The Kid Stays In The Picture Review
Robert Evans represents both the best and the worst sides of Hollywood. He's indefatiguable, fiercely intelligent and a shrewd businessman and he's also shallow, egotistical and relentlessly single-minded about getting his own way. The dream capital has been full of people like this since the days of Griffith of course, and it may well be that without them there wouldn't be a Hollywood. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we have to like them. The triumph of both Robert Evans' riveting autobiography and this new documentary by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen is that we end up liking the man - not so much despite his flaws but because of them.
Arriving in Hollywood during the 1950s, a time when the studios were in a lengthy period of transition from family fiefdoms to a haven for accountants and agents, Evans began as an actor in The Man Of A Thousand Faces and the awful Hemingway adaptation The Sun Also Rises. His casting in the latter led to protests from Hemingway himself, along with his co-stars, but the head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl F.Zanuck, insisted that he was there to stay, shouting through a megaphone, "The kid stays in the picture!" As an actor, Evans was mediocre to say the least, but he soon managed the difficult transition from in front of the cameras to behind them, becoming the youngest production chief since Irving Thalberg at MGM in the 1920s, the role he essayed in his first film. His time at Paramount produced some bona-fide hits - Love Story and The Godfather - and some magnificent pieces of filmmaking - Rosemary's Baby, Medium Cool, Chinatown - making Evans one of the most impressive of all the studio executives who have tried to strike a balance between art and commerce.
His career since his move to semi-independent status in 1975 has been, to use a cliche which has rarely been more appropriate, something of a rollercoaster. Beginning with a success in Marathon Man and a well regarded failure Black Sunday, Evans soon found himself bogged down in an escalating series of flops beginning with the hilariously dreadful Players (not mentioned in the film) and progressing to the ambitious, fascinating and incoherent Altman film of Popeye.As if this wasn't enough trouble for one lifetime, he became a cocaine addict who was prosecuted for aiding and abetting importation of the drug, ran into legal problems with Coppola on The Cotton Club and was suspected - through Hollywood gossip rather than the police - of involvement in a murder. He battled depression, isolation and financial hell and he came through it to return to Paramount in the 1990s as an executive. In short, he is an extraordinary man and his story is one of the great tales of rise and fall and fall and fall and rise of the past century.
On the other hand, admitting that the man has a fascinating story to tell does not lead one to conclude that he is the Samuel Johnson of Tinseltown and, for some, this film will be too remorselessly focused on one man to be bearable. It's unusual as a documentary in that,barring one scene with Diane Shore interviewing Ali McGraw, there are no interviews with other people featured (except as brief audio extracts over the opening credits) and the only relief from Evans comes in the form of film clips from some of his movies. Robert Evans supplies a narration-by-proxy, taken from the audiobook of his autobiography and he's on marvellous form. The joy of his book lies in two things; firstly, in its almost complete lack of anything resembling discretion; and secondly, in his paradoxical ability to be simultaneously the most egotistical man you've ever encountered and someone with an enormous capacity for generosity and self-criticism. Most of the best stories are told against himself and his honesty regarding both his drug addiction and his depression is rather brave. He takes credit for a lot but he also accepts the blame for his mistakes and there isn't a single occasion where you feel he's rewriting history to make it reveal him in a more positive light. Many good moments from the book are, understandably, missed out here, making it an essential companion to this film. In particular, the various power struggles during the making of The Godfather are considerably more detailed on the page and they make compelling reading. Here, we are just told that Evans knocked heads with everybody. On the other hand, the film takes full advantage of a favourite bit of mine in the book - the part where Evans manages to out-manouvere Frank Sinatra over his attempts to get Mia Farrow out of Rosemary's Baby.
The style of the film is rather strange but also rather effective. Evans appears to be a character in one of his own films, but it's a movie which has become a monologue. The lack of other voices can become a little irksome at times but the directors pull off some real visual coups; the opening tracking shot revealing his house for example, and best of all the scene where his depression is represented through scenes from the films he produced; largely Marathon Man but also Black Sunday and a brief clip from a film he didn't produce but which Paramount distributed, Bertolucci's The Conformist. Speaking of Bertolucci's masterpiece, one low angle scene of autumn leaves dispersing is surely a direct homage to that film. The film is otherwise visually crisp and atmospheric (thanks to the DP John Bailey) and the story is clearly narrated. The clips overall are well chosen and spoilers for the ends of the films are avoided, even though that denies us the famous story about how Evans insisted on the brave, tragic ending to Chinatown over Robert Towne's objections. There are also some great archive TV clips of his anti-drugs specials and a glimpse of the trailer for The Fiend That Walked The West, which is more than adequate to explain why Evans decided to give up his acting career. At the very end, we seem to see the man in person - I don't know if we do or whether it's a stand-in - and it's rather moving considering the hell that we've just seen him go through.
Is The Kid Stays In The Picture reliable as history ? Well, that's a matter of personal opinion. The film begins with a great quote from Evans in which he states that "Every story has three sides: Your side, my side and the truth" and this should be borne in mind when watching. But I didn't find anything in the film which seriously contradicted my knowledge of the period or the things which I've read and watched. Evans is usually generous to other people and usually hardest on himself and the more one-sided stories are usually obviously subjective. The only person who is still regarded with excess bile is his ex-wife Ali McGraw who left him for Steve McQueen. He refers to her as "Miss snot-nose" and she comes across as a mixture of seductress and witch. However, if you read her own autobiography, it has to be said that - from my point of view at least - she doesn't come across any better than she does here. Her lack of acting ability is well known, but it's interesting to note that she appears to be a bad actress even when appearing as herself in the interview. All in all, it's no more partial than many books which claim to be objective and, compared to a vile hatchet job like Patrick McGilligan's biography of Clint Eastwood which features one-sided interviews with people with grudges whose testimony is regarded as gospel, it strikes this viewer as pretty convincing.
If you're not interested in Hollywood power games mixed with gossip then this isn't likely to appeal on any level. But as a character study of a real 'player' and a man whose manifest flaws are balanced by his exceptional virtues, it's one of the most fascinating documentary films of recent years and a reminder of a time when Hollywood really did take chances on its greatest talents. We have Evans to thank for some great movies - whether you'd actually want to thank him in person, having seen this film, is a matter of personal taste. But ultimately it leaves you feeling that there aren't many characters left in the real Hollywood so we should cherish Robert Evans while we still have the chance.