The Kid Stays in the Picture
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 16 August 2002

I love what I do

The 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.

Still, 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."

What 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 one differently."

Like 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."

In 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.

That 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.

And 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.

At 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.

During 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 was."

How 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.

Depressed 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.

When 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.

Directed by:
Brett Morgen
Nanette Burstein

Written by:
Brett Morgen

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires parent
or adult guardian
.

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