Be forewarned. I didn’t really want to see this movie. A
documentary based on the autobiography of Robert Evans,
movie producer? The perfect summer diversion: a sycophantic
accolade for a Hollywood schlockmeister looking to cement
his “place in film history.” The gushing tributes, the fawning
clips, the ego that ate Los Angeles! No thank you.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed The Kid Stays in the Picture
more than any theatrical release I’ve seen recently (yes,
that includes Minority Report). As for my fears of
Tinseltown egotism run amok, just visit the film’s website
and see for yourself. On the site promoting his life story,
there is Robert Evans… as a cartoon. His tiny body barely
supports his oversized bobble-head. If you click on his image,
he recites pithy lines from his memoirs, with one animated
eyebrow pointedly raised, just for you.
You have probably already seen at least one, and probably
more, of Evans’ movies. He specializes in updating and revitalizing
familiar genres. Evans contributed to or is outright credited
with producing The Godfather and The Godfather
Part II (gangster films), Chinatown (detective
stories), Love Story and Harold And Maude
(romances), The Odd Couple (comedy), Rosemary’s
Baby (horror), and Marathon Man (thriller), among
many others. Even his bombs are famous— The Cotton Club,
Sliver, Jade. This is the man who says he ordered b to
re-edit The Godfather until it became, for better
or worse, a classic.
Not that Evans is humble! He is as self-absorbed as any
other obnoxious cigar-chomping head honcho—in fact, he is
a shameless vamp. This charmer wants to seduce his audience
with yet another tale of the rise, fall, and redemption of
a troubled Hollywood genius. Can he really ask us to weep,
yet again, for one more misunderstood mogul with a coke habit?
Being fascinated with yourself is no guarantee that you can
fascinate anyone else.
At first Burstein and Morgan seem to adapt Evans’
book all too well. Their documentary never directly questions
any aspect of his self-presentation. But this is no kiss-ass
vanity project. Kid does not reverence, but continuously
ribs, the macho movie megalomania made famous by Selznick,
Coppola, Herzog, Cimino, Lucas, and Spielberg .
Evans doesn’t seem to mind this one bit. What sets him apart
is his sense of humor and playful flexibility. He has an ego,
but he is adaptable. Luckily, he also has an action-packed
life that reads like a juicy movie script.
Evans was fated to be absorbed into Hollywood myth through
Hollywood myth, and he encounters a series of amazing coincidences
during his career as the boundaries between life and film
became increasingly blurred. Did the man dream the movies
or did the movies dream the man? Evans began his film career
as an actor, but the first role he played onscreen was what
he would eventually became off-screen years later—a producer,
his role based on real-life producer, Irving Thalberg . Evans
was discovered by Thalberg’s wife, famous ’30s film star Norma
Shearer . She also happened show him the dream house that
ultimately became his permanent home. The previous resident?
Greta Garbo .
Not all these coincidences were good news. Evans’ career
derailed when Ernest Hemingway balked at casting him
as the matador in The Sun Also Rises. Evans, oiled
and bronzed, looked like a deluxe version of George Hamilton
and Hemingway had other fantasies of what makes a man a man.
Producer Daryl Zanuck defied Hemingway to rescue Evans’
part, reportedly uttering the line that gives this movie its
name, but Evans’ career was doomed. Defunct as an actor, he
decided to become Darryl Zanuck. Evans wanted to be
a producer because he wanted control. “I realized that I had
to own something nobody else could get. If you own the property,
you’re king.” Thus began his transformation from bullshit
bullfighter to bullshitter extraordinaire.
During the filming of Love Story he courted and
married the film’s rising star, Ali Macgraw , paralleling
the movie with his own love story. Evans watched as Macgraw
tearfully shot the movie’s infamous tagline, “Love means never
having to say you’re sorry.” “Those tears were for you, Evans,”
she reportedly said. Better watch your lines! Evans, to his
eternal regret, neglected Macgrawand lost her to Steve
McQueen during the making of The Getaway. For
Evans, love means perpetually having to say you’re sorry.
Kid also offers some hilarious,
behind the scenes footage. After an arrest for cocaine possession
in the ’80s did serious damage to his career, Evans made several
sincere anti-drug specials for television, packed with A-list
celebrities like Bob Hope and Carol Burnett , but also
B- and C-list celebrities like Scott Baio and Herve
Villechaize . Many of them look either hyper or glazed
over, as if they were on drugs themselves. The show’s theme?
“Get High on Yourself”! Hollywood classics be damned, this
footage alone is worth the price of admission.
How can you not like a movie that features Evans detailing
a traumatic episode from the late ’80s that left his life
in shambles yet again, narrated over a montage of scary moments
from his greatest hits: Hoffman being threatened with dental
tool torture in Marathon Man is intercut with Pacino
dodging an assassin’s bullet in The Godfather
which is intercut with Nicholson getting his nose
brutally slit open in Chinatown. The montage goes
on and on to the point of riotous absurdity! Does Evans really
believe he suffered as much as the characters in his films?
This documentary never trivializes Evans’ pain, but it’s not
afraid to strain the boundary between art and life just as
much as Evans does, to great effect.
Kid is also a stylish pleasure to watch. Using photographs
and old television footage, the filmmakers scroll, pan, zoom
in and out, tint photos and split screens. They expertly play
stock footage off against recent location shots. Jun Diaz’s
fresh, clean editing ensures that the film never looks gimmicky.
No film exists of Shearer’s poolside discovery of Evans. Instead,
we see recent footage of a swimming pool. A three-dimensional
cutout of a young Evans in a bathing suit, obviously sliced
from a vintage photo, is hilariously superimposed upon it.
This layering effect of placing two-dimensional images against
filmed three-dimensional backgrounds perfectly sends up and
celebrates Evans’ own conflation of movies and life, of being
caught between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional.
Isn’t this really where the audience lives too?