The Making of Evita
Since the theme of Evita is fame, it’s worth noting that during the early Thirties, when Eva Duarte was a skinny, sickly young outcast living on the Argentine pampas, the two consolations in her life were reciting florid poems about death and buying a fan magazine for the glamorous stills and the news that it brought of her favorite Hollywood actress. From our late-century perspective, her choice, Norma Shearer, looks odd. Today we easily remember actresses who came along just two or three years later. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck: we remember their fierceness, their elegantly hunched posture, the way they wore chorus-girl shorts or antebellum gowns. Compared with them Evita’s heroine seems like something primordial, a one-cell precursor of the real stars who were about to arrive.
What did Evita respond to? Norma Shearer was versatile, hard-working: she could play drawing-room wits, tough divorcées, even Shakespeare’s Juliet. Several biographies mention that Evita especially loved the costume epic Marie Antoinette; it was just the kind of grandiose, tear-jerking part she would take on a few years later, in an Argentine radio series on Great Women of History. And then there’s the suggestive fact that Shearer was married to Irving Thalberg, the enigmatic “genius” president of MGM, who used his pull to get his wife studio billing as “First Lady of the Screen”; perhaps the young Evita already sensed the benefits of marrying power.
Still, without being exactly plain, Shearer was short, with humdrum brown hair and a squint, and she didn’t carry a strong personality from film to film. To single her out for worship, you would probably have to believe that fame and success beget greatness, and not the other way around. If you were young and ambitious and your own life was painful to contemplate, you might overlook a certain blankness, an utter lack of introspection, that special quality defined by Lillian Hellman as “mind unclouded by thought.”
Shearer’s star faded away. But her dogged spirit, such as it was, survives. Consider the promotional campaign for the new movie Evita, which led off in November when Madonna posed for the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair. One was first struck in the photographs by the absence of bustiers, provocatively positioned crosses, and otherwise suggestive dress we had come to expect from Madonna. She wore elegant tailored 1940s suits and hats, and she pulled her hair back in Evita’s austere signature chignon. She also wore brown contact lenses, which aided her effort to resemble Evita but gave her face a vaguely nonhuman, mannequin sheen. Both magazine covers mentioned the fact of her new motherhood (Vanity Fair promised “Private Diaries” inside and spoke of “dreams and heartache”), but she did not look ready to confide warmly. She did look slightly tired, almost enough to make you wonder whether a real person was bursting out. But in fact the fatigue seemed more a message that while she was tired she wanted to show us …