It’s too bad the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for biography, but not for hagiography. If it were, Robert Evans’ 1994 book The Kid Stays in the Picture surely would have won. It’s an incredibly entertaining masterpiece of revisionist history about some of Hollywood’s most exciting times, as told by the actor-turned-studio boss who presided over some of the biggest successes and flops of the 1960s and ’70s as the head of production at Paramount Pictures, and later as an independent producer.
At 72, Evans is one of those man-out-of-time fellows who probably recite the lyrics to “My Way” in their heads all the time. He’s an odd guy, from his goofy clothes to his creepy perma-tan. He’s been busted for buying cocaine, and he spent time in a mental hospital. He’s an old-fashioned showbiz huckster—but he’s also a living icon, a symbol of the idealized alpha-male Hollywood where the chosen few scratch their way to a life of unlimited power, girls and money.
Love him or hate him, you can’t look away. That’s why even the wannabes and elitists treated Evans like a golden god when this documentary, based on his book and featuring his own narration, was screened at Sundance. That’s why Craig Kilborn spent nearly two weeks counting down the hours to Evans’ appearance on his late-night talk show last month. He’s playing the role of the unvarnished man, living the dream.
His film is another pitch. “There are three sides to every story,” he says in voice-over. “My side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.”
It’s hard to say much about The Kid Stays in the Picture as a documentary. Directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) mostly let Evans’ narration ride herd on a series of stills, clips and brief animations, but the picture moves smartly and quickly, which isn’t always the case in this genre. Their greatest asset is Evans’ voice—the rich, guttural growl of a man who wants to make sure you’re entertained.
The way Evans tells it, he joined the business accidentally. He was selling women’s clothes with his brother when actress Norma Shearer spotted him poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Evans admits he was a terrible actor, surviving on his charisma, but he got his first big break by winning the starring role as the bullfighter in the 1957 version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Trouble is, several of his co-stars and Hemingway himself complained that he was all wrong for the role.
As Evans tells it, legendary producer Daryl Zanuck flew to the Mexico set, looked at Evans and said, “The kid stays in the picture.” Evans was vindicated—but it also was the moment he knew he didn’t want to be an actor. He wanted to be the man making those decisions.
Evans eventually got his dream job at Paramount, where he helped bring Rosemary’s Baby, The Odd Couple, Serpico, Love Story and The Godfather to the big screen. He then got his own production company, where his first film was Chinatown. Along the way, he got married five times—including once to Ali McGraw, who famously left him for Steve McQueen and precipitated Evans’ long, painful downfall after a series of failed films.
Listening to him, it’s clear Evans relishes every twist of his life as he would a great script. Fascinating stories abound—his good friend Jack Nicholson flew to France to beg a millionaire to sell Evans’ house back to Evans. The drugs, the women and the scandals—a guy who was involved in the financing for The Cotton Club, Evans’ ill-fated comeback film, was mysteriously murdered—are all part of the price he couldn’t wait to pay.
The Kid Stays in the Picture doesn’t exist to analyze Evans. It simply puts his exciting version of a life out for everyone to see. Nobody had a life quite like Robert Evans—and for better or for worse, you’ll never see a film quite like this, either.