Say Cheese

Movie producer Robert Evans preserves his golden myth in The Kid Stays in the Picture

Robert Evans wrote his autobiography in 1994 as much out of desperation as hubris. It cried out, "Damn it, look at me... please?" He'd produced one film during the past ten years, The Cotton Club, which was such a colossal failure that it rendered Evans a moot point in Hollywood, a position he couldn't stomach after pulling Paramount from its tin-plated era in the 1960s, in the process becoming Tinseltown's golden boy (if not that, then at least its most tanned). The Cotton Club was to have been his crowning achievement, Evans's debut as director after so many years as actor and studio head and producer, but Francis Ford Coppola finagled his way behind the camera. Evans, the big swinging dick in a town of cockteases, was emasculated.

By 1994, those who remembered Evans as the man who saved Paramount Studios for Gulf + Western, as the powerbroker who was in large part responsible for the likes of Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, Love Story, and Chinatown, had either died, divorced him (Evans was married five times, once for ten days), or chose to pretend he never existed. For his part, all he had left were old pics of him with Jack Nicholson, Ali McGraw (his ex-missus, lost to Steve McQueen when he and Ali made a fast Getawayin El Paso), Henry Kissinger, and Francis Coppola. His autobiography resurrected the man and reconstructed the myth: "I've been shot down, bloodied, trampled, accused, disgraced, threatened, betrayed, scandalized, maligned," he wrote toward its exhausted conclusion. "Tough? Sure, but I ain't complainin'! Nothin' comes easy.... Imperfect? Very! Do I like myself? Finally! Do my detractors bother me? Hell no! It's their problem, I ain't gonna change. Resolve: Fuck 'em, fuck 'em all."

Now, eight years later, comes the big-screen adaptation of The Kid Stays in the Picture, in which the unseen but always heard Evans talks for some 93 minutes about how charmed his life is/was/is again, how thick (and brown) his skin is/was/is again, how great his films were/are/will be again. It's either the world's greatest infomercial for fame (and its omnipresent companion, notoriety) or the saddest eulogy of all -- not for the former Robert J. Shapera, now 72 and a well-preserved survivor in an industry of baby-faced yutzes, but for the movies themselves.

The Kid Stays in the Pictureplays like a feature-length Vanity Fairprofile. It's heavy on glitz and glam, steeped in sleaze and decadence, in love with not only its subject but the telling of his dissolute tale. Directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein use archival pics of the studly Evans -- even now, he looks like a man who bathes in bronzer and formaldehyde -- that seem to come alive with computer aid. That's the real rush of The Kid: It makes yesterday palpable, a visceral thrill.

That's what Evans wants. That's why he never appears on-screen in the present day. To be seen today, to glimpse the mortal old man instead of the lithe immortal preserved in those photos, would devastate the illusion, destroy the myth. Evans wants to be remembered not for scandal and ruin or even for having withstood such setbacks but for having screwed the best (McGraw, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Raquel Welch -- the list is as long as his book), befriended the baddest (Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, the latter of whom makes a brilliant "cameo" as end credits roll), and made the biggest movies of his day.

It was only inevitable that Evans would see his life's tale blown up to fit the cinema's shimmering canvas. His story is the world's best pitch, and it's populated by the world's best-known celebrities. It's a ready-made blockbuster, bound for boffo B.O. And if not, well, it's not because Bob Evans didn't sell his soul to make it so.

 
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