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The Kid Stays in the Picture   B

USA Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein
Writer: Brett Morgen (based on the book by Robert Evans)
Cast: Robert Evans.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Marked by risky material with even riskier budgets, the Seventies are now widely regarded as a renaissance period for Hollywood filmmaking. The decade made Scorsese, Coppola, and Polanski household names, but few people were more central to the revival than Robert Evans, a studio executive who oversaw some of the most significant American pictures in history, including Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, Paper Moon, and of course the two Godfathers. Now largely forgotten, Evans is credited with rescuing a major studio from dissolution, but his glitzy tenure is also associated with scandal, divorce, and drugs. I'm not sure he minds much. He once confessed, "I'd rather be remembered than rich." Narrated by the disgraced mogul himself, the brashly entertaining The Kid Stays in the Picture wants everyone to know and love the fabled Robert Evans -- and it just might work.

Alluring enough to pass as fiction -- and some Hollywood personalities will describe it that way -- Evans' melodramatic account of himself unfolds with sloppy sincerity, a self-serving candor that is strangely gripping. While watching, I was reminded of an equally engrossing interview Evans gave in August 1993 for Movieline, conducted by Lawrence Grobel. Although his heyday was long over, the magazine's editors judged him to be a compelling relic and wisely spread the piece over two issues. Yakking openly about his glory days, Evans spilled bile about sacred cows like Coppola ("a direct descendent of Machiavelli's prince" who needed help cutting his mafia saga) but also provided a razor-sharp oral history of Seventies movie lore. For me, a 19-year-old film history buff, the interview was a revelatory page-turner. When Evans published his autobiography the following year, I recalled the Movieline chat and purchased The Kid Stays in the Picture. Like that book, the new documentary adaptation tells a great story. Boastful of his successes, frank about his mistakes, and infectiously optimistic, Evans is an honest braggart, a fabulous name-dropper, and a gifted storyteller that hustles you into roller coasting on his version of the facts.

Evans begins poolside in the mid-'50s, where he was "discovered" by Norma Shearer and groomed as a matinee idol with iffy talent. Realizing his limited shelf life as an actor, he turned to producing, and in 1967 was made vice-president in charge of production at Paramount Pictures. He married ingenue Ali MacGraw, star of his smash Love Story (and later lost her to Steve McQueen), and partied with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Henry Kissinger. After a string of commercial and critical hits that lifted Paramount from Hollywood's cellar, he left the studio to become an independent producer, with similar success. In 1980, though, he was busted for cocaine possession, and three years later he was implicated in the murder of Roy Radin, a shady figure who wanted to partner on The Cotton Club. (Distorted headlines raised public suspicion far beyond his role as a material witness.) Hollywood deserted their golden boy, and Evans has been trying to "stay in the picture" since producing Sliver, a dud released in 1993.

Abridged by co-directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, these facts have been molded into an unfortunate rise-and-fall-and-rise-again career arc, which smacks a little of A&E. (His love affair with MacGraw is presented as a lifelong infatuation, without acknowledging that she was the third of five wives.) The ironed-out translation somewhat dilutes the book's sense of historical significance, but Morgen and Burstein do compensate with a nifty bit of visual gimmickry. Scattered in between the rare archival footage are photomontages that skillfully reflect the candy-colored dream factory Evans describes, and the directors digitally alter the pictures to give the main figures a 3-D quality, jutting out like the last pieces pasted onto a scrapbook page. Their ace, though, is the voice of Evans himself. Spinning anecdotes, whispering personal asides, and gleefully divulging the dirty secrets of filmmaking, Evans hits all the right beats. By transforming his Tinseltown highs and lows into a cautionary fairy tale, he achieves absorbing levels of nostalgia, regret, determination, and, most of all, pride.

Even if much of The Kid Stays in the Picture is trumped-up or imaginary, this ego trip travels deep into the head of a boyish eccentric who, like some of us, is absolutely smitten with the movies. Its real subject is the insinuating way movies -- with all their power, glamour, and emotional clenches -- can grab hold of our psyches. What separates Evans from most modern producers is that cinema courses through his veins; he is a "lousy executive" who can't crunch numbers but is resolved to make movies that matter. I'm reminded of something else Evans gloomily said in 1993: "Today, distribution runs the film business... it's become a commodity rather than an art form." Representing a bygone era of maverick filmmaking in Hollywood, Robert Evans is a living symbol of a time when thinking of movies -- and life -- as art was a gamble worth taking.

Review published 08.30.2002.

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