The name Robert Evans is synonymous with the "New Hollywood" that briefly flourished in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As head of Paramount studios and as a producer, Evans had a hand in some of the most revered pictures of the era (Chinatown, The Godfather) and some of the biggest hits (Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby). His fall from grace in the 80’s was tied in with drugs, scandal and murder —the perfect launching pad for his autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. The release of that book was meant to signal a triumphant return to glory that never actually happened (unless you consider expensive duds like Sliver and Jade comeback material). If his career is indeed in its twilight, the sparkling new documentary based on his book is a fitting valedictory.
There are no talking head testimonials in the film directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen; it may not even be, strictly speaking, a documentary. Evans tells his own story in a distinctively oily voice-over narration adapted from the audio version of his book, and there’s no one on hand to contradict his version of events. Thus, Kid is essentially a filmed autobiography, loaded up with vintage movie clips and newsreel footage, and gilded with creepy Sunset Boulevard-like tracking shots of a deserted Hollywood mansion and pool.
Evans came to Hollywood in the 50’s hoping to launch an acting career. (The title phrase is attributed to producer Darryl Zanuck, who insisted that Evans remain in his production of The Sun Also Rises over the objections of the other actors and author Ernest Hemingway.) Though he never quite caught fire as a matinee idol, Evans did find an effective use for his rather reptilian charm, albeit in a more behind-the-scenes capacity. Rising rapidly through the ranks, Evans became the chief of production at Paramount Pictures in the late 60’s. Though he has been accused by some of occasionally taking credit where it wasn’t due (Francis Coppola has always disputed Evans’ claims to having a strong hand in the editing of The Godfather), there is no question that Evans was an important player in the American film renaissance of that era.
Aside from the expected scenes from pictures like Chinatown and Love Story, the filmmakers have unearthed some rare archival footage ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one point in the early 70’s, fearing that parent company Gulf and Western was on the verge of shutting down Paramount Pictures, Evans filmed a pitch to the board of directors. Touting the studio’s upcoming slate of releases, Evans mentions that he is particularly excited about their "Mario Puzo Mafia project." Later, after Evans has hit bottom, a judge sentences him to produce an anti-drug public service announcement. Evans’ response is "Get High on Yourself," a hilariously dated "star-studded" TV special that the producer describes unabashedly as the Woodstock of the 80’s.
While ostensibly honest about Evans’ drug period and subsequent banishment from the Hollywood halls of power, Kid does take a turn for the self-serving near the end. Evans’ involvement with the so-called Cotton Club murder case is mentioned, but glossed over quickly. (His associate on that picture, Roy Radin, was killed, and Evans was questioned but never indicted.) The fiasco surrounding The Two Jakes, in which Evans was originally slated to play the second Jake later portrayed by Harvey Keitel, is not mentioned at all. (The troubled production caused a rift between Evans and longtime colleagues Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson.) An end title would have us believe that Evans made a comeback after his years in the wilderness, but the evidence offered is unconvincing. (The Phantom, anyone?) Still, it’s never too late for a resurrection in Hollywood, and for Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture may be it.