Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Kid Stays in the Picture

I first heard about legendary producer Robert Evans by way of an uproarious bit on comedian Patton Oswalt's first album and found myself drawn to the apparent insanity of the man. Yet for years I never sat down to watch the documentary made of Evans' memoirs, The Kid Stays in the Picture, perhaps to savor the image Oswalt placed in my head. Finally I caved and, I must say, Patton sold him short.

Evans himself narrates the film; hell, with the exception of the odd interview, he's the only person that speaks. Whenever he cites an old conversation, he affects a hilariously bad impersonation of the people to whom he was speaking. He starts the proceedings off by discussing his beginnings as a bad actor who landed a role as the star of Man of a Thousand Faces, much to the chagrin of the rest of the cast and crew. Eventually studio head Daryl Zanuck went to bat for Evans, proclaiming, "The kid stays in the picture." It launched Evans into Hollywood, but he knew acting wasn't his gig, and soon wound up the production chief of Paramount Pictures.

By the late 60s, Paramount had fallen on hard times, producing a string of flops that made them a laughing stock. Evans, this brash, cocksure newcomer, inherits this mess of a studio and turns it into the biggest company in town within a few years. With Evans' eye for quality scripts, he puts his name on such mega-smashes as Love Story, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and a wee film called The Godfather

Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen have little footage to work with of Evans' stories of behind-closed-doors Hollywood deals because, well, they're behind closed doors. Instead they use computer technology to bring still photographs to life, practically pulling people off the paper and making them seem like the actual studio heads.

But the real coup is Evans' narration. When he's not playing up his impersonations for laughs, he paints a brutally honest portrait of his rise, fall and subsequent return to the business. While he certainly embellishes the story for effect, to the point that, like a Herzog doc, eventually we wonder if we're watching a stuffy old documentary at all and not a piece of thrilling fictional verité. When he speaks of the hits he sought out and fought for and how they wound up classics you can audibly hear pride in Evans' voice, yet he always tempers it with self-deprecation.

The most interesting chapter of the film is, of course, his fall from grace, starting with his introduction to cocaine in the late-70s. From then through his nadir in the 80s, Evans rode around town on a white line, becoming more of a mad personality than ever before. Eventually the stuff clouded his judgement and he let through a string of flops, the most notorious of which, The Cotton Club, gained infamy beyond its low quality when a minor financier was killed. Finally Paramount canned him after he became just too much. Evans narrates this segment without a sliver of self-pity, giving off a clear sense of regret while still remembering the good times.

Perhaps the reason why Evans does not give in to regret is that his downfall is not the end of his story. After a few years out of the business, he rebounded in the 90s as an independent producer, putting his name to films like The Saint and The Out-of-Towners; not exactly Chinatown, but most of the films the directors list made profits. The kid did indeed stay in the picture.

Not only a technically inventive documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture is one of those films everyone should see when they decide they want to be filmmakers. It's every bit as revealing as The Player or 8 1/2, if not more so because this all actually happened. Evans' embellished yet unsentimental narration offers both entertainment and insight, and you cannot help but like the guy. Even if he's an egomaniacal, crazy coke-fiend. Ah, Hollywood.

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