Film Reviews

Say Cheese

Robert Evans wrote his autobiography in 1994 as much out of desperation as out of hubris. It cried out, "Damn it, look at me...please?" He'd produced one film during the past ten years, The Cotton Club, which was such a colossal failure it rendered Evans a moot point in Hollywood, a position he couldn't stomach after pulling Paramount from its tin-plated era in the '60s and in the process becoming Tinseltown's golden boy (if not that, then at least its most tanned). The Cotton Club was to have been his crowning achievement, Evans's debut as director after so many years as actor and studio head and producer, but Francis Ford Coppola finagled his way behind the camera. Evans, the big swinging dick in a town of cockteases, was emasculated. Worse, his name was bandied in connection with a murder tied to The Cotton Club, and though he had nothing at all to do with it, Evans was a corpse nonetheless -- chum tossed into the Pacific by the very studio he rescued.

By 1994, those who remembered Evans as the man who saved Paramount Studios for Gulf + Western, and as the powerbroker who was in large part responsible for the likes of Rosemary's Baby and The Godfather and Love Story and Chinatown, had either died, divorced him (Evans was married five times, once for ten days) or chosen to pretend he never existed at all. For his part, all he had left were old pics of himself with Jack Nicholson and Ali McGraw, (his ex-missus, lost to Steve McQueen when he and Ali made a fast Getaway in El Paso), Henry Kissinger and Francis Coppola. His autobiography resurrected the man and reconstructed the myth: "I've been shot down, bloodied, trampled, accused, disgraced, threatened, betrayed, scandalized, maligned," he wrote toward its exhausted conclusion. "Tough? Sure, but I ain't complain'! Nothin' comes easy... Imperfect? Very! Do I like myself? Finally! Do my detractors bother me? Hell no! It's their problem, I ain't gonna change. Resolve: Fuck 'em, fuck 'em all."

Now, eight years later, comes the big-screen adaptation of The Kid Stays in the Picture, in which the unseen but always heard Evans, schmatte peddler-cum-actor-cum-studio boss-cum-coke fiend-cum-comeback kid, talks for some 93 minutes about how charmed his life is/was/is again; how thick (and brown) his skin is/was/is again; how great his films were/are/will be again. It's either the world's greatest infomercial for fame (and its omnipresent companion, notoriety) or the saddest eulogy of all -- not for the former Robert J. Shapera, now 72 and a well-preserved survivor in an industry of baby-faced yutzes, but for the movies themselves. At the very least, it mourns the glamour biz, the dream factory that found Evans in 1956 jumping into the Beverly Hills Hotel pool as a seller of ladies' slacks and emerging from the drink as a soaking wet would-be movie star.

The Kid Stays in the Picture plays like a feature-length Vanity Fair profile; appropriate, as VF editor Graydon Carter is the producer. It's heavy on glitz and glam, steeped in sleaze and decadence, in love with not only its subject but the telling of his dissolute tale. Directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein use archival pics of the studly Evans -- even now, he looks like a man who bathes in bronzer and formaldehyde -- that seem to come alive with computer aid. Using digital tricks, the man with the head of a thousand bright teeth comes at you, 3-D-style, as though he were about to swallow the audience in a single gulp. That's the real rush of The Kid: It makes yesterday palpable, a visceral thrill. The film's a giddy joyride through the scrapbook, but never do you feel as though you're staring at fading memories. Morgen and Burstein, Oscar-nominated for On the Ropes, somehow convince you that a long-ago then is still very much the now, or at least ought to be.

But that's what Evans wants. That's why he never appears on screen in the present day. (Evans does narrate The Kid in a tone of voice that suggests the devil as best friend; his is a raspy but oddly seductive growl, a kiss with fangs bared, as he slings the slang and keeps outsiders and interlopers and their contrary opinions well at bay.) To be seen today, to glimpse the mortal old man instead of the lithe immortal preserved in those photos, would devastate the illusion, destroy the myth. Evans wants to be remembered not for scandal and ruin or even for having withstood such setbacks, but for having screwed the best (McGraw, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Raquel Welch -- the list is as long as his book), befriended the baddest (Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, the last of whom makes a brilliant "cameo" as end credits roll) and made the biggest movies of his day.

It was only inevitable Evans would see his life's tale blown up to fit the cinema's shimmering canvas. The movies he's produced of late have been disastrous enough to tarnish the legend: Jade, Sliver, The Phantom, The Saint, The Out-of-Towners. Why, Evans must be thinking, bother selling someone else's shit when you can peddle your own? His story is the world's best pitch, and it's populated by the world's best-known celebrities. It's a ready-made blockbuster, bound for boffo box office. And if not, well, it's not because Bob Evans didn't sell his soul to make it so.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky