The Kid Stays in the Picture

The Kid Stays in the Picture

Documentary. USA, 2002. Rated R. 93 minutes.

Cast: Robert Evans
Writers: Brett Morgen, based on the autobiography by Robert Evans
Music: Jeff Danna
Cinematographer: John Bailey
Editor: Jun Diaz
Producers: Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein, Graydon Carter
Director: Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

There have been few Hollywood producers as influential as legendary Paramount executive Robert Evans--at least, to hear him tell it. The Kid Stays in the Picture, a documentary about Evans, opens with the caption, "There are three sides to every story, your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently." We don't get three sides of Evans's story in The Kid Stays in the Picture. We get only his side. Evans does his own voiceover narration, adapted from his 1994 autobiography. Though it's clearly a subjective account, Evans relates the events of his life clearly and without skirting the more unpleasant episodes. It's also enormously entertaining.

Were Evans a rock star instead of a Hollywood producer, his story would perfectly suit an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Everyone knows the five-act Behind the Music structure by now (so much so that it has been mocked on Saturday Night Live): the Charmed Early Days, the Meteoric Rise, the Fall, the Dark Times, and the Redemption. The Kid Stays in the Picture follows that general structure, though with more emphasis on the first three acts than the last two. Everything is operatically writ large.

Although he had dabbled in show biz, Evans was a millionaire businessman by the age of twenty-five. He was discovered quite improbably as he was doing business by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he caught the eye of Oscar-winner™ Norma Shearer, who insisted that he appear as her husband, legendary producer Irving Thalberg, in The Man of a Thousand Faces. (Hm, she must have liked the way Evans looked in a swimsuit.) A handful of films followed, including a role as a bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. Robert EvansThe casting of the unknown Evans caused an open revolt by virtually everyone involved in the project, according to Evans. Overriding them, the words of producer Darryl Zanuck give The Kid Stays in the Picture its title.

"Half-assed" acting, as he puts it, was not really Evans's bag, though. What he really wanted to do was produce. That career came to him as quickly and easily as acting. At the unprecedented young age of 34, without ever having produced a finished picture, Hollywood's "Golden Boy"was ensconced as the chief of production of struggling Paramount Pictures. Rosemary's Baby, The Odd Couple, Love Story, and other classics followed, including a little picture entitled The Godfather. What emerges from these stories is that Evans was the consummate risk-taker. To hear Evans tell it, the evolution of cinema in the late '60s and early '70s never would have happened without him. He never says as much, of course, and though he's probably exaggerating his own importance, it's clear his role was key.

The 1970s saw Evans branching out on his own as a producer (Chinatown) while remaining at Paramount, as well as dating (and sometimes marrying) every young woman who was anyone in Hollywood, until he hit the inevitable cocaine-saturated Dark Times. The Kid Stays in the Picture concludes with the beginning of Evans's modest comeback, highlighted by producer credits on The Saint and Sliver, both box office successes.

Despite the hackneyed story structure, The Kid Stays in the Picture never seems to tread on worn ground. A big part of the reason is that Evans is a vibrant raconteur. He energetically weaves his stories exactly as he would if you were sitting with him at the dinner table. He doesn't just narrate; he tells his life as a series of linked anecdotes, each with its own dynamics. Evans is such a capable storyteller that you find yourself liking him even though he's not exactly likeable. You wouldn't want to share your life with the guy, but you'd sure like to hang out with him for an evening.

Another reason The Kid Stays in the Picture amounts to much more than just a pile of Hollywood clichés is that Evans himself never makes any false claims about having found redemption; he never claims to be sober and optimistic; Robert Evans and Ali McGrawhe never says any of that hollow-sounding stuff that the rock stars always say at the end of Behind the Music. Neither is Evans an apologist for his life. He tells it like it was, from his perspective, freely admitting to his weaknesses, screw-ups, and gigantic ego.

Producers/directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein use Evans's luxuriant Beverly Hills house, "Woodland," as a metaphor for his life. At the beginning and the end, as well as a handful of key junctures, the camera moves though his home meditatively, studying the artifacts of Evans's life. It becomes evident that the house is an extension of Evans's identity, so much so that when he had to sell it (continuing to live there as a tenant), Jack Nicholson himself went to beg the new owner to let Evans buy his house back. Evans is more intimate with his house than with any woman--his longest relationship was a three-year marriage to Ali McGraw, and he recently was married for twelve days to Catherine Oxenberg--but he's lived in that house thirty-five years. He describes it almost sensually.

The rest of the film is a montage of film clips, archival footage, and photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. Almost every moment of Evans's life, it seems, was photographed. Often several photographs of the same moment are presented sequentially, giving the sensation of movement. Other times, the subjects of the photograph are digitally manipulated to look like cardboard cutouts so that the camera can flow among them. This highly effective editing defeats the static feel that encumbers so many documentaries.

The reasons for Evans's success are multifold, but two stand out: his seductiveness and his sense for what makes a great story. The Kid Stays in the Picture may describe Evans's life, but it is Evans himself who demonstrates what made him a legendary producer, because both those qualities are manifest in his narration. His career was meteoric, but Evans was no shooting star. His time at the top was long, and though he faced many challenges and a precipitous fall, Evans has always stayed in the picture.

Review © July 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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