Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 10, 2002
I Oughta Bein Pictures

A Hollywood mogul recalls his checkered life in The Kid Stays in the Picture.


Robert Evans started out in Hollywood as an actor, and by his own admission he wasn’t too good at it, getting by mostly on his good looks. As his acting career waned, he figured that he might increase his clout through smart acquisitions of properties (buying film rights to novels and other literary works). He managed to parlay this skill into a job as the head of production at Paramount Studios. This sounds more impressive than it actually was; Paramount was in bad shape at the time. He brought them roaring back, though. During his peak years in the 1960s and ’70s, he personally produced Chinatown and Marathon Man, and he oversaw production of all-out masterpieces (the first two parts of The Godfather, Don’t Look Now), huge box-office hits (Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby, The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Death Wish), and a great many minor classics (Harold and Maude, Serpico, The Parallax View, The Conformist, The Conversation). His activity during this extraordinarily fertile period is why his stories should interest not just Hollywood insiders but anyone the least bit curious about film.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is based on his 1994 memoir of the same name. Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen get as far away from “talking heads”-style documentary as possible. Their film is essentially one great big montage, consisting of footage from Evans’ films, home movies, personal and publicity photos, press coverage (print and electronic), and contemporary shots of Evans’ handsome Beverly Hills mansion, all stitched together rather well. There are no interviews, and the present-day Evans appears on screen only at the end, in heavy shadows. The film’s look imparts a strange and emotionally distant vibe. Veteran cinematographer John Bailey has developed a flair for giving a glossy look to low-budget films (The Anniversary Party, Living Out Loud), and that talent suits this movie entirely.

The cinematic medium is used to considerable advantage; clips of Evans’ movies illustrate his career path much more powerfully than print ever could and make this documentary catnip for cineastes. That’s not all that’s here, though. For instance, we get to see a fascinating short film that Evans made specially for Paramount’s board of directors in 1971 as a successful last-ditch effort to save his job — he looks impressively cool lounging in his office and touting the financial prospects of the studio’s upcoming movies, Love Story and The Godfather. For contrast, we also see him hilariously miscast in his acting roles as a Spanish bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises and a psychotic Western gunslinger in The Fiend Who Walked the West. Over the closing credits is an outtake of Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man doing an extended impression of Evans. (Hoffman, we may remember, later channeled Evans’ mannerisms for his richly funny performance in 1997’s Wag the Dog.)

Threading the whole thing together is Evans’ voice-over narration. His voice is like a fine liquor, golden-colored and packing a sting. He unfurls his anecdotes at a slow, expansive pace that lets you know you’re in the presence of a first-rate storyteller.

His first words warn you that the film makes no pretense to objectivity, “There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine, and the truth.” His life story conforms suspiciously to a Hollywood screenwriting formula: miraculous break leading to fantastic success; decline fueled by drugs, hubris, and player-haters, followed by a measure of vindication and recognition. He mentions his box-office flops such as Paint Your Wagon and The Cotton Club, but he’s as evasive about his roles in these as he’s voluble about his hits. At times, Evans’ angling for credit makes him sound like a parody of an old-style Hollywood executive. Immediately after a test screening of the original two-hour version of The Godfather, he relates, “I called [Francis Ford] Coppola to my office and said, ‘Francis, you shot a great film. Where the fuck is it? It sure ain’t on the screen. ... I want you to go back into that editing room and give me a saga!’ ”

Evans knows the power of self-deprecation and uses it judiciously throughout the film. His summary of his first encounter with cocaine is succinct and self-aware: “The seducer was seduced.” At two different points (the dissolution of his marriage to Ali MacGraw and his cocaine bust), he uses the same sentence: “How could I have been so fucking dumb?” Yet you sense he’s only being hard on himself to buy himself credibility in our eyes rather than to conduct any serious self-analysis.

Even so, how can you resist a guy who can dish so saltily and entertainingly on Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson? You may know you’re being played, but Evans’ performance as a narrator is so enjoyable that you don’t mind. (So many Hollywood movies can be described the same way.) If anyone personifies the glory and grubbiness of Tinseltown, Robert Evans could very well be him.

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