HOLLYWOOD -- Late this week Meryl Streep will sign a contract with the Robert Stigwood Organisation to play (and sing!) "Evita," ending a decade-long search for just the right actress -- a search that in some ways approached the hunt for Scarlett O'Hara 50 years ago. As director Oliver Stone remained closeted in his Santa Monica, Calif., beach house writing a shooting script for the musical based on the life of Argentina's manipula- tive showgirl-turned-first-lady-turned-patron- saint Eva Peron, producer Robert Stigwood -- in Bermuda -- worked behind the scenes to pave the way for filming later this year. Stigwood, breaking an eight-year silence on the project, said the entire deal is set, "save for a very few fine points. We'll have it in the theaters by Christmas of 1990." It has been exactly 10 years and 5 months since Bette Midler jetted back to Hollywood from a world tour to find that her agent had been approached by RSO, which wanted to "chat a bit" about her chances to play the Argentine bombshell in the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice Broadway smash. Negotiating furiously in the background that same month were producer Jon Peters and then-wife Barbra Streisand, offering a package deal if Streisand could nab the choice role. In the ensuing tumultuous decade, the project has been in and out of the hands of three studios, surviving the takeover of one of them and such tangential factors as the Falklands war and the end of military rule in Argentina. Seven directors have had their hands on the project -- notably Britain's Ken Russell and America's Herbert Ross. And 36 actresses have handled the script -- from Broadway's Patti LuPone to rock vamp Madonna; from Liza Minnelli -- who screen-tested in a blond wig -- to London thespian Elaine Paige, who lost her chance at international stardom in a colossal power struggle that spread across three continents. The cameras almost turned in Madrid in 1982, in Mexico City in 1984 and on a sound stage in London the winter of 1985. At each step of the way, the fight to bring "Evita" to the big screen has been chronicled, almost exclusively, in the gossip columns. Because executives at RSO remained mum, publicists and scribes had a field day. No rumor was too flimsy to make it into print. One publicist in Las Vegas, for instance, impulsively announced in 1979 that "Charo had the inside track for the role -- followed by Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret (in that order)." The road to this week's formal signing of Streep was paved with wild whims and Tinseltown flights of fancy: When Russell insisted in the early '80s that "only Liza can play this part," Stigwood summarily fired him. And when Broadway's Evita, Patti LuPone, refused to screen-test in 1981, she lost all chance to repeat her success in the movies. When the organization's senior vice president, Bill Oakes, spoke for the record last week, he conceded that the story "has taken on the trappings of the Scarlett O'Hara search. Embarrassingly so, since there were always dozens of contenders." At one point, Paramount Pictures -- which held the rights to produce and distribute the musical in the early '80s, dropped it -- only to pick it up again briefly when Madonna burst onto the scene in 1985. Even earlier, England's EMI -- which outbid every other studio for the musical -- was forced to drop it during a takeover and merger with the British Thorn Film Corp. (with which Stigwood is still fighting in the English courts). Not until 1987, when the emerging Weintraub Entertainment negotiated for two months to take over the rights from the defaulting Paramount, was the deck cleared for the current production -- for which Streep could be prerecording the soundtrack in New York as early as this summer. At the height of the fray, a confused Los Angeles Magazine lamented, "The proposed director and star of the movie version of 'Evita' changes almost as often as, well, the dictators of some South American countries." The actual story of "Evita," the movie, started quietly and confidently in the late '70s when Stigwood -- fresh from the successes of the movies "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," sold the rights to "Evita" to EMI for just more than $7.5 million -- with Stigwood retained as producer and creative director. At EMI's London headquarters, studio brass were discussing the project with director Michael Cimino, who had just finished the Oscar-winning "The Deer Hunter." Unbeknown to EMI, Stigwood, in Hollywood for the American opening of the musical, had been approached by Jon Peters during the gala round of parties accompanying the premieres. "He said he could deliver Streisand if he was allowed to produce," Stigwood said in an interview last week from Bermuda. "I thanked him but reminded him that I would remain as producer. And that's how Streisand's name first became connected with this project." But before Streisand, or Bette Midler, could be seriously dealt with, two events swamped the project: First, Thorn took over EMI and forced the corporation to renege on the deal with RSO. "We're still in court over that," Stigwood explained. Then, Cimino's $36 million megabomb, "Heaven's Gate," was released in New York and Hollywood, to disastrous reviews. So distressing was the fallout that one RSO spokesman told Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck that "Cimino was never involved with 'Evita,' " and that RSO even said it "planned to seek a retraction from Time magazine," which had listed Cimino as the film's director. Stigwood quickly snatched back his property and carried it off to Hollywood and the front offices at Paramount. A deal was quickly struck, involving the services of the eccentric auteur Ken Russell, who had directed the film version of the rock opera "Tommy" for Stigwood in 1975. The director was then blessed with a current hit, "Altered States." So far, so good. "We had a wonderful working relationship during 'Tommy,' " recalled Stigwood. "I was sure 'Evita' was in the proper hands." Russell and Stigwood at first focused on the eight "Evitas" then appearing in stage productions worldwide -- with an unknown number of them making tests in New York and London. Overnight an actress named Derin Altay -- playing the Argentine in San Francisco -- was whisked to New York to test for Russell. But RSO spokesmen now admit that Elaine Paige, who was the very first Evita in London, always had the inside track. The director balked and suggested that an established star -- like Liza Minnelli -- would be ever so much better. No, said Stigwood. Undaunted, Russell flew Minnelli to London, fitted her with an expensive blond wig and custom period gowns and filmed a lavish series of celluloid tests. (Costs were said to have strayed into six figures.) Russell showed the tests to Stigwood. No, said the producer. For reasons which still aren't clear, Russell apparently told Stigwood he wouldn't do it without Liza. "So I fired him," said Stigwood. Russell, now in Hollywood working on a film, declined to comment. "The project was in turmoil," recalled Minnelli's longtime publicist Allen Eichhorn. "Liza was caught in the middle despite the fact that she would have been brilliant in it." RSO wanted Paige, Paramount agreed, so RSO cast about for a bankable director who could handle a musical. "There weren't very many about," said Oakes. "And Herbert Ross seemed a likely prospect." Ross, a former choreographer, had directed Streisand in "Funny Lady" and "The Owl and the Pussycat", and was fresh from the 1977 smash hit "The Goodbye Girl." As the RSO-Paramount team began scouting for locations in Mexico, a new flood of rumors surfaced in Hollywood. Elliott Gould impulsively crowed that plans were afoot to star him and his former wife, Streisand, as Juan and Eva Peron. With silence from RSO, that news peppered the columns. Other tabloid journalists predicted that Stigwood and Paramount had definitely decided to give the plum roles to singing "Grease" costars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. "I'm not sure where that one came from," said Stigwood. "Since I starred them in 'Grease,' " I think columnists just jumped to that conclusion." And in New York, Meryl Streep's name was connected with the film for the first time as a reporter wrote she was "dying to play Eva Peron." Then Ross rushed into a previous commitment -- which happened to be "Footloose" -- and "Evita" was once again without a leader. Enter Sir Richard Attenborough -- who had just completed the 1982 film "Gandhi." Attenborough's first film as a director, "Oh! What a Lovely War," had been a musical. "I met with him in my bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and asked him if he could come up with a strong concept for 'Evita,' " said Stigwood. "But he called me back a few days later to say that he hadn't been able to get a grip on it. He didn't feel he could translate it to films." With the project begging for a director, Paramount dumped it. Then, in the mid-'80s, Madonna burst onto the scene, and not just as a recording artist. With two albums topping the charts, the star jumped into films with "Desperately Seeking Susan" and onto the music video screens with her "Material Girl" takeoff on Marilyn Monroe. Suddenly, even Stigwood was convinced that "Madonna might be perfect to play 'Evita.' " Paramount, likewise, awakened and was back in the picture. Just before the rock star married Sean Penn in what the National Enquirer called "the wedding of the decade," she rang up Stigwood and asked for a meeting. Several days later, she swept into Stigwood's presence with her blond hair done up in a '40s twist, sporting a gown obviously designed with Eva Peron in mind. Stigwood was impressed. "She seemed perfect." To showcase the bright new star, RSO-Paramount courted director Alan J. Pakula, who had directed Minnelli in "The Sterile Cuckoo," Streep in "Sophie's Choice" and Jane Fonda in "Klute." (Again, Streep was rumored to be in the running.) As the talks with Pakula floundered, Argentine director Hector Babenco, who had just completed "Kiss of the Spider Woman," flirted with the assignment only to back out due to prior commitments. Oakes said Madonna went out and recruited directors on her own. "She was able to interest Francis Ford Coppola in the project," he said, and meetings were held, but Coppola pulled out also. Meanwhile, the gossip mongers picked up the Madonna connection and ran with it. One said negotiations were about to "fall through completely" because the actress was insisting that hubby Sean Penn play opposite her in the film. "In fact the subject never came up," said Oakes. Other scribes said the deal was about to crumble when Madonna would not make a screen test. RSO reported that a test was never sought. But egos were apparently percolating. "At one point she came in and demanded to rewrite Tim Rice's lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber's music," said Stigwood. "And this was unfortunate, because I felt she might have been quite good in the part." By then, the whole game plan was changing. With Paramount again in default, Jerry Weintraub and Guy McElwaine of the Weintraub Entertainment Group -- with Oliver Stone and Meryl Streep in mind -- moved in and began attempts to buy the rights to "Evita" from the bigger and more established studio. By then, Stone had won the Oscar for directing "Platoon" and the same year had released his stark "Salvador" -- a film with some of the same frenetic Latin American overtones that might be put to good use in "Evita." Stigwood, who signed a three-year deal with the Weintraub group in March 1987, saw "Platoon" and became excited about Stone. Paralleling the Hollywood developments were cataclysmic changes in Argentina, paving the way for filming the musical in the country where Eva Peron lived and died. When Stigwood first produced "Evita" on the London stage in 1978, copies of the Rice libretto were banned in Argentina . Several importers of the record were arrested and clapped into jail for sizable terms. RSO's Oakes recalls that when he phoned an agent in Argentina to discuss a Latin American recording of the musical, "at the first mention of the word 'Evita,' the man silenced me and left to call me on another telephone." Argentina was not in a mood for moderation. Stigwood recalls that "when 'Jesus Christ, Superstar,' (the first Webber-Rice opera) opened in Buenos Aires, they bombed the theater." In 1980, a cache of Broadway cast "Evita" albums were publicly burned in the Argentine capital. Then came the failed Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982, and the ouster of Argentina's the ruling military junta in December 1983. Under relaxed rules, a nostalgic wave of Peronism swept the long-repressed country. Though anyone found painting the name "Evita" on a wall could have been killed in the late '70s, banners bearing the picture of the idolized former first lady now blossomed again throughout the land. Not so coincidentally, MCA Records shipped 5,000 copies of the "Evita" score (featuring Patti LuPone) to stores in Buenos Aires. "I sent Oliver Stone and Bill Oakes on a location scouting expedition to Argentina last year," said Stigwood. "And it was wildly successful. The government opened up places which had been closed since Eva Peron died." The party even came back bearing a photo of Stone, hands outstretched, on the balcony from which Eva Peron had greeted huge crowds -- memorialized in the song "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." "Now the government wants that movie made," said WEG's McElwaine. "History has altered their view, and the resurgence of 'Peronism' favors us." During the Stone tour, the government promised 100,000 troops as extras for the Nazi-like military crowd scenes that so typified the Peron years. And the film's budget will benefit, as well, from the favorable rate of currency. "We will be able to afford major scenes which would never be possible in other countries," said Oakes, who pointed out that to charter a private plane to Eva's birthplace only cost $250 round trip. "Her birthplace was a lonely spot on immense pampas," Stone recalled, "where she grew up and where I talked to people who still remembered her." But, having failed to film in Spain and later in Mexico, the production team is taking no chances. "We met with both factions in the upcoming election," said Oakes. "And we have guarantees that the project is welcome no matter who wins those contests this May." When Stone signed on just before that scounting trip, "Evita" remained uncast, though Stone was apparently already leaning toward Streep. Stigwood still thought Madonna might work out. "At Stone's first meeting with her, it looked like they might hit it off," he said. "But on the second meeting, it fell apart." RSO chalks the failure up to Madonna's "runaway ego." McElwaine said there was "a major difference of opinion about how the role was interpreted. That was it." Meryl Streep was in the wings. "Oliver brought her in, and it was a 'great match,' " said McElwaine. At the same time, Patti LuPone, through her representative, the Gresh Agency, made one last bid for the part. "She would have died to play that part," said a spokesman. "But Stone said she was too old. But isn't it ironic: Patti is exactly the same age as Meryl Streep." "She may have 'died to play the part,' but she wouldn't make a screen test," said Stigwood. "Still, I have immense respect for her." To firm up the deal, Streep -- with Stone and the film's musical directors, went into a New York City recording studio and did preliminary dubbings of the score. The results, said Stigwood, were astounding: "She learned the entire score in a week. Not only can she sing, but she's sensational -- absolutely staggering." Streep's singing ability is perhaps her least known talent, though she sang in several New York productions -- "The Happy Time" among them. Her biography points out that she played Ado Annie in a high school production of "Oklahoma" and once wished to "become an opera star." That may be just as well. Stigwood confirmed that "Evita" on screen will remain essentially an opera -- with all dialogue sung -- save for a few spoken transitions.