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The rise and fall of a Hollywood Kid.
on October 2, 2003
"The Kid Stays in the Picture" is a pull-no-punches chronicle of Hollywood producer Robert Evans' rise and fall in the movie business; narrated by Evans himself with one of the better voices you've ever heard, it either interests you or it doesn't, that interest directly proportional to one's fondness and intellectual investment in the movie business itself.
Evans was on his way to becoming an Evan Piccone pants mogul in the 1960s when Norma Shearer spotted him by a Beverly Hills pool and insisted he be cast as her husband, Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg, in the Lon Chaney biopic, "The Man with 1,000 Faces." He got the role, and later kept a plum role as the bullfighter in "The Sun Also Rises," despite the protests of Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner, when studio chief Daryl Zanuck visited the set, watched Evans perform a scene and said, "The kid stays the in picture." From that moment forward, Evans didn't want to be the kid. He wanted to be Zanuck.
And Zanuck he would become for Paramount Studios, which, at the time he took it over, was well behind giants 20th Century and MGM, not to mention six others. But Evans bought a book, "Rosemary's Baby," and found a director, Roman Polanski, that put the studio closer to the Hollywood epicenter. Paramount became the epicenter a few years later when a 30-year-old actress, Ali MacGraw, presented Evans with a project, "Love Story," and, later, her hand in marriage. It touched off a classic movie run that included "The Godfather" and "Chinatown"
The "rise" portion of the film is its best, as Evans recalls the beautiful, mercurial MacGraw in their first meetings - "for a hippee," Evans says, "she sure was comfortable in my pool" - through her affair with Steve McQueen, for whom she walked from roles in "Chinatown" and "The Great Gatsby." Soon after, Evans opted out of Paramount for his own producing deal and fared well through the 1970s before, in, 1979, becoming a coke addict, getting arrested for trying to buying pharmaceutical grade in 1980, then producing a boondoggle in "The Cotton Club" 1984 - which also deep-sixed director Francis Ford Coppola's career as an important movie director. By late 80s, Evans was broke, out of the house he'd owned for 20 years, admitting himself a mental hospital and beginning a comeback that led to another producing deal with Paramount, albeit with movies a cut below Academy Award fare.
Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen don't exactly use a camera, but compile archive footage, photo stills and cutouts to create a running stream of images, a motion picture collage of sorts, under (and sometimes over) Evans' narration. Only occasionally do the directors interject images that tell the story beyond Evans' words - in one case, as Evans describes his mental hospital stay, scenes from Paramount rush forth in an interesting commentary about the weight of prominent history on a fallen giant.
"Kid" suffers from this approach, too - it would have been nice to see a Coppola interview, or a Polanski interview, or, if it could have been swung, a few minutes with the reclusive MacGraw. Evans doesn't hide from his foibles, but it is difficult, until Dustin Hoffman channels him in a spoof during the credits, to understand just what Evans could be like; if the imitation is to be believed - and it is - the laconic narrator is not exactly what he seems. Other times, Evans just lies - he says "Chinatown" won every award there was to win, when in fact, as good as it was, the movie played second fiddle to "The Godfather, Part II." The advantage of Evans' narration is clear; the lack of balance negates some of it.
Yet the documentary's speed and directness puts it a cut above the typical A&E Biography material. Evans is droll, wise and regretful; he speaks like a man who tasted the top, and, not unlike the John Huston character in "Chinatown," would very much trade his respectability for a taste again.