Evans as he wants to be seen

October 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In The Kid Stays in the Picture, the voice of Robert Evans - from the notorious audiobook version of his gutter-florid memoir - floats through his palatial estate like the unseen Spirit of Hollywood Past.

With the persona of a man who's been around the block - as long as the block you're talking about is Melrose Avenue or Sunset Boulevard - Evans narrates a version of his life that's half storybook and half cautionary fable. The flimsiness of the latter part is a signal failing for this overly slick yet still engaging movie.

It's the tale of a lucky man who insists that luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity. While in the middle of a successful career in his brother Charles' clothing business, Evans is discovered twice. First Norma Shearer taps him to play her late husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, for the Lon Chaney biopic The Man With the Thousand Faces. Then Darryl F. Zanuck casts him as the amorous matador in The Sun Also Rises.

While embodying Thalberg and working for Zanuck, the producing bug bites him. Except for Errol Flynn, the whole ensemble of The Sun Also Rises, including Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner, threatens to quit over Evans' casting. But Zanuck announces to the throngs assembled for a bullfight scene, "The Kid stays in the picture!" And in the long run, he does stay in pictures, but as a Zanuck rather than a Chaney, Power or Flynn.

The most amusing - and limiting - aspect of this film is how the youthful co-directors, Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, turn Evans, a real-life subject, into a stylized personification of glamour and then glide his image, gleaned from press stills and publicity pictures, through an animated diorama of Tinseltown. It's as if they've torn out pages from fan mags and industry rags and bent, folded and mutilated them into something visually remarkable.

In their potent previous film, On the Ropes, a documentary about three amateur boxers in Brooklyn, this team brought off the miracle of making a cinema-verite movie that was continuously lucid and involving. But this picture is all artifact. Morgen and Burstein juggle photographs and film clips with promiscuous ease, planting Evans' image in the foreground as stars and power-brokers parade behind him.

It's an original, dizzying kitsch achievement, but dramatically, it compels you to take Evans solely at his own estimation, as the last of the real creative moguls. The filmmakers may tickle you with Evans' self-deprecating jokes, but they also lull you into accepting Evans' word as he assumes all sorts of credit for the movies produced under his watch as Paramount's production chief (including Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Coppola's The Godfather).

Evans also recounts how he became a drug addict and associated with characters shadowy enough to drag him into a murder case. These chapters are hazy and perfunctory, though not without their inadvertent hilarities. Evans calls the taping of the public service programs he produced as part of his anti-drug community service the "Woodstock of the '80s."

Probably the biggest reason Evans wants joint creative custody of The Godfather is that he blames his workaholic obsession with that movie for his then-wife Ali McGraw leaving him to marry Steve McQueen. Of course, Evans deserves every bit of praise for delaying the release of the movie until it could be perfected and then sending it out at a near three-hour length. But the post-production process was more complicated than Evans' insistence that Coppola had gutted Coppola's own work - at least it was in the memories of men like Coppola and Walter Murch. When I interviewed them on the quarter-century anniversary of the picture, they recalled a series of battles to preserve the film's distinctive character in its scoring, sound and texture.

Unlike latter-day studio chiefs, Evans remains genuinely infatuated with the power and sexiness of movies and the movie world. But he's become a figment of his own imagination. He's a would-be Jay Gatsby - he even insisted the documentary-makers use an Irving Berlin tune from Paramount's film of The Great Gatsby as the theme song for The Kid Stays in the Picture. He doesn't seem to realize that Gatsby was a man always aspiring to class and never quite getting there.

In 1980, Evans hired security guards to throw me out of the L.A. screening of Popeye. (That's another story.) Seventeen years later, he didn't remember the incident. After my Godfather article was published in The New Yorker, with its tale of clashing points-of-view, he shook my hand at the movie's 25th anniversary gala and said, "You gave my side of the story; all I ask for is honesty." Fantasy, not honesty, is the point of The Kid Stays in the Picture.

The Kid Stays in the Picture

Starring Robert Evans, in a documentary about him that he also narrates

Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein

Released by Focus Pictures

Time 93 minutes

Rated R (language and some brief violent and sexual images)

SUN SCORE * * *

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