Kid Stays in the Picture
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 16 August 2002
love what I do
first moments of The Kid Stays in the Picture offer a grand
tour of Robert Evans' beloved mansion, Woodlands, erstwhile home of
Hollywood royals Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg. As the camera
trails through the oversized rooms, past splendid artwork and
furniture, you might get the feeling that you've happened on a
spooky, slow motion version of Cribs. And you'd be partly,
oddly right. Much like the MTV series, The Kid Stays in the
Picture is fascinated with the rich and famous, allowing you to
feel intimate -- in the house! -- with celebrity, while also
maintaining a suitably awed distance.
Evans is hardly MTV's usual draw, that is, an up-and-coming or
wholly legendary rock or sports star. Evans is certainly legendary
in his own mind, and he's all too happy to tell you about it. Though
he doesn't appear in the film as he is now -- it's comprised of
stills and footage from back in the day -- Evans' monumental
presence is everywhere. For one thing, he narrates the film, which
is based on his 1994 autobiography (or more precisely, the
audio-book he taped from this book), which closes with the words,
"Resolve: F*ck 'em, f*ck 'em all." The film is a little
less pissed off, perhaps because the book helped to bring him back
into Tinseltown's good graces. The film -- the pre-credits part of
it, anyway -- ends with his answering a gushy interview question,
"Was it truly worth it?" "Yeah," he smiles,
rakishly because he can't do it any other way. "Because I love
what I do."
Evans does, mostly, is him. It's hard to think of a more cheerfully
and unapologetically self-involved character. His story, of course,
includes mention of all sorts of other people, and his recollections
are entertaining, if not quite as appalling as he might think they
are. Then again, whatever he's thinking is clearly beside the point.
Documentary makers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein (who made the
solid 1999 boxing doc On the Ropes) have ingeniously
assembled a collection of images (still, morphing, floating, and
archival footage) to accompany The Man's narration, such that
"truth" remains elusive. For viewers looking for
"history," this elusiveness will be annoying. For the rest
of us, it's refreshing. The film doesn't lie, exactly. It's honest
about its inability to get at something like truth. As the epigraph
reads, "There are three sides to every story: your side, my
side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each
most everything else in Kid, these words sound nice but, when
you think about it, don't mean much. You come away from the film
without any sense that there is a "truth" out there that
has somehow been missed, forgotten, or conveniently omitted. You
feel more like you've been schooled on the limits of documentary as
a concept. Where other documentaries line up facts, dates, and
events, usually interspersed with witness testimonies, this one
doesn't even pretend that it's getting at any kind of
"objective" presentation or finding. Evans rolls on. And
truth, as theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha puts it, "runs away."
its own way, Kid does recount events, but they play here like
movie scenes, which makes sense, since that's what they are now.
Perhaps that's what they always were for Evans. He began his career
as the fortunate brother-partner in the women's fashion concern,
Evan-Picone. While in L.A. to oversee the start of a new West Coast
E-P boutique, he is spotted by Norma Shearer, who picks him to play
her late producer-mogul husband in 1957's Man of 1000 Faces,
opposite James Cagney as Lon Chaney. This auspicious beginning
quickly turns strange.
same year, he goes on to play the matador Pedro Romero in The Sun
Also Rises, despite vigorous protests from key players Ava
Gardner, Ernest Hemingway, and Errol Flynn. Here, he recalls
proudly, producer Daryl Zanuck believes in him, telling everyone,
apparently with gusto, "The kids stays in the picture!"
With this experience, an autobiography's title is born -- especially
as it dawns on the cocky Evans that he wants to be that guy, the one
who can make that kind of decision, right or wrong.
shortly thereafter, with The Fiend Who Walked the Earth and The
Best of Everything, an acting career is mercifully ended. Even
the egomaniac Evans realizes that he is a talentless performer in
front of a camera, and besides, playing Thalberg gives him the idea
that he wants to be Thalberg. With his business background
and this goal in mind, he sets about looking for production
properties. As Evans recalls it in Kid, his phenomenal
success was a function of his own nerve, vision, and determination.
It also appears here that he was the beneficiary of several men's
trust, primarily the head of Gulf + Western, Charlie Bludhorn, who
was, mid-'60s, casting about for someone to head the newly acquired
Paramount Studios. Evans, recently the subject of a favorable New
York Times feature, looked "hot." He got the job.
the time, Paramount was ranked ninth, after the top eight L.A.
studios, so it may be that Evans' off route to power was less of a
gamble for Bludhorn than it sounds (actually, the sound here is
particular: Evans does a raucous imitation of Bludhorn, as still
shots of both men drift and rotate over the screen). He went on to
work a few miracles, and he's only too happy to list them: The
Odd Couple and Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (Evans recalls
triumphantly that he hired the "little Polack" even when
he was warned against it), Goodbye, Columbus in 1969, and
then a string of stunning critical and/or popular successes: Love
Story (1970), The Godfather (1972), and Serpico
(1973). Almost instinctively, Evans knew how to swing his weight; he
started his own company, Robert Evans Productions, housed within
Paramount. and the first film he made was the extraordinary Chinatown
(1972). These were the days when the kid could do no wrong.
the late '60s, in addition to changing the fortunes of Paramount and
all the suits at G+W, Evans also romances the luscious Ali McGraw,
whom he affectionately calls "Ms. Snotnose." He recollects
his seduction of her by way of the looniest of movie-hero language:
he gives her his number and says, "I'm only seven digits
away!" Or, "Never plan, kid. Planning is for the
poor!" At this point, he regales you with a couple of scenes
from Love Story, the film/property that she brings to Evans
and that apparently makes him adore her. But, ouch: that "never
having to say you're sorry" bit on the snowy steps is almost
painful to watch. Still, the film makes the cover of Time,
among other commercial triumphs, and folks line up to see it, again
and again. Evans and McGraw marry, he's a star, she's a star, and,
as he remembers, "Camelot was ours, or at least I thought it
ominous. And how 20-20 hindsight. Some time after they have a child,
Joshua, she leaves him for Steve McQueen, her costar in The
Getaway. According to Evans, he's been more invested in his
crazy work schedule and professional reputation than in his
marvelous wife (this would be Evans being contrite). The collapse of
his marriage (the only one he mentions in the film, out of five
divorces) leads him to rededicate himself to his work, though that
also isn't going so well. After a debacle working with his
tempestuous buddy Coppola on 1984's The Cotton Club, Evans
takes up cocaine, ferociously. By the early 1980s, he's busted. His
lawyer (OJ's Robert Shapiro) gets him off with a sentence of
"community service." Thinking he'll do even that up with
"grand style," Evans produces a public service
announcement called "Get High on Yourself," an
embarrassing "We Are the World" gimmick-piece that he
apparently still thinks is terrific.
and not working much, Evans then finds himself vaguely connected
with a bizarre Hollywood scandale, the drug-related (and
somehow, Cotton Club-related) murder of Roy Radin. Though
Evans is never even a suspect, the fact that police question him
ensured his name is removed from every guest list in town. Woe is
him. Forced to sell Woodlands, he believes that his life is over.
Eventually, as the film skips lightly through the later years, he
believes he's suicidal and commits himself to an asylum, then comes
up with a daring "escape," calling his loyal limo driver
to come pick him up outside the gates. As drastic and sad as this
all must have been, in the telling, and in particular, in the
outrageous spinning and hovering images concocted by the filmmakers,
the whole story turns ridiculous -- outsized, pathetic, and comical.
The film closes with a few notes, citing his return to work by
producing Sliver (1993) and The Saint (1997). Oi.
Evans recently made the late night talk show rounds to pitch the
film, he surely looked like he's been through all the hell he has
been through, his movements and speech slowed (the effects of
strokes), his skin tanned to crusty brown, his singular glasses and
speed-mumbling all dialed up to the level of caricature (the film's
closing credits roll over a smarmy-funny Dustin Hoffman imitation of
"Bob"). Yet, there's no doubt that that Evans is enjoying
his resurgence as a public figure, someone people crane their necks
to watch. It's no matter whether or not you believe him, or whether
he believes himself. The film is about the slippery slopes of truth,
and the ways they serve all of us.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires parent
or adult guardian.