Friday, November 8, 2019

Nanette Burstein and Brett Moren | The Kid Stays in the Picture

the kid is gone
by Douglas Messerli

Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen (screenplay and directors, based on the memoir by Robert Evens, with Evens as the narrator) The Kid Stays in the Picture / 2002

Robert Evans must have been the most likeable narcissistic bastards in the world. First, he has the looks of a male movie-star; Norma Shearer spotting him in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool immediately demanded that he play her husband, Irving Thalberg, against James Cagney in Man with a Thousand Faces. She was a woman who immediately recognized a handsome man.
     And even before that break, he’d been a child actor in pictures, worked extensively in radio, and helped, with his brother, to develop the women’s fashion company Evan-Picone, introduce women to pants suits and other casual wear.

    Although even he admits he was not a very good actor—at least not in front of the camera—soon after his portrayal of Thalberg, he has hired by another producer baron, Darryl F. Zanuck, to portray the handsome young matador in Hemingway’s film version of The Sun Also Rises. He was evidently so bad that actors Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Eddie Albert, and Hemingway himself wrote a telegram to Zanack that Evans had to go or the film would be a disaster. I believe that film was a disaster, but not because of Evans. But the imperious Zanuck flew down to Mexico where it was being filmed, watched Evans perform, and through a bullhorn announced: “The kid stays in the picture,” the name of Evans’ own autobiographical tale and in 2002 the documentary directed by  Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.
     Made up mostly of still color photos mixed with scenes from the many great movies which Evans was later to direct, this work, on the surface, is not a great piece of film making. Yet the story of how Evans turned from acting to suddenly become the head of the 9th largest studio in Los Angeles, Paramount, which was just bought up at bargain-basement price by Gulf & Western by Charles Bludhorn, who knew absolutely nothing about movies, and who suddenly decided to hire the has-been actor as the Head of Production based upon a newspaper piece regaling Evans’ brash style and career successes.
      Evans, charming as he might have been, was also a determined newcomer and not so stupid. He realized even before he was courted by Paramount, that if you wanted to be a producer, you had to have property instead of actresses and actors, quite the opposite perspective from most of Hollywood producers at the time. He’d already acquired the rights, with the help of his journalist friend (who actually read scripts and the books upon which they were based), to The Detective, and quickly produced a series of Neil Simon movies for Paramount, including Barefoot in the Park and Plaza Suite (neither of which this documentary recalls). These films all resulted in great successes for the studio, but Evans also clearly had more serious things on his mind with Rosemary’s Baby (directed by the man he keeps describing as his “little Pollack,” the great Polish-born director Roman Polanski), whose later independent Evans-production of Chinatown would make him even more famous.
       Rosemary’s Baby would have not survived, given Sinatra’s determination to end his wife, Mia Farrow’s career, had not Evans taken her aside to show her an early edited version which he suggested she would be a shoo-in for the Academy Award (she didn’t win that, but did win The Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year, which certainly did help her career).
     And, then, of course there was his somewhat contentious connections with “the intellectual” Francis Ford Coppola, whose The Godfather 1 and 2 sent the floundering studio off the charts, bringing it from 9 to number 1. Coppola also credits Evans with making important changes to his masterworks.
    Along the way in his rising career were other, often sentimental hits, such as Love Story—whose central actress, Ali MacGraw, Evans married, one of seven wives—none of the others even mentioned in this documentary; the directors claimed that to do so would simply slow down the narrative. Maybe, in fact, Evans’ high-charged story might have benefited by a slightly slower telling pace. I feel we never truly get to know the man who cannot, clearly, ever live with a woman for very long. Why was a truly handsome man, described throughout his life as a most eligible bachelor, never able to sustain a relationship? This documentary only hints at some of the problems.
      The fact that Evans wanted his friend, Alain Delon, rumored often as being a closeted gay man (despite his somewhat homophobic comments) to play the role of Charles "Lucky" Luciano in The Cotton Club, which, when he couldn’t hire Delon, he replaced him with the former gay porn star, bi-sexual Joe Dallesandro, is just a peak into a very complex man.
      Yet despite his obvious bluster, Evans’ sentimental side is well-revealed, particularly in his love for the flower and fountain-obsessed home, which he purchased soon after his quick rise to sudden fame, the former home of Shearer and Thalberg. Those were the days you might buy paradise for $290,000. And it was a kind of paradise that you could never imagine a blustering Trump or other studio heads of the day even able to appreciate. There is something so beautiful and peaceful about that small home that it truly makes you look at Evans anew. If he can describe his former wife Ali as a snot-nosed bohemian, if he can stare down some of the most brutally unsmiling executives in the world, you realize that Evans has heart and a comedic sense of himself which surely does not define any of the other Hollywood moguls.
      Evans, unlike Zanack and so many others, lived for the script, not for gloriously glamourous figures who populated film history. That is also why one so loves this documentary. If it is often a kind of gossip sheet, telling us what we don’t (and sometimes do) want to hear, it is also a tragic tale in which the golden hero falls because of his own hubris.
      The most important thing that brought Evans down was cocaine, which, apparently nearly every wealthy person on Los Angeles’ Westside, in those days of the late 1960s and the decade of the 1970s, imbibed. I get no kick from cocaine (champagne is another issue), but evidently so many of those who could afford that habit did it to excess. And it brought Robert Evans into a freefall in a rather tragic way.
      Trying to raise money for his film, The Cotton Club, after much indecision (Evans himself first wanted to direct it), directed by Coppola, Evans was introduced to the would-be impresario Roy Radin by his cocaine dealer Karen Greenberger. A deal was worked out, although Radin was probably not wealthy enough to later sustain Evans’ and Coppola’s ambitions. Greenberger, paid $50,000 for her connection in the deal, was highly unsatisfied with the money, and worked with others to kill Radin. The lawyer: Robert Shapiro!
      Evans was never charged with any involvement, but his refusal to testify (he claimed the 5th Amendment) and his very connection with the murder trial—as well as the failure of the film at the box-office—brought him his comeuppance. As he, himself, declares: “No one was taking my calls.” He lost his career and his beloved home. Approaching suicidal feelings, he locked himself into a clinic, from which he basically needed to escape in order to survive.
     Even Evans, narrating this film, seems surprised that he did survive, turning sober and providing airtime to proclaim the need to stay away from drugs. Although he had sold his lovely paradise of a house to a wealthy French millionaire, he realized that in order to come back into life, he needed it badly. He was, after all, a true sentimentalist. His good friend Jack Nicholson flew to Paris, “getting down on his knees,” so the voice of Evans proclaims (surely another sentimental exaggeration), to make him sell it back to Evans. It clearly was sacred ground.
      The would-be Thalberg had about $37 in his pocket.
     But just as he needed the spotlight, so Paramount still needed him, and he made a final pact to produce a small number of films for them. A few, Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Popeye, were successful, but others, including another Neil Simon re-do, The Out-of-Towners, and even worse fare were failures.
      In watching The Kid Stays in the Picture for the second time the other day, I was delighted and tearful for this somewhat innovative thinker to Hollywood producing. I certainly did not like all of this “entertainments,” but many of them represented the best of late Hollywood filmmaking. Had the strange business of Los Angeles film gone further in some of the directions that Evans promoted—an emphasis on the script instead of the stars, a commitment to challenging psychological and even sometimes experimental cinema as opposed to the readily accessible standards of movie-making—films might not be in downward spire, which Martin Scorsese, in a recent The New York Times essay declared them to be. I’m not sure I agree with Scorsese. Lots of good films are still being made, and I believe they matter. But Robert Evans, perhaps always “a kid,” obviously truly loved a world in which narrative and acting came brilliantly together.
       I don’t think I might have liked the man, too macho for me, but I do love the attitude and many of his values. And I was disturbed to read of his death, at the age of 89, on October 26th of this year.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

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