Latin American history by a long shot, and I don’t read Spanish, so I can’t fall back on personal expertise here. Eva Peron is a controversial figure in Argentina even today; the Peronists are still an important political faction and the current president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, identifies as one. So getting a moderately objective view of Eva Peron is still tricky.
The opera Evita was reportedly based considerably on Mary Main’s The Woman with the Whip, a biography of Eva Peron that draws heavily on interviews with anti-Peronists, so the material tends to have a strong bias against Juan and Eva. Peronists have accused the opera of a variety of mistakes. The most substantial of these is the opera’s presentation of Eva Peron’s arrival in Buenos Aires. It shows the 15 year old Eva being the mistress of the tango singer Augustin Magaldi. She badgers him into bringing her to Buenos Aires, where he abandons her because he is married. Several years later, they bump into each other again at a charity fund-raiser, where he makes a snide remark about her. However, Peronists insist there is no evidence that the two ever met; Magaldi generally traveled with his wife and so would not have been able to bring a mistress along with him, and there is no evidence that he ever came to Eva’s home town. Instead, they point to evidence that Eva’s mother brought her to Buenos Aires so she could become an actress. Magaldi died several years before the fund-raiser, so the second scene cannot have happened, regardless of whether they had met previously.
The opera has been accused of sexism. It tends to reduce Eva to a sex symbol with no political ideals of her own. It emphasizes the glamorous elements of her time as First Lady of Argentina and almost entirely omits her support of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1946, after Argentine women received the vote, Eva founded the Feminist Peronist Party, an accomplishment that certainly deserves a little screen time. While the woman does seem to have had a taste for expensive clothing that feels a bit at odds with her heavily-publicized efforts to help the poor, it is possible for her to have an interest in both fashion and women’s causes.
The opera also frankly asserts that she slept her way to the top. In “Goodnight and Thank You” we follow Eva Peron’s career from the perspective of various men who slept with her and promoted her. While ambitious social climbing is one way to understand those events, another way to understand them is that she was a victim of an entertainment system in which men sexually exploited actresses. If Eva took advantage of that system, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deeply manipulative of her at the same time. While an enjoyable musical number, “Goodnight and Thank You” has more than a little in common with slut-shaming.
Also, in case anyone was confused, Eva Peron and Che Guevara never met, although Guevara did apparently once write her a sarcastic letter, asking her to buy him a motorcycle. In the opera, Che functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on Eva’s life, and in the film he is presented as a sort of Argentine Everyman, becoming at various moments a bartender, a janitor, a waiter, a reporter, and so on. In reality, Guevara was in his teens when the Perons came to power, and 24 when Eva died.
But this brings us to what I’m really interested in with Evita, namely its unusual approach to its narrative.
Back when you took Mrs Boathook’s high school English class, you probably learned to talk about the narrative of a novel or play. In general usage, ‘narrative’ is often a synonym for ‘the plot’. From that approach, the narrative of Evita is simply Eva Peron’s life story.
But when historians talk about narrative, we often mean something different. History, after all, has no ‘plot’. It’s just all the events that have ever happened, right? But the problem with thinking about history as ‘everything that happened’ is that we don’t actually know anything about the vast majority of events that have happened. I have no idea what Eva Peron had for breakfast the day after she arrived in Buenos Aires, and I doubt anyone else does either. We only know about that small subsection of events that left clear evidence behind. If Eva had written in her diary about her breakfasts, perhaps we would know what she had that morning.
Furthermore, when a historian like me or story-tellers like Webber and Rice sit down to write something about history, we cannot possibly include all the known facts about that subject. We have to make decisions about what we include or leave out. For example, Eva’s mother is a minor character in Evita, but her name is never mentioned (it was Juana). Webber and Rice apparently decided that this piece of information was not helpful in telling their version of Eva’s story. When historians call something a narrative, they are often interested in the issue of what facts are included or omitted in a particular historical account.
What facts an historian chooses to include or omit can strongly shape what the past seems to be about. For example, the version of the American Revolution taught to most school children in the US emphasizes that the Revolution was motivated by high taxes. This narrative stresses that the taxes were unreasonable because they had not been voted on by those being taxed. But this narrative omits the fact that the American colonies were taxed at a much lower rate than England was, and that the purpose of raising taxes was to pay for the defense of the colonies. If these facts are included, the traditional narrative becomes much more complex. It becomes a debate about whether those taxes were unreasonable because they were not directly voted for or reasonable because they were not an undue burden and the colonists directly benefitted from them.
Normally, a historical film has one narrative, one set of events and one given interpretation of those events. What’s interesting to me about Evita is that it offers not one but two narratives about Eva Peron’s life, and these two narratives fight for the viewer’s support.
The movie opens with the announcement of Eva Peron’s death and the public reaction to it. Then it flashes back to Eva’s supposed relationship with Magaldi and how she got to Buenos Aires, and then moves in a chronological line down to her death. This is a common device in biographical movies, but the effect is to explicitly cast the film as history, a past event moving toward a specific destination (Eva’s death). We inevitably understand her life in light of the reaction to her death that we see at the beginning of the film. In most biopics, that’s about as far as the film goes to an exploration of what history is. But Evita is a lot more complex than most biopics.
A Narrative for Che and Evita
Throughout the film (much less so in the musical, from my memories of it), Eva (Madonna) and Che (Antonio Banderas) engage in a running debate about what the events of her life mean. Some scenes, such as the death of her father when she was a young girl, offer us only Eva’s view of her life, while a few others, such as “The Lady’s Got Potential” and “The Art of the Possible” are essentially Che’s unchallenged version of events, usually focused on the wider political situation or unrest in the streets.
But in many other scenes, Eva presents her view of the events only to have Che challenge it with a different perspective. For example, during “Goodnight and Thank You” we see a series of brief relationships between Eva and increasingly important men in the entertainment industry. Each verse represents the break-up of one of the relationships. Che presents the break-up in terms of cynical social climbing, suggesting that Eva is using these men and them dumping them. But Eva then presents the break-up in traditional romantic terms simply as a failed love affair. “Oh but it’s sad when a love affair dies, but we have pretended enough. It’s best that we both stop fooling ourselves.” At this point, Che jumps back in and literally re-interprets her line by saying “Which means…” and making a rude gesture. In the chorus, however, Eva seems to admit that she is using tricks on her partners, and justifies herself simply by saying that everyone does it.
Similarly, in “Rainbow Tour”, Juan Peron’s advisors sing about how successful her tour of Europe is, while Che keeps inserting details they’ve left out. When one advisor excitedly notes that she “filled a bull-ring, forty-five thousand seater”, Che comments “But when you’re prettier than General Franco, that’s not hard.” Later, Che gloats that the Pope will not be giving her a papal decoration, the advisor responds, “But she still looked the part in St. Peter’s, caught the eye.” And when Che comments that Eva is too tired to go on to England, the advisor retorts that it wasn’t on the schedule.
So repeatedly, we are presented with a core set of facts that both sides agree on, but both Eva and Che insist on bringing in other facts that they see as bolstering their view of the events. Whereas Che keeps pointing out the violence in the streets and the suppression of democracy, Eva periodically asserts her hostility to the country’s middle class, which she sees as elitist and hostile to the poor. She brings up the fact that her middle class father maintained two separate families, and when he died, his wife refused to allow Eva’s family to attend the funeral. This, Eva says, is why she will never accept them and will champion the poor.
Finally, toward the end of the film, we reach the “Waltz for Che and Evita” (even though in the film it’s more of a tango). Che and Evita dance together and argue the merits of their viewpoints. He accuses her of engaging in a pantomine without substance while brutalizing her opponents. She defends herself by pointing out that she is only one women and cannot change the rules of the game. What, she demands to know, does Che expect her to do? Her goal is to give her supporters “a magical moment or two”. Che responds that she is being short-sighted, that she has no “impossible dream” she’s reaching for. She retorts that no one would benefit from it if she would declare her opposition to an unsolvable problem like war or pollution, and accuses him of “whip[ping] up hate”. Then she collapses, a sign that her cancer is beginning to overwhelm her, and as she laments to God, even Che seems to empathize with her for a moment.
So in many ways, the film tries to present both the Peronist and anti-Peronist views of Eva, by marshalling facts in support of one side or the other. Ultimately, however, its anti-Peronist sympathy is clear. In too many scenes, Che’s view is unchallenged. Che consistently depicts Juan Peron as a fascist dictator (even calling him a “would-be dictator” at one point), which grossly oversimplifies Peronism. Like I said, I’m not an expert on Latin America, but my colleague Laura Matthew tells me that Peronism doesn’t easily correspond to any European ideology. It was a popular movement based on enfranchising the workers (Peron was the Minister of Labor before coming to power) and saw itself as hostile to the middle and upper classes, which means that it had much more in common with Socialism than European Fascism. It was semi-nationalist in its hostility to foreign control of Argentine industry, but never developed Nazism’s anti-Semitism. It was paternalistic, with Juan and Eva being presented as the father and mother of the nation, which is perhaps its closest affinity to Fascism. After Peron fell from power, the movement split into a right wing and a left wing, but while Peron was in power, he was drawing support from both ends of the political spectrum. So Che’s view of Peronism is largely fed to the viewer without challenge.
In other places, Eva seems to tacitly agree with Che’s narrative, such as during the chorus of “Goodnight and Thank You”. Eva’s work for the poor is shown during “And the Money Kept Rolling In”, but she is never given a chance to speak about it for herself; instead we get Che’s extremely cynical view of Eva’s Foundation as silly and corrupt. Her supporters have challenged the film’s claim that the Foundation did not keep books.
That the film is strongly anti-Peronist is probably due to the fact that the original musical was even more so. In the musical, the saddest (and prettiest) song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, is given to Peron’s unnamed mistress, whom Eva evicts from bed rather callously. In the film, however, Eva sings it as a chronicle of her struggles, and the anonymous mistress only reprises a few lines of it later on. Eva returns to it briefly when she learns she is dying of cancer. The film also gives Eva a second tear-jerker, “You Must Love Me”, sung to Juan as she is dying. Webber and Rice evidently recognized that the musical was lopsided against Eva and decided to fix it by giving Eva more sympathetic songs and moments such as her father’s funeral, or perhaps they decided to make it more balanced so they could get the Argentine government to co-operate during the filming of the movie (“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was filmed on the balcony of the actual Casa Rosada). That they fail to fully balance the film simply means that the bias was too deeply woven into the musical numbers to make real balance essentially impossible.
Despite these flaws, I find Evita’s narrative clash an intriguing feature, which emerges out of the decision to use Che as Greek chorus. Although the film makes it clear which narrative it expects you to embrace, the fact that it offers you the option of seeing Eva Peron differently makes it quite unusual as biopics go. But I’m sure Madonna wouldn’t have it any other way, and Eva Peron wouldn’t have either.
Want to Know More?
Evita is available from Amazon both as the film Evita and as Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Music Soundtrack.
Mary Main’s much-criticized Evita: The woman with the whipwas the basis for the Broadway show and thus indirectly for the movie. If you want a more balanced look at this still-controversial woman, you might check out Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro, which was written as a response to the musical.