NBC's 'Evita Peron': simplistic, dangerous mythmaking

"Springtime for Hitler" was a joke only a few years ago. You may recall that Mel Brooks wrote a satiric movie entitled "The Producer" which revolved about a madcap musical production, "Springtime for Hitler." It was considered outrageous, way-out humor.

Then, a couple of years ago, when the musical play "Evita" opened on Broadway , there were grumblings from some seemingly picayune critics. Next thing you know, they warned, there'll probably be a "Springtime for Eva Braun."

Well, only a few weeks ago, CBS aired a drama, "The Bunker," which presented Eva Braun in a very sympathetic light. Even Hitler himself didn't come off too badly. Based upon this Anthony Hopkins version, Hitler was a nice but slightly disturbed man who loved dogs and children. His major vice seemed to be that now and then he took time out to murder a few million innocent people while pushing his nation to the brink of total disaster.

So, the idea of "Springtime for Hitler" has lost its satiric bite -- one of these days I expect to see a production done in all seriousness, just as the musical "Evita" is a kind of "Springtime for Eva Peron."

Now, NBC has come up with its own version of the Eva Peron story -- "Evita Peron" (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m., Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). It is "Springtime for Evita" -- without music.

Written by Ronald Harwood, produced and directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, starring Faye Dunaway as Eva Duarte and James Farentino as Juan Peron, this multimillion-dollar production is the Guadalajara (where it was shot) version of Argentine history. It confuses fact and myth, twists history "for dramatic impact" to suit its own purposes. "Evita Peron" is "George Washington- and-the-cherry-tree" history.

Faye Dunaway declaims every line as if it were a historic tableau. She mouths all the simplistic dialogue lines; enacts all the oversimplified story lines with no sign of ambivalence about them as the script traces the growth of the illegitimate child Eva into an ambitious, promiscuous, small-time actress who has one major talent -- the ability to scribble her name and phone number on scraps of paper and slip them to Argentine military men . . . including the nymphet-prone Peron. Eva develops from innocent victim to tough infighter and back again to vulnerable Lady Bountiful before your very eyes without so much as one visible change in motivation -- although there are innumerable visible changes in costume.

According to this version of history, the Evita-Juan story is an almost operatic love story, romanticized beyond belief. Now and again ugly facts are introduced just to keep the record straight -- but nobody lets the facts interfere with the romanticization of Peronist history.

The calculated media-manipulation of the nation's poor, the personal dispensation of largess without accountability, the political repression, the official approval of fascism and Nazism, the economic disaster, the black-mail-the-rich-and-throw-a-few-pesos-to-the-poor-before-we-bank-the-rest-in-Switzerland attitude -- all of this is slipped subtly into the framework of this basic justification of "St. Evita," so the unknowing will believe they are seeing a balanced portrait. There have been several recent documentaries tracing the story of Peron, which have done a much better job of clarifying the complex puzzle of Evita in the life of Peron and the political history of Argentina. The newsreel shots of Evita, in her last days, proclaiming herself to be a candidate for vice-president, propped up by army men is an unforgettable image -- far stronger than any image manufactured for this superficial rehash of believe-it-or-not fictionalization.

"Evita Peron" converts Eva Duarte's ugly, vengeful, self-serving obsession into a near-beautification. The long deathbed scene is almost obscene in its cloying and apparently symbolic cleansing rituals. In the end, the film confuses the official Peronista "line" with its own contrived climax so that audiences may be left uncertain as to whether the commentator's official reaction to the demise of Evita ("She died at age 33 -- the same age as Jesus") is meant as satire, irony, or electronic canonization.

Aside from my objections to its mythmaking version of reality and its simplistic view of Argentine -- and world -- history, I find "Evita Peron" a dangerous entertainment. It brings our civilization one step closer to a dead-serious "Springtime for Hitler."

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