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and Nanette Burstein
In a tautology only Hollywood could produce, Robert J. Evans’ autobiography, whose title captures the Golden Age ring of tenacious-boy-makes-good gumption, becomes a motion picture itself and keeps the now 72-year-old kid in the picture for another star turn. Originally made as a DVD to be included in very special issues of Vanity Fair, the 93-minute audio-tape-meets-documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture instead became the South Park Christmas video of last year, an insider’s treat passed around manicured Industry hands and tucked into Bel Air stockings.
Always ready to pretend to laugh at its own pretenses by way of laughing at others’, Hollywood hugely enjoyed the joke of hearing ’60s and ’70s producer/playboy Evans read from his own book while watching images that slyly send up his mumbly, self-dramatizing recollections. Evans is a deliciously easy target, but whether civilian audiences will seek out the former giveaway item for twice the cost of a glossy magazine and with no Dominick Dunne as a bonus is another question.
The notion of truth so cherished in the documentary form is jettisoned here in favor of the malleability of memory and the rewards of last-wordism. Everyone involved, from Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter to directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, suffers from a degree of the very gigantism for which poor, unreflective Bob Evans is mocked. In releasing the DVD to theaters, no one thought to turn it into the terrific real documentary it could have been. In many scenes, two-dimensional photos of the principals float across the screen, shrinking or expanding like characters in a low-budget psychedelic cartoon. The film is too long as well, its tension slackening during drawn-out musical interludes. And the focus of Bob on Bob begins to unravel in the last third, when a small but discernible shift in tone implies that the baddies really did betray the hero, not that he was his own worst enemy—along with bestest friend and admirer—all along.
Up until the time of his offstage string-pulling in cocaine deals, the legal wrangling over the making of The Cotton Club, and the murder of a minor Cotton Club player made him persona non grata at Paramount, Evans was the fair-haired child of fate. A young clothing tycoon handpicked to play Irving J. Thalberg in 1957’s Man of a Thousand Faces by Thalberg’s widow, Evans parlayed limp pretty-boy semistardom into minimoguldom and then single-handedly rescued Paramount from near-death with The Godfather. Indeed, the man was so lucky he didn’t need brains. Those were supplied by Charles Bludhorn, an uncommonly shrewd industrialist who anointed Evans at Paramount and never made a less than brilliant business deal. (Bludhorn, shown in stills as Evans impersonates his blustering Old Country pronouncements, is a fascinating character; he deserves a documentary of his own.)
With each success, Evans swung wider in Hollywood. He married Ali MacGraw, lost her to Steve McQueen, tomcatted through every corner of Starlet-and-Modelville, and lived like a pasha, both before and after Jack Nicholson begged the French industrialist who had bought the disgraced Evans’ dream home to sell it back to him. In the film, Evans mythologizes himself every step of the way. The snappy dialogue he fashions for his story is hysterically at odds with the scatterbrained mutter unveiled by Dustin Hoffman, for whom imitating Evans is something of a party trick. (He starts every other sentence toughly announcing, “Me, I…”). On vowing to fly to El Paso to snatch MacGraw back from McQueen, he has his abandoned wife say, Casablancaishly, “It’s too late. You missed that plane a long time ago.”
This may be the only film in the world that actually gets worse without Ali MacGraw. After her departure, Morgen and Burstein set up Evans’ “triumph over adversity” like a photographer urging his cliff-posing subject to step back just a little bit more. When Evans burbles about having won every award in the galaxy, the filmmakers obligingly show him accepting the then-penny-ante Golden Globe—which is, let’s just say, the heaviest Hollywood statuette in his cabinet. And with typical self-serving cluelessness, Evans’ post-drug-bust reparations consist of a series of TV spots featuring Get High on Yourself, a moronic ’70s-celebrity Up With People act in which the likes of Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, and Christie Brinkley extol the virtues of taking a swim in Lake Me.
Evans’ descent didn’t stop there: The recognition he coveted when complaining in an interview that his biggest hit to date should have been called Robert Evans’ Chinatown was granted him when the “Cotton Club murder” made the headlines and his name was suddenly connected to the movie connected to the victim. He checked himself into a loony bin and then made a daring break from it, having called “my chauffeur, Jean-Paul, collect” to speed his escape.
To Morgen and Burstein’s credit, they got hold of clips of everything: all of Evans’ hits and misses (such as the notorious howler The Fiend Who Stalked the West, starring Evans as a very confused and possibly itchy fiend), films whose openings vied with his (such as The Detective, the first property he bought for Paramount, which became a Frank Sinatra loss leader and was crushed under Mia Farrow’s tiny slippers when Rosemary’s Baby destroyed all box-office competition), hilariously out-of-it ’70s talk shows, and what seems like hundreds of shots of Evans being nuzzled by glossy beauties.
Part hagiography, part practical joke, The Kid Stays in the Picture is the truest validation of Evans’ lasting influence in filmland. An understated footnote at the end names the properties that the reinstated mogul has brought to Paramount recently, and a sad list it is: Town and Country, Sliver, Jade, The Saint, and The Phantom. But the man has parlayed a downward-spiraling career into a book into a book-on-tape into a movie into a phenomenon—he’s getting more press thanks to The Kid than he ever would have for developing a genuine success. Evans is no longer a Hollywood power player. He’s something better: a household name famous not for his work but for his very existence. CP