The Kid Stays in the Picture
Director : Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein
Screenplay : Brett Morgen (based on the book by Robert Evans)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
The title of The Kid Stays in the Picture, Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein’s portrait of Hollywood legend Robert Evans’ life, comes from the mouth of another Hollywood legend, the great producer/studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck had personally selected Evans to play a role in the 1957 screen version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The rest of the cast disapproved of his choice and didn’t mind telling Zanuck in a telegram (which was also signed by Hemingway). Zanuck flew all the way to Mexico to see Evans play one scene, after which he bellowed into his megaphone, “The kid stays in the picture,” and walked off the set.
In a lesser Hollywood story, that would have been the great moment that opened the door to a successful career in acting. Not for Evans. Evans wasn’t a good actor and he knew it. But, what he did know, as he states quite bluntly in his memoirs, is that he wanted to be the person who said who stayed in the picture and who went. And that’s exactly what he did.
From 1966 until 1974, Evans was the head of production at Paramount, presiding over the studio’s incredible renaissance. While Evans was in charge, Paramount turned out such critical and commercial hits as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), and The Godfather (1972), which resulted in the studio moving from being in ninth place to first place among the major studios in a span of just four years. Not bad for a failed actor.
Interestingly, The Kid Stays in the Picture doesn’t begin with Evans’ childhood, but rather with the moment in which he was “discovered” by retired actress Norma Shearer while he was lounging around a pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s one of the great Hollywood myth-stories, the truth of it being ultimately much less important than the way it crystallizes in a single instant the great dream of all young up-and-comers to have a seasoned pro recognize their worth from afar and give them the chance of a lifetime. It was as if Robert Evans was born in that moment.
Of course, acting was not to be his life’s course, and when Gulf + Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn named him head of production at Paramount when Evans was only 36 (and completely unqualified to run a studio), most people thought it was a joke. But, it turned out the joke was on them as Evans rose to great prominence, eventually moving out on his own as an independent producer overseeing such hits as Chinatown (1974) and Marathon Man (1976), before scandal (busted for trying to buy pharmaceutical-grade cocaine in 1980, unfairly linked to a murder in the late ’80s) and production woes (he and Francis Ford Coppola went to court over the troubled production of 1984’s The Cotton Club) devastated him professionally and personally. Being a consummate piece of Hollywood, though, Evans was down, but not out, and his story (especially since the release of this film) has become one of resilience and tenacity, the epitome of the Hollywood “overcoming obstacles and winning in the end” paradigm.
Evans’ story is so good—so rich with sensationalism and personality—that it would be hard to screw it up. One wonders why no one thought to make a film about him before. Codirectors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) don’t rest on the strength of their basic material, though, and instead energize it further with an eclectic visual approach that keeps everything in motion. With the exception of some new footage shot at Woodland, Evans’ legendary Beverly Hills home (which is surrounded by a thousand ornamental rose bushes), the entire film is composed of archival footage and photographs. That can sometimes make for dull viewing, but Morgen and Burstein use special effects and animation to make the photographs come alive, giving them three-dimensionality and movement. They also juxtapose them with newspaper and magazine headlines, creating a complex montage of words and images that is an almost perfect visualization of what Evans’ life was like. They also unearth some genuinely incredible archival footage, including a film Evans made of himself in 1970 to convince the board of directors at Gulf + Western not to shut down Paramount. As Evans puts it, it was the best performance of his career.
And, ultimately, it is the presence of Robert Evans himself that makes The Kid Stays in the Picture more than just a glorified E! True Hollywood Story on the big screen. Reading from his own memoir, Evan’s gnarled, throaty voice tells his first-person story in voice-over narration—sometimes straightforward, sometimes vulgar, and often quite touching. In discussing his failed marriage to actress Ali McGraw, who left him for star Steve McQueen while they were shooting Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), Evans takes responsibility for driving her to infidelity with his lack of attention, and in his voice you can hear a genuine sense of loss and heartache. He also conveys a great sense of affection for his relationship with Charlie Bluhdorn, especially in the way he imitates Bluhdorn’s blustering voice and to-the-point rhetoric.
Although technically a documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture is really more of an autobiographical portrait. It is not objective, and never pretends to be. Rather, it is a completely subjective recounting of a life by the person who lived it. Everything is told through Robert Evans’ memory, and some people would probably like to contradict some of his stories (Coppola would probably love to add his two cents to the part where Evans claims to have made The Godfather great by forcing Coppola to turn it into an epic, rather than just another Hollywood Mafia movie). Yet, it is precisely the fact that the story is being told from the inside out, rather than by an investigative filmmaker prying into Evans’ life, that makes it as intimate and often touching as it is. The film is remarkable in the sense that, for all his self-aggrandizing tendencies, Evans conveys himself as both powerful and vulnerable, still a Hollywood myth of grand proportions, but also a human being.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick