IF NOTHING ELSE, THE DATE WILL BE remembered as the first time Madonna tried to be less provocative. Striding into a press conference on Feb. 6 in Buenos Aires, the singer-actress sought to allay fears that in the film version of Evita her own outré ways would affect her depiction of the nation's legendary First Lady, Eva Perón.

"I'm full of admiration for her," Madonna, 37, said of Eva, who rose more than 50 years ago from radio personality to wife of President Juan Perón. Eva died of uterine cancer in 1952 at age 33, beloved by many Argentines as a champion of the poor and reviled by some as a despot who persecuted her foes. "I'm going to portray her as a courageous and respectable woman," Madonna added. The singer was joined on the dais by her costars—Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas—and the movie's director, Alan Parker. She had dressed for the occasion in a fitted '50s-style suit, and with her honey-tinted hair drawn into a bun, as if to prove what she had told a reporter earlier: she and Eva were soulmates. "People see Eva Perón as either a saint or the incarnation of Satan," Madonna had said. "I can definitely identify with her."

Many Argentines don't see the similarity. When Madonna arrived in Buenos Aires on Jan. 20, Perón devotees had already spray-painted some 50 walls around the city with the slogan Viva Evita! Fuera Madonna! (Long Live Evita! Get Out, Madonna!). "Evita's place in Argentine history is the equivalent to that of Abraham Lincoln's in the U.S.," said veteran Peronist Enrique Pavón Pereyra. "Madonna lives off scandal." The next week, though it was clearly bluster, Clara Marin, 85, a onetime aide to Eva, publicly threatened to kill the star. Even Argentina's president, Carlos Menem, 60, played casting director. "I don't see Madonna in that role," he said. "I don't think that Argentina's people...will tolerate it."

But Madonna's image cuts both ways. For every protester who greeted the singer, there seemed to be an equally passionate fan—like Milva Gambini, 22, a college student and one of 100 or so who visit the sidewalk daily below Madonna's suite in the Park Hyatt's ornate La Mansion annex in hopes of seeing her on the balcony. "Madonna is my life," says Gambini. Still, upset as she is by the Peronists' reaction, she understands it: "Here, Eva is like God."

But if Eva is divine, Madonna, by the time filming began on Feb. 8, seemed to most Argentines a bit less like the devil. One poll of 400 Buenos Aires residents found 48 percent—mostly elderly and poor—opposed the casting, with 39 percent in favor. Argentina was not quite crying for her, but the uproar had dimmed. The singer, in fact, was able to leave her hotel to do research, visiting tango halls where Eva danced and talking to historians. Says David Reddaway, a British embassy official who advised Parker during preproduction: "By taking a sober approach, Madonna has played her hand extremely cleverly."

Which is more than can be said about those who have owned the rights to Evita over the years. Indeed, when plans for a film began to take shape—back in 1981, three years after Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical premiered on the London stage—producer Robert Stigwood of 1977's Saturday Night Fever was in charge, and Charo, singer and sometime Hollywood Square, was rumored to be in line for the title role. Over the next 14 years, Barbra Streisand, Pia Zadora and Meryl Streep were reportedly linked to the project, along with directors Ken Russell and Oliver Stone. Michelle Pfeiffer landed the lead in 1994 but backed out when she learned she was pregnant.

Enter Madonna. Or, rather, reenter the woman who had walked away from the project in 1988, after having, she has said, "creative differences" with Stone. Last year, when Parker (The Commitments) took over, she wrote him an impassioned letter pleading to be reconsidered. Then, as she told the British magazine Hello!, she "put on amulets and crosses, lit candles and even consulted fortune-tellers, who told me that I'd get the role."

Once she did, Madonna read everything she could about Eva. She learned that their early lives had some similarities. Madonna Ciccone grew up in a working-class family in suburban Detroit; her mother died when she was 6; and at 20 she set off for New York City to become a rock star. Eva Duarte was born to poor parents who lived in a village near Buenos Aires; she lost her father as a child; and she left for the capital at 14 to become a radio and film actress.

Eva's legend was born when she helped Col. Juan Perón, whom she met at a party and married in 1945, win election that year as Argentina's president. They owed their victory to the country's poor, to whom Eva became a Lady Bountiful, opening schools and hospitals nationwide. Her untimely death sealed her status as a martyr.

Madonna is clearly more interested in living like a legend during her seven-week stay for the movie, which is due out next fall. Her boyfriend, Carlos Leon, a personal trainer, has visited Madonna in the $2,500-a-day suite she shares with her pet chihuahua. One room contains a gym set, and she goes to restaurants and clubs with a half-dozen bodyguards. And she can always, like the original Eva, draw a crowd by stepping onto her balcony.

It was there, a few days after she arrived, that Madonna nearly captured Perón's true spirit. The crowd outside was chanting her name, begging for a glimpse. Finally, Madonna emerged, quieting them with a wave. It was a pregnant moment. Would she give a fiery Eva-like speech? Defend her art?

No. She wanted them to pipe down. "If you really like me," Madonna told her fans, "let me get some sleep."

GREGORY CERIO
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Buenos Aires and PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy,
  • Paula Yoo.