The Kid Stays in the Picture
Hollywood producer Robert Evans' life sounds like the most improbable film script imaginable. A slickly handsome young clothing company executive on business in Los Angles, he's "discovered" lounging by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Scherer. She offers him the chance to portray her late husband Irving Thalberg in a movie about Lon Chaney entitled Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. Barely six months later, he's contacted in New York, (where he'd returned to his day job) and tapped by none less than Darryl Zanuck to play the part of a youthful, self-absorbed matador in the film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Over the objections of the author and the film's other stars, (Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner & Eddie Albert) Evans' gets his second shot at stardom when the producer/director reviews his efforts in the bull ring and yells “The Kid stays in the picture!”.
Alas, Evans' skills didn't include any semblance of acting ability; his overly pretty looks and distinctive but distracting voice made his next effort and only leading role simply laughable. It came in the overwrought western The Fiend Who Walked West. But the short arc of this dreadful acting career formed the base for an astounding role as the hot-shot head of Paramount Studios during the period of its early ownership by the conglomerate Gulf and Western.
On the basis of a laudatory profile in the New York Times, G&W's C.E.O., Charles Bludehorn offered Evans, then in his late 20's, the chance to run a studio plagued by a series of terrible pictures, (remember Paint your Wagon?) plunging it into last place among the big studios in terms of box office. Evans promptly hired the Times guy who'd written about him and began building the studio's films around books still in galley form. That insight, (plus Evans evident ability to deal vast quantities of verbal horse manure) produced a rare Hollywood occurance: a string of first rate movies with stunning commercial impact. Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, Marathon Man, Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, Urban Cowboy; first as studio head, and then as independent producer under Paramount's umbrella, Evans combined the best of the commercial production system with many of the significant actors and directors of his generation to give the public an amazing string of quality hits.
Along the way a failed marriage to actress Ali McGraw, (whose dowry included the rights to Love Story) an appetite for cocaine and peripheral involvement in a mob-related drug murder produced a fall from grace worthy of a really bad movie script. Now in his 70's, Evans makes something of a comeback in this reverential documentary which permits him to narrate the events in his colorful life with a Rashamon-opening quote that suggests he's comfortable with multiple and conflicting views of his contributions to the industry. The result isn't so much a reliable history of one of the last outsized figures of the movie business as it is an hour and a half of delicious gossip you're tempted to accept because the delivery's so seductive.
Spending an evening with this guy would be a terrific guilty pleasure--but spending a lifetime around him might well be something else again; the spotlight never moves from it's central focus and despite a pair of wives and numerous gal pals throughout his long and flamboyant years as one of America's most eligible bachelors, Evans comes off as a profound loner, much happier alone in his Bel Air mansion than out in the world with friends who seem to change, for the most part, with the cinematic seasons. Indeed, after referring to his only child by his proper name shortly after the boy's birth to Ali McGraw, Evans refers to him thereafter only as "my kid". In the story of Evans life, there's clearly room for only one starring role.
Beyond his work and his home, (an elaborate manse Evans' has clung to through good times and bad) the producer has visually catalogued his life with enough footage to do a presidential library proud; the result is an intriguing walk through a portion of the movie industry more than three decades ago which always intrigues and often surprises. And if the guy telling the story has a few credibility issues to deal with? Well, this is Hollywood, the town where illusion is often more credible than reality…Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus