The Kid Stays in the Picture

Aug 21, 2002 at 12:00 am

If you’ve ever suspected that movie producers are basically businessmen under the delusion that they are creative people, then here’s a film to justify your suspicions. Telling the story of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ rise and fall, it’s less a documentary than an illustrated audio book with Evans reading from his bio while filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein supply appropriate stills and movie clips. It’s a tacky production, often in a tongue-in-cheek manner as photo figures are moved about like cutouts, with the film’s overall montage approach held together by Evans’ chummy sleazeball charm.

For Evans all the world’s a stage and he’s the spotlight kid; from his vantage point at the center of the universe, events swirl into the vortex of his ego. A typical anecdote goes like this: During his pre-producing days as an aspiring actor, he lands a small but showy role as a matador in the film version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1957). For reasons not made clear — his jejune smarminess perhaps? — nobody wants him in the picture, not the director Henry King, nor the film’s stars Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner, nor Hemingway himself. But it’s hard to believe that any of these personages, with the probable exception of King, really cared much one way or the other (according to Evans, only co-star Errol Flynn was above the fray of this great controversy, giving the anecdote a touch of verisimilitude, since the alcoholic Flynn was infamously out of it by the late-’50s).

It’s possible that director King really didn’t want Evans in the picture and that producer Darryl Zanuck really did pull rank and insist he be kept in (though God knows why), but in Evans’ version Zanuck shows up during the filming of a bullfighting sequence and, seeing Evans resplendent in his suit of lights, announces through a megaphone, that “the kid stays in the picture.” And that’s the thing about Evans — even if the story is basically true, you don’t believe him.

Evans made his first fortune in the sportswear business and his movie career was launched when he was discovered poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Shearer, who immediately wanted him to play her late husband Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Though Evans was a strapping 26-year-old and Shearer was roughly the age of Gloria Swanson when she made Sunset Boulevard, there’s no indication that lust blurred her vision. In any event, it was fortuitous since Thalberg, the wunderkind producer who successfully shepherded MGM through the Depression before dying of pneumonia at the age of 37, was to become Evans’ chief role model (minus the dying early part).

After making The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958), which isn’t nearly as dreadful as he lets on, Evans realized that he wasn’t going to get the decent roles and so returned to the sportswear biz. When his company was sold to Revlon, he took his millions and returned to Hollywood to produce, and was asked to run Paramount studios, having worked his charismatic mojo on Gulf & Western head Charles Bludhorn. At this point Evans’ saga intersects with cinema history as Paramount, during his 1967-73 reign, produces Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather, as well as Love Story and a bunch of less luminous films. After he left the studio, it seemed like his good fortune would continue when he produced Chinatown, but after that it’s a long slide downhill.

Evans’ true moment of glory was brief and he milks it like the champion hustler he is. The Godfather, we’re informed, was a mess until Evans convinced Coppola to make it about 40 minutes longer; Chinatown’s screenplay was incomprehensible until he orchestrated a few rewrites. Everywhere his saving hand comes in and a work of art is born. Meanwhile, there’s booze, broads and hobnobbing with the famous — and endless meetings to be taken.

The film grows maudlin but keeps winking as it deals with the love of Evans’ life, wife No. 3, Ali MacGraw, who left him for Steve McQueen (sounds like an out-of-the-frying-pan move). Then come the cocaine years, serious enough to earn him a bust and some down time in a mental ward, then a comeback of sorts, producing bad ideas like The Odd Couple II. Oh, and packaging his life story like the canny self-promoter he’s always been.

Since Evans remains opaque to himself, there’s not a pinch of insight in this whole enterprise, but as Hollywood yarns go it has its moments.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].